Published On: Mon, Dec 26th, 2016

Leaving the EU Part 2: What can history teach us about the possible outcomes of Brexit?

In Part 1 of this series History Future Now investigated instances where seceding from an empire or supranational body was a disaster for both the party leaving and the party that had been abandoned. We looked at the Lydian Revolt against the Persians, the split between the East and West Roman Empire, and the split between the Union and the Confederate States of America.  In all three instances things turned out badly for both sides.

In this article, Part 2 of a series of 3, History Future Now investigates instances where seceding was bad for the seceding party, but good or indifferent from the perspective of the party that had been abandoned.

The expectation then would be that this next category would result in a long list of failures as well. Surprisingly, this was not the case. From the perspective of Britain, contemplating its exit from the European Union, this is good news.  While countries that have split frequently encounter economic disruption and difficulties, absolute failure on the side of the party that has instigated the split is unusual.  Splitting is generally not that bad over the medium to long term.  On reflection, this does make sense: the party that wants to leave generally feels that leaving is better than staying.  If they thought that secession would be a disaster they would probably opt for doing nothing and remaining part of a larger empire.

The first pass through of options looked at secessions through the perspective of geography, starting with the west and heading east.  In the Americas the major separations are the British colonies from Britain and the Spanish and Portuguese colonies from Spain and Portugal.

The US and Canadian separations turned out well.  As did, ultimately, most of the British possessions in the Caribbean, such as Jamaica.  The Spanish possessions in Central and South America and in the Caribbean have not been tremendous successes, but they have not been complete failures.  In fact Spain in the early 1800s, at the time of South American secession by Simon Bolivar and his liberating friends, was under French occupation and was in just as much turmoil as its colonies.  The separation of Brazil from Portugal in 1822 was similar. For a while, from 1807, the Portuguese government and royal family fled to Brazil in exile as French troops roamed the streets of Lisbon.

The major exception to this European separation from American colonies was France and the island of Saint Domingue, now called as Haiti.   Haiti definitely falls into the category of failed independence from the perspective of the seceding party: the poor country has been a disaster for 200 years.  Why it was such an exceptional failure is a cautionary tale for others considering independence in the future.

Moving east we can look at Europe and Africa.  European continental empires have ebbed and flowed over time.   Examples we can look at range from the fall of the Roman empire in the West and East in 476 and 1453 respectively, to the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.  In those examples, however, the party that became independent was no worse off than the party that it separated from; in many cases was better off.

Africa becomes more fertile ground for this category.  The outcome of decolonisation of Africa from the 1950s onwards has not been great.  Without exception, African nations are worse off than the European countries that were their colonial overlords.  This is in sharp contrast to European decolonisation in the Americas.   There are so many failed African countries that we are spoiled for choice. Sure, they are “free” from being a European colony. But many rank as the most corrupt, poverty ridden countries in the world who live in fig-leaf democracies ruled by tyrants.  We are going to pick Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, in this set of examples.

Moving east again we reach the Middle East.  This is a region with a long and well documented history and so we can find lots of good examples in most categories.  The collapse of the Alexandrian empire resulted in some great success stories, including Ptolomeic  Egypt.  Separation during the post Roman period also resulted in countries that were picked up rapidly by other empires, including the Arab empires that eventually would be taken over by the Ottoman Turks.  Arguably, with much of the Middle East currently in disarray, you could claim that decolonisation after the Turks and brief European rule has resulted in a series of failed states.  This is not the whole picture, however.  For a period of time the Arab world post decolonisation was doing reasonably well.  Parts of it have started to fail recently.

By the time you get to India you can also see examples of trouble during the post European colonial period but on the whole, the regions managed to muddle through decolonisation.  Some countries were struck by civl wars, such as Vietnam and Cambodia, which were terrible.  But the west has been struck by many civil wars and wars between neighbours so war itself is not a pointer for complete failure.

So this article will look at two examples of failures: Saint Domingue, now known as Haiti and  Rhodesia, now known as  Zimbabwe.

Saint Domingue  – Haiti 

Not a good time to be white.

Not a good time to be white.

Haiti is the 17th poorest and 10th most corrupt country in the world.  It is also the poorest and most corrupt country in the Americas. Prior to independence it was a French colony, called Saint Domingue, from 1659 to 1804, during which it the wealthiest colony in all of the Americas and contributed an astounding one third of all government income for France.   It is located a few miles to the south of Cuba on the western third of the island of Hispaniola – the remaining two thirds is now called the Dominican Republic, a former Spanish colony.

