Why was it a world war?

It is a little known fact that the uranium used in the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 was extracted from the Shinkolobwe mine in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, then under Belgian rule. The local population employed, including children, was subjected to forced labour, in addition to exposure to high levels of radiation, leaving multiple sequelae that, as in Japan, persist in the territory. This fact allows us to trace a link between colonialism and war that transcends the temporal limits of World War II.

Work The Martyrs of the Union Minière du Haut Katanga by Tshibumba Kanda Matulu (Congo, 1947-ca. 1981). Tshibumba's painting depicts the killing of striking miners in Lubumbashi by order of the Belgian colonial government on 9 December 1941 and recreates the treatment of workers in mines such as Shinkolobwe. ©Brooklyn Museum (2010.1). Orphan work.
As described, Lieutenant Barr (USA) offers candy on Christmas Day 1942 to five "starving" children in Kanjikoa, India. The image of needy children was an instrument of imperial narratives, being the major canon of the photographic record. ©National Archives (204965955).

European imperial expansion, which began in the second half of the 19th century and was characterized by the establishment of colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, represents an essential element for understanding the globalization of warfare in the 20th century. However, beyond considering colonies solely as theatres of military operations, it is essential to recognize that the colonized population, with a special focus on women and children, has been systematically excluded from the narratives addressing these conflicts. Their bodies and experiences were used to fuel imperial propaganda and perpetuate the stereotypes that sustained it, rendering their agencies and experiences invisible in the records of the period.

At the end of the war, some 750 million people, equivalent to one-third of the world’s population, resided in colonized territories. The British Empire had a quarter of the global population under its sovereignty and, in the words of historian Chima J. Korieh, “Britain was not at war, but its empire was”. Their participation in the conflict was diverse both in the rear and at the front, although always much more invisibilized. For example, it is estimated that around 450,000 African combatants were mobilized by the French army during the war. These soldiers faced discrimination throughout the war, culminating in de Gaulle’s controversial decision to “whiten” the forces marching towards Paris in August 1944.

Postcard from French Indochina, 1936. Through photography, film and art, the aim was to constantly recreate Orientalism, a canon that facilitated the socialisation of stereotypical images of colonised societies. © Université Côte d'Azur (Fonds ASEMI, PH09-11)
Memorial of the Thiaroye massacre, in Senegal, in memory of the events of December 1, 1944, when French gendarmes fired on demobilized Senegalese combatants demonstrating for the payment of their salaries. Some 35 tirailleurs were killed and 34 sentenced to prison. © Erica Kowal – Flickr
The Women's Auxiliary Corps (India) was created in March 1942, inspired by the Women's Auxiliary Service (Burma). By the end of World War II, it had recruited 11,500 women who took on numerous rearguard duties. ©National Army Museum (1969-10-591-169)

Warfare in imperial settings exacerbated practices of violence that had endured throughout the colonial period. These included rigid racial hierarchies, coercive labour for the exploitation of natural and agricultural resources, the diversion of local supplies for the benefit of exports to imperial centres, as well as the mobilization of combatants. The population of these territories was marginalized from humanitarian aid, but coalesced into strong local support networks, led mainly by women, although these networks have been insufficiently documented due to Eurocentric bias. The conclusion of the war in 1945 did not mark the end of the challenges for this population, which in many cases continued to fight, this time against metropolises that still today do not recognize their role in the conflict.

WWII poster listing the allied nations. A sample of the invisibilization of the colonies and their war effort. ©National Archives (515903)

These are the sinews of war

The slogan “these are the sinews of war” accompanied a British propaganda campaign aimed at highlighting the role of the colonies in the WWII war effort. The growing demand for rubber, tin, cotton for textiles, sugar, hides, rice and many other resources led to a significant increase in the mobilization of local labour, especially women, and also children, who were subjected to extremely difficult working conditions and coercive recruitment practices.

“The Empire’s Strength Campaign, His Majesty’s Stationery Office”, 1939. © Imperial War Museums (Art.IWM PST 15778/ Art.IWM PST 15891)
Workers in a Mumbai textile factory (1941-1943). 35% of India's vast cotton textile production, some 5,000,000,000,000 yards per year, was used for war material for the Allies. 1941-1943. © Library of Congress (LC-USE6-D-008634)

As a result, food crises were triggered in these territories, where production systems had been transformed during the colonial period to serve the interests of the metropolis rather than local needs. A notable example of this problem was the devastating famine that struck the Bengal region (India) in 1943. The export of food to the battlefronts, together with the increase in troops stationed in the region and the invasion of Burma, caused a humanitarian crisis that claimed the lives of between two and three million people, with a particularly devastating impact on the child population. This crisis generated internal migration and family breakdown, with significant rates of child abandonment and orphanhood, which in turn led to high rates of labour and sexual exploitation of these vulnerable segments.

Child exploitation was not an exception in times of crisis, but a constant feature of imperial systems. Despite propaganda depicting schools and hospitals, intended in reality for a minority, the colonial administration employed the entire population in plantations, mines and industries. However, there is a limited photographic record of this reality due to biased portrayals of the supposed “civilizing” work in these territories and the growing protection of children’s rights in Europe. This concealed the racialized conception of childhood in the colonies, which was deprived of the rights of children in the metropolis because of their colonized status.

