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Indirect rule is a type of European colonial policy in which the traditional local power structure, or at least part of it, is incorporated into the colonial administrative structure. It was practiced in large parts of the British Empire, especially British India (see Princely states) and elsewhere in Asia (including Malaya) and Africa. So, it is basically the opposite of direct rule. (Note: Not all British colonies were under indirect rule, e.g. the United States was once a colony of Great Britain)


British Empire

The ideological underpinnings, as well as the practical application of indirect rule in European colonialism is usually traced to the work of Frederick Lugard, the High Commissioner of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria from 1899 to 1906. In the lands of the Sokoto Caliphatemarker, conquered by the British Empire at the turn of the century, Lugard instituted a system whereby external, military, and tax control was operated by the British, while most every other aspect of life was left to local pre-colonial aristocracies who had sided with the British during their conquest. The theory behind this solution to a very practical problem of domination by a tiny group of foreigners of huge populations is laid out in Lugard's influential work, The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa.

The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa

This was the most famous of Lugard's works regarding indirect rule in colonial Africa. In it, Lugard outlines the reasons and methods that should be employed in the colonization of Africa by Britain. Some of his justifications included spreading Christianity and ending "barbarism". He also saw state sponsored colonization as a way to protect missionaries, local chiefs, and local people from each other as well as from foreign powers. For Lugard, it was vital that Britain gain control of unclaimed areas before Germany, Portugal, or France claimed the land and its resources for themselves. He realized that there were vast profits to be made, through the exporting of resources like rubber and through taxation of native populations, as well as profits by British importers and exporters. These resources and inexpensive native labour (slavery having been outlawed by Britain in 1834) would provide vital fuel for the industrial revolution in resource depleted Britain, as well as monies for public works projects and markets for surplus production of British industries finished goods. Finally, Lugard reasoned that colonization had become a fad and that in order to remain a superpower, Britain would need to hold colonies in order to avoid appearing weak.

Lugard pushed for native administration in African colonies. He reasoned that black Africans were inherently different from white Europeans. Therefore, African appointed officials should act as a sort of middle manager in colonial governance. This would avoid revolt because, as Lugard believed, the people of Africa would be more likely to follow someone who looked like them, spoke their languages, and shared their customs. The technique was employed successfully by European colonial leaders.

While this seemed rather structured on paper (and was often contrasted with French Direct Rule of Assimilation), in practice, direct command of resources, manpower, and imposition of martial law was common throughout the British Empire. What differed dramatically was the creation of a native bureaucracy taking the places which in the French empire were manned by (white) French citizens, and the creation of the Colour Bar, by which white high officials were kept culturally distinct (and "superior") to this educated native government.

For the British Colonial Colour Bar see:

Britain's Asian Empire

The largest application of Indirect rule was in British Asia, in hundreds of pre-colonial states, first under the HEIC (mainly the Indian subcontinent and Burma, but also in strategic regions on the route thereto, mainly coastal Persian Gulf states), later in the succeeding Crown Colonies and protectorates.Typically a British Governor and council of advisors made laws for each colony, but local rulers loyal to the Governor kept some of their traditional authority.

Indirect rule was particularly effective for enabling the British to exploit natural resources and raw materials of vast subordinate nations, and to establish bases for stationing military in strategic points throughout the globe.

Other European powers

  • For the other major Asian system, in the Dutch East Indiesmarker (present Indonesiamarker), largely superseding the Portuguese (which had previously experimented with the system) in the Indian Ocean, see Regentschap.

  • French colonial empires: Although its goes against their 'jacobin' tradition of omnipresence of the republican authorities, even more than under royal absolutism, the French too found their colonial empire too vast to be ruled without recourse to some indirect rule. This was least the case in the 'popular colonies' many metropolitan French families migrated to, as in the Maghreb country of Algeriamarker (these pied noir were the main reason that colony was so late to attain independence, and only after an extremely bloody war). The French introduced a legal framework specific to colonial subjects, the Code de Indigénat between 1887-1889 in most overseas possessions which provided for a form of indirect rule, whereby subjects (distinct from citizens) were governed by customary law and appointed native officials. This system was, though, maintained and supervised by colonial officers in each region, and offered little protection from the fiat of French administration.

  • The German (originally Prussian) Reich, proverbially even stricter in its organisation, was too late to carve out an empire matching its weight in Europe, but in its haste to move in quickly didn't shrink from some indirect rule, as in Tanganyika (now the continental part of Tanzania).

Issues with indirect rule

While indirect rule was cheaper and easier for colonial powers, and in particular it required fewer administrators, it did have a number of problems. In many cases, colonial authorities empowered local leaders, such as in the case of the monarchy of Uganda. However, if no leader could be found (in the traditional Western sense of the term), the colonizers would simply elect their own local administrations. This was the case in Kenyamarker and Southern Nigeriamarker, and these new leaders, often called "warrant chiefs," were not always supported by the local populace. Colonial elites also often elected local leaders with similar traits to their own, despite these traits not being suited to native leadership. Many were conservative elders, and thus indirect rule fostered a conservative outlook among the indigenous population, and marginalised the young intelligentsia. Written laws, which replaced oral laws, were less flexible to the changing social nature, old customs of retribution and justice were removed or banned, and the removal of more violent punishments in some areas led to an increase in crime. Furthermore, leaders empowered by the colonial governments were often not familiar with their new tasks, such as recruitment and tax.


  1. Collins and Burns, p. 297-308

Sources and references

  • Michael Crowder. Indirect Rule: French and British Style. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 34, No. 3. (Jul., 1964), pp. 197–205.
  • Paul Rich . The Origins of Apartheid Ideology: The Case of Ernest Stubbs and Transvaal Native Administration, c.1902-1932. African Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 315. (Apr., 1980), pp. 171–194.
  • H. F. Morris . A History of the Adoption of Codes of Criminal Law and Procedure in British Colonial Africa, 1876-1935. Journal of African Law, Vol. 18, No. 1, Criminal Law and Criminology. (Spring, 1974), pp. 6–23.
  • Jonathan Derrick. The 'Native Clerk' in Colonial West Africa. African Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 326. (Jan., 1983), pp. 61–74.
  • Diana Wylie. Confrontation over Kenya: The Colonial Office and Its Critics 1918-1940. The Journal of African History, Vol. 18, No. 3. (1977), pp. 427–447.
  • P. A. Brunt . Empires: Reflections on British and Roman Imperialism. Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 7, No. 3. (Apr., 1965), pp. 267–288.
  • R. O. Collins and J. M. Burns. A History of Sub-Saharan Africa, Cambridge, 2007.

Period writings

  • Harold Nicolson. The Colonial Problem. International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1931-1939), Vol. 17, No. 1. (Jan. - Feb., 1938), pp. 32–50.
  • W. E. Rappard . The Practical Working of the Mandates System. Journal of the British Institute of International Affairs, Vol. 4, No. 5. (Sep., 1925), pp. 205–226.
  • Jan Smuts. Native Policy in Africa. Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol. 29, No. 115. (Apr., 1930), pp. 248–268.
  • Ralph J. Bunche . French and British Imperialism in West Africa. The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 21, No. 1. (Jan., 1936), pp. 31–46.

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