Last Colonies
Last Colonies

Almost half a century after the United Nations called for independence for all colonies, the organization lists 16 places—with 1.2 million people—that are still ruled by foreign powers. The UN wants these "non-self-governing territories" to achieve home rule by 2010, the 50-year anniversary of the General Assembly's call for independence and the end of its second International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism. But progress has ground to a near halt.

No territory has achieved self-government since East Timor won full independence from Indonesia in 2002. New Zealand tried twice, in 2006 and 2007, to grant the three atolls of Tokelau equal partnership, but the referenda voted on by the residents failed to win the required two-thirds majority. France has agreed to let residents of New Caledonia vote on their future, but not until 2013. The U.K. and U.S., each of which retains control of several territories, refuse to cooperate with the UN. And Morocco, which began occupying the territory of Western Sahara when Spain ended its colonial rule there, has rejected all calls for a vote on independence.

The decolonization stalemate is in part a legacy of the East-West divide of the 1950s through 1980s, when the former Soviet Union joined developing countries in pressing Western nations to grant their colonies independence, says Sergei Cherniavsky, secretary of the UN committee that deals with the issue: "There is a lot of mistrust between the special committee and the administering powers, which believe that the committee is still engaged in Cold War rhetoric." In addition, says Carlyle Corbin, a decolonization expert and former minister of external affairs for the U.S. Virgin Islands, many of the people in the remaining colonies aren't pushing for self-rule because they don't understand that the UN has called for them to be given a choice between independence, free association with the foreign power now ruling them, integration within that country, or some other mutually agreed upon option for self-rule.

In three cases, decolonization efforts have also run up against conflicting sovereignty claims: Morocco waged a war over Western Sahara with Sahrawi guerrillas of the Polisario Front, the U.K. and Argentina fought over the Falkland Islands, and the U.K. and Spain continue to dispute the ownership of Gibraltar.

Most of the world's remaining 16 colonies are islands, and many are tiny. No matter, says Corbin. "Size should not be a factor in determining whether a territory can exercise its right to self-determination."

American Samoa
Colonial Power: United States
Colonized: Claimed by the U.S. in 1899 through a treaty with Germany; occupied by the U.S. in 1900
Area: 199 square kilometers, covering the eastern portion of the archipelago and the harbor of Pago Pago
Population: 57,496, mainly Samoans and other Pacific islanders
Language: Samoan, English
Status: Officially an "unincorporated and unorganized" territory, American Samoa is administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs; in 2006 Tokelau claimed Swains Island, which is part of American Samoa, by naming the coral atoll in a draft of its new constitution.

Colonial Power: United Kingdom
Colonized: 1650, by English settlers from the nearby island of St. Kitts
Area: 102 square kilometers
Population: 14,108
Language: English
Status: In the early 19th century, despite protests by its inhabitants, Anguilla was incorporated, along with St. Kitts and Nevis, into a single British colony. Efforts to separate from St. Kitts and Nevis climaxed in a rebellion in 1969. Two years later Great Britain finally allowed Anguilla to secede from St. Kitts and Nevis. In 1980 the island was officially recognized as a separate dependency of Great Britain.

Colonial Power: United Kingdom
Colonized: 1609, by shipwrecked English settlers on their way to Virginia
Area: 53 square kilometers (one-third the size of Washington, D.C.), covering 138 coral islands and islets
Population: 66,536
Languages: English, some Portuguese
Status: A referendum on independence was defeated in 1995, but a new government is again pursuing that option. Bermuda ranks first in the world in per capita income.

British Virgin Islands
Colonial Power: United Kingdom
Colonized: Settled by the Dutch in 1648 and annexed by the English in 1672; became part of the British colony of the Leeward Islands in 1872
Area: 153 square kilometers, covering 16 inhabited islands, such as Tortola, and another 20 uninhabited islands
Population: 24,004
Language: English
Status: In 1967, seven years after the Leeward Islands colony was dissolved, the Virgin Islands were granted autonomy. Some power has been transferred from the British-appointed governor to residents of the islands, but the governor retains ultimate authority over the locally elected government.

Cayman Islands
Colonial Power: United Kingdom
Colonized: During the 18th and 19th centuries, by British who'd colonized Jamaica
Area: 262 square kilometers
Population: 47,862, most of whom live on the largest island, Grand Cayman
Language: English
Status: The islands became part of the Federation of the West Indies in 1959. When that federation dissolved in 1962, they chose to remain a British colony. They're now thriving as an offshore financial center and tax shelter.

Falkland Islands/Islas Malvinas
Colonial Power: United Kingdom
Colonized: First by France in 1764, then ceded to Spain in 1766; Great Britain, which also claimed the islands, established a naval garrison there in 1833.
Area: 12,173 square kilometers, covering the two main islands, East and West Falkland, and about 200 smaller islands
Population: 3,140, mostly British
Language: English
Status: After Argentina won its independence from Spain in the early 19th century, it laid claim to the Falkland Islands in its constitution. It finally invaded the islands in 1982, but the British sent an expeditionary force that quickly took them back. Argentina continues to claim the Falklands but in 1995 agreed not to use force to settle the dispute. Great Britain refuses to enter into talks on sovereignty.