The entire island was originally Spanish but the Spanish exercised limited control over the western region and French pirates, known as buccaneers, settled there and the western portion was eventually taken over by the French crown.  The Spanish called it Santo Domingo – which is still the name of the capital city in the Dominican Republic – and so the French called it the same thing – Saint Domingue.  But in French.

Like many of the islands in the Caribbean the climate was very hostile to white Europeans.  Disease, especially yellow fever, killed large numbers of white Europeans within a short time after their arrival.  The island had an ideal climate and soil for growing sugar, coffee and indigo.  Black slaves, who were continuously imported from Africa, were also killed off by disease.  Those that survived developed immunities and worked the fields.  Eventually they would make up 90% of the colony’s population.  The combination of slave labour and the perfect climate for cash crops made Haiti fabulously wealthy and in the run up to the French Revolution the island would provide one third of the French government’s income.

While most of the population of the island was black – there were about 500,000 black slaves on the island in 1789- most of the land and slave population was owned either by white French “creoles” – of which there were about 30,000 – and mixed race “coloured” – of which there were about 25,000.   In addition, there were about 28,000 free blacks.   Both the free blacks and the coloureds were subject to some level of legal discrimination against them by the whites, which they resented.

Many of the whites were originally Spanish colonists and the coloureds were generally offspring of white colonial masters and their black slave women.  The coloureds were generally well looked after and educated.  Eventually they would own about a third of the land and a quarter of the slave population.  The black population remained apart.  As working conditions were so harsh mortality levels were high, which meant that black slaves were constantly imported from Africa.  This resulted in a black population that was very close to its African roots and maintained much of their culture, language and religion.   With no desire to offer “carrots”, slave owners used “sticks” to manage their slaves.  As a result, conditions were frequently barbaric and punishments for even minor infractions were extremely harsh to try to discourage slaves from rising up and killing their owners.  Slaves would escape into the mountains and would live on the edge of their plantations.

Sugar plantation equipment

Sugar plantation equipment

The white ruling class were originally quite excited by the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789.  They saw this as an opportunity to become even more wealthy.  Like most European colonies, Haiti was only allowed to trade with the mother country, in this instance France. If the island became independent then it could trade not only with France but with any country it wanted, ranging from Britain to newly independent United States of America.   They would get more money for their exports and would pay less for imports, which were frequently overpriced and of lower quality than what could be bought in France.

So the white elites, known as “big whites” as opposed to white plantation managers who were known as “little whites”, agitated for independence from France.  This is important for this story, because by the end of it every white French person on the island would be murdered or exiled.  Revolutions are dangerous.  Those that start them will not necessarily end up ending up on the winning side.

The islands’ blacks were surprisingly pro royalist as the French government had forced a modicum of restrictions on the abusive behaviour of the “big whites” on the slave population.  However, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, which was one of the founding documents of the French Revolution, did call for freedom and equality for all.  Surely, the blacks thought, that applied to them as well?

The ruling classes of whites, coloured and free blacks started to jockey against each other during the early phases of the French Revolution.  Whites wanted independence from France and the coloured and free blacks wanted the same rights of citizenship enjoyed by the whites.  Riots broke out between the free blacks and the whites.  In response the whites armed the coloured population and loyal free black population to stop further outbreaks.

In August 1791 the slave population used the chaos caused by the infighting of the whites, coloureds and free blacks to start a slave revolt.  They rampaged through the island, killing every white they could get their hands on.  They destroyed much of the equipment needed for the processing of sugar and burned down coffee and indigo plantations, significantly impacting their future economic prospects as an independent nation.  By October over 4,000 whites had been murdered, including women and children.

Slave uprising in Haiti

Also not a good time to be white.

The decade between 1791 and 1801 is really complicated and too long to narrate in this article.  The key to note is that it was a decade of chaos.  There were more riots; France declared war on Britain and the Haitian whites declared support for Britain; Spain invaded Haiti; France dispatched armies to retake Haiti and as many as 100,000 French and British soldiers would die on or around Haiti- most due to disease.  Haiti would emancipate all of the slaves and a former black slave – Toussaint Louverture –  ended up running the island.  Nominally the island remained a French colony.  In practice it was independent.

In 1803 Napoleon Bonaparte dispatched a large fleet, with some of his best veteran soldiers, to Haiti to retake the island.  He promised everything to the blacks, trying to reassure them that his intentions were benign.  Secret orders showed another side: Napoleon wanted to re-introduce slavery to the entire island.   When Napoleon’s secret orders were discovered, the black population was enraged.  They resisted and eventually a combination disease and British naval support – a mirror image of French support of the Americans against the British during the American Revolution a few years before –  resulted in a defeat of Napoleon’s forces and the death of his dreams of a North American empire.