In the first picture, a group of refugees leaving Bengal in January 1942 © Imperial War Museums (JAR1240); in the second, a report on acts of disobedience and sabotage in the region in August 1942 © National Archives. The war policy pursued in these territories and its consequences, which highlight Winston Churchill’s neglect, play a crucial role in understanding the protests that eventually led to independence in 1947.
WWII poster recalling the prohibition of work for children under 16 years of age. During the war, numerous campaigns emphasized the need to educate and protect children and to prohibit their employment - following the indications of the International Labour Organization. However, this prohibition contrasts with the permissiveness of that organization regarding the failure to establish a minimum working age in the colonies. © National Archives (514051).

Regimes of child servitude in British Hong Kong and French Indochina, involving the coercive adoption, primarily of girls, have been documented since the 19th century and persisted until the end of the war. In the context of colonization in Africa, child labour was also widely prevalent until decolonization, the practice being justified through racial archetypes and alleged local custom. In short, war resources relied on the exploitation of men, women and children, at a high human and social cost.

Report of the Colonial Curatorship of Spanish Guinea. Child labour was standardised in all colonial contexts, including Spanish. © General Administration Archives (81/7720, General Government correspondence, 1929).
Charles de Gaulle at the Brazzaville conference (1944) acknowledging the alignment of the African colonies with the French exile and resistance, and where he promised improvements for the population of the empire and the abolition of forced labour. The limits and slow pace of these reforms fuelled discontent among the population of these territories, strengthening the anti-colonial movements of the post-war period. © Établissement de Communication et de Production Audiovisuelle de la Défense (PD-US-expired)
Geography lesson in a colonial school in French Indochina in 1920 (Hanoi/Vietnam). Although these images are presented as predominant in colonial propaganda, it is important to note that the rate of schooling among the local population was considerably low. Children in these contexts were instrumentalised by the empire, used as part of the canon of the "civilising" mission and as a labour force, despite the scant photographic documentation that exists on this practice. ©Université Côte d'Azur (Fonds ASEMI, PH50-17)

Wars that neither begin nor end

For colonized populations, World War II came after violent processes of occupation and colonization. At the end of the conflict, a part of the society that had been instrumentalized in the war, disenfranchised for decades and impoverished, started decolonization processes that sometimes triggered new military conflicts and generalized revolts in the region. The war did not abandon their people; rather, it inspired them to take the lead in the struggle for their emancipation, which represented the culmination of a long genealogy of resistance against occupation. While peace was being built in Europe, the colonial powers responded to these aspirations in the East, India, Indochina, Indonesia and Africa with violence and war crimes.

Refugees from the Algerian war (1954-1962) at Mission Schoenholzer for women and children, 1957. This conflict involved the displacement of two million people, especially children © Archives du Comité International de la Croix-Rouge (V-P-MA-N-00005-14)
A group of children in a school in the so-called city of orphans in 1952, under the protection of the International Committee of the Red Cross © Archives du Comité International de la Croix-Rouge (V-P-INDO-N-00013-06).
Food distribution in a Than-son-Nhut transit camp in 1954 © Archives du Comité International de la Croix-Rouge (V-P-INDO-N-00013-06)

The story of the Amerasian children, also known as “Dust Children” or “Bụi đời” (in English and Vietnamese respectively), is one of the most well-documented of the conflict. These are approximately 100,000 children born to Vietnamese mothers and American fathers, the results of sexual abuse or stable relationships, who were rejected by both societies and grew up on the streets or in orphanages. In 1988, the United States finally recognized them and allowed the creation of visas, which led to more than 20,000 of them moving to the United States.

Drawing “Waking to school at night” (Đi học đêm) by Phi Tiến Sơn, 12 years (1971). ©British Library (SU 216(2)).
Propaganda posters of the Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) Angola experienced a long war of independence between 1962 and 1975 against Portugal and another civil war continued until 2002, also being representative conflicts of the Cold War, with high international involvement. © Hoover Library Archives (Poster AO3 and AO8)

The Indochina/Vietnam war is one of the various war experiences that emerged in the colonies after World War II, coinciding with the creation of a new world order and the emergence of the “Third World” as a space to be occupied. The Algerian war (1954-1962), the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya (1952-1960), the Angolan war (1961-1975-2002), the partition of Pakistan and India after independence (1945-1947), as well as that of Palestine (1947-1948), the Indonesian revolution against the Netherlands (1945-1949) and a long etcetera, exemplify the violent realities that marked the path of the colonies towards emancipation and the management of the post-colonial political-social reality. Millions of lives lost, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, and civil conflicts, along with structural impoverishment, represent the high human cost of colonialism and its end. The scars and legacies of these experiences persist in the Global South, pending reparative policies and recognition of spoliation, crimes, ecological disasters and inequality.

On the right, one of the many books published on the history of Vietnam's mixed-race children. On the left, poem written by Chi D. Pham, an Amerasian child of the Vietnam War.
After the partition of Palestine, which took place as a result of UN Resolution 181 in 1947, some 750,000 Arabs were forced to become refugees. The first image depicts a displaced family in a refugee camp in Lebanon in 1948. © United Nations Photo (ID349889); the second was taken in a camp in Damascus, Syria, in the same year © United Nations Photo (ID349704). The humanitarian emergency forced the UN to create the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) in 1949, whose work continues today.