Colonial Power: United Kingdom
Colonized: Formally declared a colony in 1830; Spain had ceded the strategically important territory to Great Britain as part of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht.
Area: 6.5 square kilometers—the smallest of all the territories on the UN's decolonization list
Population: 28,002, mainly Spanish, Italian, English, Maltese, and Portuguese
Languages: Spanish, Italian, Portuguese
Status: Gibraltarians overwhelmingly voted to remain a British colony in 1967; in 1969 the United Kingdom granted them autonomy; in a 2002 referendum held because of Spanish claims over the territory, a large majority of citizens rejected proposals for Great Britain and Spain to share sovereignty; four years later, Gibraltar, the United Kingdom, and Spain signed an agreement that maintained British sovereignty over the territory but allowed freer movement and communication between Gibraltar and Spain.

Colonial Power: United States
Colonized: Declared a Spanish colony in 1565; ceded to the United States in 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War
Area: 541 square kilometers
Population: 175,877, mainly native Chamorros, Filipinos, and other Pacific islanders
Language: Chamorro, Filipino, other Pacific island languages
Status: Officially an "unincorporated and unorganized" territory, Guam is administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Insular Affairs; strategically located in the western Pacific, Guam has one of the most important U.S. military bases in that ocean. The island receives funding from the U.S. federal government—$143 million in 1997—but Guamanians pay no federal income or excise taxes. In addition, under a special law of Congress, federal income taxes paid by military and civilian federal employees stationed in Guam go to the Guam Treasury, not the U.S. Treasury.

Colonial Power: United Kingdom
Colonized: Settled in 1632 by English and Irish from St. Kitts; Great Britain officially declared it a colony in 1783, after years of skirmishing with France.
Area: 102 square kilometers
Population: 9,638
Language: English
Status: Montserrat's population was around 12,000 until 1995, when 8,000 people left after the Soufriere Hills Volcano erupted, devastating much of the island and eventually forcing residents to abandon the capital, Plymouth. The last eruption was in 2003, and many of the refugees have returned, though half the island is expected to remain uninhabitable for another decade.

New Caledonia
Colonial Power: France
Year Colonized: 1853
Area: 19,060 square kilometers
Population: 244,824
Languages: French (official), Melanesian-Polynesian dialects
Status: Independence protests in the 1980s and 1990s led to the Nouméa Accord of 1998, under which France agreed to gradually give New Caledonia more and more authority over its own affairs. The agreement was approved by 70 percent of the people living in New Caledonia, including French citizens, who had the right to vote. Under the accord, France is working with residents of New Caledonia to establish democratic institutions and prepare for as many as three referenda on independence between 2013 and 2018.

Pitcairn Islands
Colonial Power: United Kingdom
Colonized: Settled in 1790 by the mutineers of the Bounty and Tahitians; declared a British colony in 1838
Area: 47 square kilometers, covering the islands of Henderson, Pitcairn, Ducie, and Oeno
Population: 48, all Seventh-Day Adventists. The number of inhabitants peaked in 1937, at 233, and in the years since, people have left for New Zealand and other places. Pitcairn now has a labor force of just 15, all of whom are needed to row supplies by longboat from ships offshore—the islands have no port or natural harbor.
Language: English and Pitkern, a mixture of an 18th-century English dialect and a Tahitian dialect
Status: In 2004 six men living on Pitcairn were charged with sexually abusing girls and young women, drawing international attention to the island and its rule by Great Britain.

St. Helena
Colonial Power: United Kingdom
Colonized: Occupied by British garrisons in the 17th century and again in 1815 and 1816, when the UK moved to prevent attempts to rescue Napoleon, then exiled on St. Helena; Great Britain declared St. Helena a colony in 1922.
Area: 413 square kilometers, covering the islands of St. Helena, Ascension, the Tristan da Cunha group, and Gough
Population: 7,601 (Gough is not inhabited)
Language: English
Status: Ascension Island served as a staging area for British forces during the Falkland Islands war and remains an essential refueling point for British planes on their way to the Pacific.

Colonial Power: New Zealand
Year Colonized: Made a British protectorate in 1889; transferred to New Zealand in 1925
Area: 10 square kilometers, covering three coral atolls: Atafu, Fakaofu, and Nukunono
Population: 1,433
Languages: Tokelauan, English
Status: In October 2007 the latest of two referenda on the establishment of an equal partnership between New Zealand and Tokelau fell just six votes short (out of 695 cast) of receiving the required two-thirds majority approval. Some island residents feared they would lose more funding and services—they now receive $4 million a year in aid from New Zealand—then they would gain if they voted for an equal partnership or a free association. But with New Zealand eager to end Tokelau’s status as a colony, a third referendum—and eventual approval—is likely. Although it is still a colony, Tokelau claimed Swains Island (Olohega), now part of American Samoa, in the draft of its constitution. As of yet, Tokelau has no capital.