On the first of January 1804 Haiti formally became independent.  The black ruler of Haiti, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, feared another attempt by white French to try and re-enslave the black population.  So in his address calling for formal independence he also called for the extermination of all the white French on the island.  His soldiers systematically moved around the island killing every white woman, child and man they encountered.  He would kill husbands in front of their wives and would then threaten to kill the women unless they married their husband’s murderers.  Woman agreed to this, and thus provided a legal means for the black soldiers to take over the property of their victims.  Then they would rape their new wives and kill them too.  By the end of April 1804 between 3,000 and 5,000 whites had been killed and the white population of French descent had been almost completely eradicated.

So the white population miscalculated when they agitated for independence.  It did not work out well for them.  But the legacy of the massacre of the whites did not end well for the blacks of Haiti either. It became a pariah state and no country agreed to trade with it for decades. What had been the richest colony in the Americas was an economic ruin.  Eventually, France agreed to restart trade relations and to recognise Haiti as an independent nation in return a massive indemnity which would take generations to pay back.    Haiti is still the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and is a disaster by pretty much every measure.  For those that try to find consolation in the fact that they had ended slavery and were free, consider this: black slavery existed in most parts of the Americas too.


Rhodesia – Zimbabwe – and Unilateral Declaration of Independence

Ten Trillion Dollars

Your currency is not worth much in Zimbabwe

Located north of South Africa, Zimbabwe is the 2nd poorest (the Democratic Republic of the Congo ranks 1st) and the 18th most corrupt country in the world.  Prior to independence it was a reasonably wealthy African country whose economy was based on tobacco plantations and mineral extraction. Originally called the Colony of Southern Rhodesia, the country had been established  in 1890 by Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company.

The British South Africa Company, BSAC, administered the territory on behalf of the British government. This was not that unusual. Many of the original thirteen colonies in the US had similar grants and charters from the British crown to establish colonies in North America.  The initial British colonists were well armed with Maxim guns, which helped them to defeat black tribes that were unhappy with the white encroachment of their lands.

As the colony was governed by a company under charter from the British government it also acted like a company.  There were shareholders – generally those that had funded the colony’s set up, the initial settlers and local black tribal chiefs – and an elected council.  You needed to be a shareholder to be able to get a right to vote, which meant, in practice, that whites dominated the decision making of the colony.  It also meant that few of the later settlers to Rhodesia were also shareholders and thus were ineligible to vote, causing a rift between the original and later white settlers.  Eventually, it became impractical for the BSAC to continue running the country and in 1923 a new constitution was adopted that got rid of the corporate apparatus.  This constitution gave Rhodesia significant autonomy.

After the Second World War, in which white Rhodesians were active participants in aiding the British Empire, the colony witnessed a boom in white immigration, bringing their population up from 107,000 prior to the war to over 600,000 by 1976, out of a black population of about 6,000,000.  Interestingly, this ratio was about the same for French whites and black slaves in Haiti prior to the 1789.

A general consensus emerged during the post war period that independence would eventually be given to Britain’s colonies.   African colonies had provided significant resources for the Allies during the war and had high expectations that they would be rewarded by independence in return. The Americans, the true victors of the Second World War, wanted sell their products to and buy raw materials from British colonies.  They pushed the British to decolonise as fast as possible, using the argument that if Africa and other parts of the world were not decolonised voluntarily they would break with Britain via armed revolt and most likely turn Communist at the same time.

In 1960 the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, gave a speech in Cape Town, South Africa, known as the “Winds of Change” speech, in which he said that “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”  This set the tone for decolonisation throughout Africa, much to the alarm of many of its white colonial subjects and fellow Conservative party members back in Britain.

The British government wanted its soon-to-be-former colonies in Africa to be independently viable and to ensure a balance between the majority black and the white settler population.  Ghana – formerly the Gold Coast – became the first British colony in Africa to become independent, in 1957.   Its population was one of the best educated in sub-Saharan Africa and there were great hopes for its future.  (Ghana remains a reasonably well run country – it scores more highly than Italy in Transparency International’s corruption index – though it is still very poor.)  The British government pulled together a large proto country in 1953 to manage many of its central African colonies called the Central African Federation which consists of modern Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi.  This fell apart in 1964 when Zambia – known as Northern Rhodesia at the time –  split off and became independent.

