- Historic Sites
“That Hell-hole Of Yours”
In 1943 Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Britain’s poorest, most dismal African colony, and what he saw there fired him with a fervor that helped found the United Nations
October 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 6
Roosevelt wasted no time telling Churchill about his views on Gambia and his newly focused thinking on the future of European empires. He brought it up in private conversations with the prime minister in Casablanca, and, at a January 22 dinner he gave in honor of the Sultan of Morocco, he spoke boldly about colonial hopes of independence and a postwar effort to end imperialism. Churchill and Auguste Noguès, the French resident general in Morocco, could not help hearing. Harold Macmillan regarded the conversation as “equally embarrassing to the British and to the French,” while the American diplomat Robert Murphy found Roosevelt’s performance “deliberately provocative.” Some wondered if Churchill’s sour mood that evening might have been due more to the President’s discussion with the Muslim sultan than to the absence of alcohol at dinner.
Shortly after he returned from Casablanca, Roosevelt spoke at a press conference about the “problem on that West African Coast which I had never visualized before I went there.” Thereafter, he regularly badgered Churchill, directly and indirectly, to do something about conditions in Bathurst. The prime minister passed along the President’s complaints to the Colonial Office with haste. A Gambian development and welfare brief of April 1943 reads, “The deplorable conditions of Bathurst, I understand, strike all newcomers, and as many of them have been Americans, they no doubt have not been sparing in their criticism. I understand that some of their criticisms have been brought to the notice of the Prime Minister.”
Eventually Churchill exacted a promise from the Secretary of State for the Colonies “to do something about Bathurst,” and Gambia’s government pushed forward a plan to drain the swamps and move half the town’s population onto the healthier mainland. The cost of such an effort, however, turned out to be more than the British elected to spend. Not until the 1950s would the Colonial Office begin allocating substantially more for education and health in the tiny colony, and even then the budgeted sums were paltry. In 1965 the Republic of the Gambia became the last British colony in West Africa to gain its independence. It did so, writes Harry Gailey, “with only minimal facilities provided by the seventy year colonial administration of Great Britain,” and it remains one of the poorest and least developed of the world’s nations today.
As for American policy, Elliott Roosevelt was right about the Gambia visit being pivotal in his father’s thinking on postwar empires. Over the two years of the President’s life following his return from Casablanca, he voiced new, strong opinions on United Nations supervision of colonies—what would eventually become the U.N. trusteeship system—to lead rapidly to their independence. In June 1943 Roosevelt complained to his aide Charles W. Taussig that he was “getting nowhere with the British on Colonial postwar policy,” calling the British “impossible” on the issue. In February 1944, at a meeting with the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association, he spoke at length about Bathurst, describing it as “the most horrible thing I have ever seen in my life.” He went on to explain how he was at the moment telling Churchill his ideas about United Nations inspection of colonies: “And if we sent a committee from the United Nations, and I used the example of Gambia, to go down to Gambia [and say], ‘If you Britishers don’t come up to scratch—toe the mark—then we will let all the world know.’”
That summer, Roosevelt told Taussig, as the aide later recalled, that after he had visited Gambia “he had pointed out to Churchill that dependent areas, such as Gambia, must in the future be subject to international inspection. The President then, mimicking the voice of Churchill, repeated Churchill’s reply: ‘We are not going to let any other nation inspect or report on conditions in British territory.–”
But Roosevelt was relentless. He continued to press Churchill to accept the inevitability of colonial independence, and he worked effectively, on his own and through the State Department, to make sure American policy on the shape of the postwar world bore his imprint. Through the last two years of his life, the President refined his thinking on international supervision, and he clung to the goal of colonial independence when considering policies being developed for the new United Nations organization. At Yalta in February 1945 Roosevelt won agreement from Stalin and Churchill for including the trusteeship principle in the Charter of the United Nations, and afterward he mounted a stronger public attack on the British and French empires, believing that “pitiless publicity” would gain support for decolonization. It is easy to see the President’s hand in the chapters dealing with colonies and international trusteeship in the United Nations Charter, upon which delegates agreed at the San Francisco Conference just months after Roosevelt’s death and which took effect fifty years ago this month.
According to William Roger Louis, for his strongly held ideas about trusteeship and his championing of the ultimate goal of colonial independence, “Roosevelt should be regarded as one of the fathers of the postwar world of politically independent nations.” Three nights on a cruiser moored off Bathurst and several trips through Churchill’s hell-hole of a colonial capital in 1943 were all the exposure he needed to the fruits of colonialism. The events set the President’s mind firmly on the importance of working through the United Nations to end colonial rule and to do something to aid its victims.