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149 Curtin to Forde

Cablegram 19 LONDON, 16 May 1944, 2.40 p.m.


Addressed to the Acting Prime Minister, Mr. Forde.

Colonial Questions 1. The Colonial Secretary regarded the establishment of regional bodies as the most important development contemplated in the colonial field for the following reasons:-

(i) He thought they would be of real practical value. It was of the highest importance that the Commissions should achieve practical results in order to allay possible suspicions on the part of the inhabitants of the more advanced territories. In the West Indies, suspicion of the Caribbean Commission had been dispelled because by concentrating on practical objectives, the Commission had been able to accomplish beneficial results which were obvious to all.

(ii) He believed that the establishment of regional bodies with practical objectives in view would be an effective answer to the desire expressed in some quarters for the establishment of some form of international control of colonial territories. So far as the British Empire was concerned, we had nothing to fear from criticism and it was the intention to revert as soon as possible to the publication of full annual reports of our administration.

But while we welcomed constructive criticism, we were anxious to avoid ill informed and academic interference.

He did not regard the Mandate system as wholly satisfactory. It was out of date in the present day world, being largely negative in character in that its aim was to lay down negative principles, e.g., the prevention of the use of forced labour. The system had served its purpose, but it had become more of a hindrance than an assistance. Large scale development was generally beyond the local resources of a colonial territory and without any guarantee of permanency of sovereignty the parent power was naturally reluctant to provide for large scale expenditure from its own funds. This had been brought home to him in a recent visit to West Africa where he had found that the Cameroons and Togoland were for this reason the most backward areas in the territories with which they were amalgamated. He therefore hoped that the mandate system would be abolished.

The Colonial Secretary also pointed out the disadvantages he saw in the subordination of the proposed regional bodies to any central international organisation. Such a central organisation would contain representatives of powers who had no colonial experience and whose views on the subject could only be academic.

In any case, control of colonial territories throughout the world would be a gigantic task and any supervision which was attempted by the central organisation could only be theoretical and superficial.

In his opinion, provision for third party opinion could best be made by the association with the regional commissioners of powers, which although they had no direct interest by virtue of possession of territory in the area, were concerned because of strategic, economic or other interests. Such powers would, he hoped, be prepared to assume a certain amount of responsibility in regard to the area.

(iii) A third point was that any functional bodies established in connection with a central world organisation such as the International Labour Office should be encouraged to set up branches in the areas of the regional commissions to work in close co-operation with the commissions.

2. These were the main considerations the United Kingdom Government had in mind. Before action was taken to implement the proposals they would require to be worked out in detail. Certain problems arose, for example- (a) Which areas were suitable for the establishment of regional commissions. In the Caribbean there was already an embryo organisation. In the South Pacific the Australian and New Zealand Governments had suggested another natural division. There was ample scope in South-East Asia for the establishment of a commission. Africa presented more difficulties. He felt that the territories south of the Sahara presented too great and varied problems to be handled by one commission and that the solution might be the establishment of two or three bodies.

(b) Whether defence should be included in the scope of the functions of the proposed regional commissions. On further consideration he inclined to the view that it would be inappropriate to include defence. The areas suitable for the establishment of regional colonial commissions were not necessarily the most suitable areas for defence zones. Moreover, bodies charged with defence responsibilities would require to exercise some form of executive powers or control which, in his opinion, would be inappropriate in the case of regional colonial commissions.

(c) In what manner would the local inhabitants be associated with the regional commissions? This was not the least difficult of the problems which had to be faced. In the Caribbean it had not so far proved possible to find a representative of the local inhabitants acceptable to all the islands. No hard and fast rules could be laid down regarding the manner in which the local inhabitants should be represented on or associated with the regional commissions. This would have to be left open for decision in the light of local conditions.

In reply to a question by me, the Colonial Secretary explained that he contemplated the establishment of a regional commission in the South Pacific which would include New Guinea, the New Hebrides and Dutch New Guinea. He regarded Australia as the principal parent state in this area. The United Kingdom territories would be represented by the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific. He assumed that France would be represented as the parent state of New Caledonia.

3. I explained that the Australian Government contemplated two areas for regional colonial commissions to the northward of Australia.