Southern Rhodesia’s white population was frightened by the consequences of the British Government’s push for majority rule: whites and British settlers would form less than 10% of the electorate in the newly independent country. Blacks, who had limited or no experience of governing or being part of an electorate, would be in charge.  So in 1965 the white government unilaterally declared itself independent  – known as UDI- from the British Empire under a white dominated government.  The British were furious and refused to recognise this act.  Black leaders in the country, who had anticipated that they would run the country, were also angry and a civil war broke out that lasted until 1979 when Britain briefly resumed colonial rule for a year prior to Zimbabwe’s official independence from the British Empire in 1980.

We have come to take your land.

We have come to take your land.

Rhodesia faced a similar issue to Saint Domingue during the early years post its declaration of independence.  At the United Nations resolutions were passed requiring Rhodesia to rejoin the British Empire, which was only rejected by South Africa and Portugal.   Britain, like France with Haiti over 100 years previously, called for an embargo on Rhodesia with the aim of forcing Rhodesia to reverse UDI.  The embargo did not work as South Africa and Portugal – worried about its neighbouring colony of Angola- were happy to keep on trading.  But by the early 1970s a guerrilla war broke out between the white Rhodesian dominated army and various black liberation armies, including the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army – whose leader was Robert Mugabe. In 1979, following elections in which blacks were included in the vote, Rhodesia’s new black prime minster revoked independence, dissolved the constitution and nominally became a British colony once more.  The following year another election took place and Robert Mugabe became Prime Minister.

The white Rhodesians were right to be frightened about black majority rule.  Between 1980 and 2000 the white population plummeted from around 10% to less than 0.6% of the population due to white emigration and an increase in the black population. In 2000 Robert Mugabe’s government began a policy of forced land purchases from the white population, who still owned 70% of the land at the time, despite their tiny population.  Many whites were beaten and killed.  Much of the land went to his cronies. The land purchases led to a collapse in farm output and a decline in agricultural exports, which had been the mainstay of the economy and key source of foreign currency with which to buy essentials.   The country is chronically corrupt, its elections are rigged and it is horrifically mis-managed.  In 2009 inflation reached 500 billion percent per annum.  The health system is barely functional with many of the main hospitals in the country unable to perform basic operations. The maternal mortality level per 100,000 births was 231 in 1990 and 790 in 2010.   Infant mortality doubled in the same period.

By almost all measures the country is significantly worse off now than it was prior to independence for both blacks and whites. The ruling white Rhodesians made a significant miscalculation – they already had significant autonomy and would have been better off remaining as a British colony than forcing the pace of independence through the Unilateral Declaration of Independence.

Lessons to be learned

From the perspective of those seeking lessons for Brexit, what can be learned?

1) Have the support of the entire country.

A small white minority in both Haiti and Rhodesia pushed for independence, thinking that this was going to be better than the status quo.  They miscalculated as they did not have the support of the majority of their, black, populations.  Incidentally, this was one of the lessons that Simon Bolivar learned after his initial pushes for independence in Latin America, which all failed.  He wanted an independence dominated by whites.  Only when he brought in the entire country, white, coloured and black (including emancipating black slaves), was he able to achieve independence and hold it.

2) Have support from third party countries.

Once Haiti’s blacks were in charge they could have continued to trade with the rest of the world.  The Americans, Portuguese and British were all keen to break the French monopoly on trade with Haiti and get access to sugar, coffee and indigo in exchange for manufactured goods and food.  By killing all the white French, Haiti’s trading partners were horrified about the consequences of allowing such an act to go unpunished and the impact it would have on their own territories that had large slave populations.  So they refused to trade.  This devastated the economy.

Rhodesia had no international support post UDI, with the notable exception of South Africa and Portugal.  This made it difficult for them to function as a normal country and encouraged black resistance leaders to rise up.

3) Have a population that knows what it is doing. 

To have a functioning modern society you need to have both specialists who know how to run a country and the economy and, in a democracy, a voting population who have an understanding of the choices that are being put in front of them at election time.  In the examples of Haiti and Rhodesia neither were in place.

In Haiti, in common with many black slave owning societies, slaves were deliberately denied an education.  Slaves that thought too much were considered dangerous by their masters.  The only educated blacks in Haiti were free blacks – of which there were a few – and the offspring of white landlords and black women, frequently slaves.  The bulk of the population were uneducated first generation slaves from Africa who had been treated worse than animals for most of their existence. The population had no idea, or desire, on how to rebuild the profitable yet complex sugar cane infrastructure that was destroyed during the early stages of the Haitian revolution.