The more northerly area might include South-East Asia and the Dutch East Indies. The southerly area might be delimited as suggested in the Australia - New Zealand agreement. [1] I called attention to the welfare and social development of the native inhabitants as one of the primary objectives. In New Guinea, the local inhabitants had proved themselves loyal. This was no doubt partly due to the excellent foundations of administration laid down by Sir Hubert Murray. [2] But my information was that in the Dutch and Portuguese territories the position was not so good. The Japanese had received a certain amount of aid from the local inhabitants and I did not think that the same loyalty had been shown to the Dutch and Portuguese authorities as had been the case in the British territories. Another aspect to which I drew attention was the opinion voiced by certain sections in the United States typified by the recent Senatorial Mission [3] that the United States should hold on to territories re-occupied by American arms at the cost of American lives. While I, and I thought I could speak for Mr. Fraser too, welcomed the intrusion of United States influence between their countries and Japan we did not wish this to occur at the expense of British territory, but at the expense of the Japanese and if need be the Dutch and the French. Australia and New Zealand had not the resources to cater for such far flung defence lines as the Marshalls and the Carolines. I hoped that the United States would undertake responsibility in such areas, but at the same time, the Australian Government had felt that some declaration of its claim to have a full say in matters affecting their interests was called for. This had been one of the reasons underlying the Australia New Zealand agreement. I said that I was not altogether happy about the possibility of allowing large colonial territories to remain the responsibility of weak parent states which had not the resources to provide adequately for defence. The position could not but remain precarious and, if the Japanese succeeded in building up their power again, it would become dangerous. For this reason I hope that the United States could be persuaded to undertake definite defence commitments abutting on Malaya. Subject to these considerations I was in agreement with the general principles enunciated by the Colonial Secretary.

4. Mr. Churchill pointed out that the future of the islands to which I had referred was bound up with questions of strategic security. He contemplated that all islands removed from their original possessors should pass under authority of United Nations for strategic purposes.

Some might be held by the United States in trust for United Nations. In reply to questions re the precise nature of the sovereignty which the United States would exercise, Mr. Churchill said that he thought the matter should be approached as a question of high principle. All over the world there were islands of great strategic consequence. These would come under the authority of the world organisation and be allocated amongst the great powers, which would undertake strategic responsibilities to be carried out as a duty on behalf of the United Nations. The Azores and Dakar, for example, might come under the strategic control of the United States. In his view the United Kingdom should seek no territory.

If pressed, we might agree to undertake certain responsibilities in certain areas, but only on the condition that the cost should be met from the United Nations funds.

5. He felt that the matter should be approached on high principles. The peace and safety of the world should be our object, but with the assumption of strategic responsibility, the power concerned would also have to undertake to maintain certain standards of native well-being. There must be no question of despoiling the weak. The British Commonwealth was the only body of nations still in the struggle which had drawn the sword for honour alone. We must take care not to tarnish it. He would like himself to see some statement of the principles he had in mind made to the world.

6. Mr. Fraser said that he entirely agreed with Mr. Churchill.

7. Field Marshal Smuts agreed with the policy outlined by the Colonial Secretary. It appeared to him to be the only wise and sensible course. As regards Africa, he called attention to the value of Madagascar and its magnificent harbour at Diego Suarez.

How were we to apply the principles which had been described. Were we to hand back the island to France and inform her that the United Nations would regard her as responsible for the provision of facilities and for the safety of the island. He foresaw dangers in such a course and suggested that the interest of the United Kingdom and of his country in the future of the island was comparable to the United States interest in Dakar. I drew attention to the analagous position of New Caledonia.

8. Mr. Churchill felt that the solution lay in supervision by the proposed world council which would be empowered to address the French Government if necessary and request the provision of proper facilities and defences. He recalled at the time of the negotiations for the release of bases to the United States in the West Indies his thought had been not so much of the immediate benefit to us in the shape of destroyers, but rather of executing an arrangement to the common advantage of two powers whose only concern was mutual security. These islands were only of strategic use to a power which wished to attack the United States or to the United States for her own defence.

We had regarded the defence of the United States as part of our own safety. In Madagascar facilities could be claimed for fleets moving under the authority of the United Nations, and the French could be required to ensure that the island did not fall into the hands of possible aggressors.

9. Mr. Churchill said that he had been careful not to commit himself to any suggestion that Italy should recover her overseas empire. He thought that the solution might lie in some of these territories being placed under the care of the proposed world organisation which could delegate its authority and the responsibility for administration to powers of good repute.

10. The Conference adopted the suggestion by Mr. Churchill that it would issue a statement which would bring out the high moral principles they had in mind, demonstrate the high spirit of unity within the British corporate body, reassure the powerful peoples with whom we had to work about our intentions, hold out the light of hope to the unfortunate and weak whom we wished to succour and lay stress on the all-important objectives of peace and security, law and order throughout the world.


1 Document 26.

2 Lt Governor of Papua 1908-40.

3 U.S. Senators Ralph O. Brewster, A. B. Chandler, Henry Cabot Lodge, James M. Mead and Richard B. Russell toured war zones between July and September 1943 to inspect U.S. equipment and civilian agencies and report on ways to maximise the efficiency and postwar benefits of U.S. spending abroad.

[AA:A989, 44/735/321/5]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013

Category: International relations

Topic: History