In Rhodesia most of the work in managing the country and economy was done by European whites.  This is in contrast to other non African Europeans colonies, like India, where most of the administration of the colony was done by native Indians.  Indeed, one of the reasons why the Europeans had been so quick and successful in colonising Africa in the late 1800s was that most African countries did not have the strong institutions needed to react to and defend themselves against European expansion.  In Rhodesia, the government was dominated by whites as were farms, the mines, transport,  health services and the military.  In Uganda most of the country’s administration and commerce was done by Indians who had been brought to the country in the 1890s to build the country’s first railways.  While many of them returned to India after their periods as indentured servants expired, many stayed and by 1972, when the army dictator Idi Amin eventually expelled them, there were about 80,000 Indians living in the country.

Indians had been living in Uganda for about 100 years before being expelled by Idi Amin.

Indians had been living in Uganda for about 100 years before being expelled by Idi Amin. Here they are arriving at Heathrow in 1972.

When Haiti and Rhodesia lost their white elites, due to murder and emigration, and Uganda lost its Indian elites, due to expulsion, the countries had very few people who knew how to run a country or complex businesses.

In the meantime, none of the countries mentioned had a history of the masses choosing their leadership.  When Haiti became independent democracy barely existed anywhere in the world.  When Rhodesia and Uganda became independent, in 1965 and 1962, their majority black populations had no experience of democracy. This would also explain why South Africa fared so much better post decolonisation that the rest of sub Saharan Africa. It had a very long colonial history – the Dutch first settled there in the 1650s – it became independent in 1934 and it had 60 years of indigenous government voted in by a small white-only electorate until 1994.  Arguably South Africa’s transition to black majority rule would have been more effective in the long run had universal suffrage been managed more gradually, based on either age or income, which is how voting rights evolved over hundreds of years in Britain.  Controversially, the problem with most of sub Saharan Africa was that they may not have been colonised for long enough.


For Brexiteers, the fact that it was so hard to find good examples of countries that have really failed when they have sought independence is great news.  The likelihood of making a real mess of the process is low.  There are some worrying signs, however.

A tiny majority of Britons want to leave the European Union.  There is no great mandate, no great cry to break free from the EU.  This means that there could be real difficulties ahead in the same way that Latin American independence failed repeatedly before Simon Bolivar finally got the whole population behind him.  Brexiteers need to persuade Bremainers on the virtue of leaving the European Union and the brave new world beyond.  So far, they have failed to do so.

It is also important to gain the support of third party countries as soon as possible.  Britain needs some clear statements from non European countries that they will be willing to enter into bilateral trade agreements as soon as possible.

Finally, the UK population needs to be educated more on what is going on regarding Brexit.  The media is confusing and politicians do not appear to know what they are doing.  This is not helpful and needs to change.

In our next article, Part 3, we are going to look at what happens when independence is a success.




As mentioned earlier in the article, there were so many possible examples of failed independence in Africa.  If you take the poorest countries in the world they are all, with a few exceptions, in sub saharan Africa.  Starting with a GDP per capital of $400 per year, the poorest are: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Liberia, Niger, Malawi, Tokelau (a series of atols in the south Pacific), Madagascar, Guinea, Mali and then Afghanistan at $1,100 per year.  Then we get back to Africa with Togo, Guinea- Bissau, Eritrea, Mozambique, Haiti at $1,300 per year, Comoros (an island off the coast of Africa), Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and then Nepal at £1,500.  Corruption levels are correspondingly high in these countries as well.

Poor and uneducated young voters are more likely to have their votes swayed by populist demagogues. These countries should try to keep their electorate numbers small by restricting it. This could be done in many ways. For example, a country could introduce thresholds to vote such as a minimum age, say 40 years old, and a minimum income tax level, which encourages paying taxes and allows those under 40 to be able to vote.  Over several decades as citizens get used to voting responsibly these threshold levels could be gradually reduced and eliminated. Unfortunately, this unlikely to happen.



About the Author

- Tristan Fischer is the author of all the articles on History Future Now. He is the Chairman of Lumicity Ltd, a company developing renewable energy infrastructure projects, Chairman of Fischer Farms Ltd, a vertical farming company using hydroponics, and a board Director of Fish From Ltd, an onshore salmon company. He previously worked for Camco International, Shell Renewables and Citigroup. He was educated at Cambridge University. To find out more click here:

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