Turks and Caicos Islands
Colonial Power: United Kingdom
Colonized: The islands were settled by British from Bermuda in 1678, came under the jurisdiction of the British colony of the Bahamas in 1766, and were briefly occupied by France several times in the mid to late 1700s—an attempt to control pirates operating from the islands. In 1848 the islands became self-governing under the authority of the governor of the British colony of Jamaica.
Area: 430 square kilometers
Population: 22,352
Language: English
Status: In 1965, three years after Jamaica gained independence, authority over the Turks and Caicos shifted to the governor of the Bahamas; the islands received their own British-appointed governor in 1973, when the Bahamas became independent. In 1982 the UK agreed to independence for the Turks and Caicos, but then the islanders elected a party that supported continuing British rule. Some power has been transferred from the British governor to residents of the islands, but the governor retains ultimate authority.

U.S. Virgin Islands
Colonial Power: United States
Colonized: Claimed by the Danish during the 17th century as part of an agreement with Great Britain, which took the rest of the archipelago; purchased by the U.S. in 1917
Area: 346 square kilometers
Population: 108,210
Language: English, Spanish/Spanish Creole, French/French Creole
Status: Officially an "unincorporated and unorganized" territory, the U.S. Virgin Islands are administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Insular Affairs. A 1993 referendum on independence failed to win voter approval; the local government is now writing a new constitution to replace U.S. federal laws in the territory.

Western Sahara (formerly Spanish Sahara)
Colonial Power: Spain withdrew in 1975, and Morocco now occupies and administers the western two-thirds of Western Sahara, which contains the territory's largest cities and most valuable resources. The Polisario Front, a guerrilla group of ethnic Sahrawis that fought for independence from Spain and then resisted Morocco's 1975-1976 invasion, controls the barren eastern third of the territory; the Polisario has proclaimed a government in exile, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.
Year Colonized: In the late 19th and early 20th century by Spain, after the Berlin conference of 1884 divided up Africa among European powers
Area: 266,000 square kilometers—by far the largest of all the territories on the UN's decolonization list
Population: 393,831, according to the CIA’s World Factbook (online); that figure may include the more than 100,000 Moroccan soldiers stationed there (population figures vary). Of the civilians living in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, roughly one-third are people or descendants of people who inhabited the territory before 1975 and two-thirds are Moroccans who've immigrated since 1975; according to The World Factbook, another 102,000 Sahrawis are refugees in Polisario-controlled camps in western Algeria, where they fled after the Moroccan invasion. (This figure is disputed. The UN says it provides food for 90,000 of the "most vulnerable" refugees; the Polisario estimates the number of refugees in the camps at 158,000.)
Languages: French, Moroccan and Hassaniya (Sahrawi) Arabic, some Spanish
Status: Morocco says its sovereignty over Western Sahara is not negotiable, though no nation recognizes its rule and the International Court of Justice stated in 1976 that Morocco has no legitimate claim to the territory. Since 1991 a cease-fire, monitored by UN peacekeepers, has halted fighting between Moroccan troops and guerrillas of the Polisario Front, though a referendum on independence promised as part of the cease-fire agreement never took place. In 2007 Morocco and the Polisario Front began a series of negotiations on the territory’s future, but made no progress toward resolving the dispute. Morocco is offering inhabitants of the territory autonomy under its rule; the Polisario Front insists that the people of Western Sahara be allowed to choose between autonomy, independence, or the status quo. The UN Security Council has urged the two sides to reach a mutually acceptable solution that provides self-determination for the people of Western Sahara.


Central Intelligence Agency. The World Factbook.

Mydans, Seth, and Tim Johnston. "President of East Timor Wounded in Rebel Attack." New York Times, February 11, 2008.

"The U.N. Struggles to Implement International Colonization Agenda." Overseas Territories Report May 2007.

"In-depth Evaluation of Political Affairs: Decolonization and Question of Palestine." United Nations Office of Internal Oversight Services, March 28, 2007.

Chambers, Sam. "Tokelau Again Decides in Close Vote to Stay Under NZ's Colonial Umbrella." New Zealand Herald, October 26, 2007.

Last updated: June 26, 2008

I found Karen E. Lange’s article about last colonies very interesting, but one missing situation, at least from my knowledge, is the illegal occupation of Olivença's territory (Portuguese) by Spain. A little history?
After the 1801 war between Portugal and Spain, the Portuguese signed the Treaty of Badajoz, ceding the town of Olivença (Olivenza in Spanish) to Spain. But in 1808 Portugal repudiated the treaty—and has been trying to get the town back ever since. Spain has refused to relinquish it, and it remains part of Extremadura.
What about other possessions like Puerto Rico, French Polynesia, French Guiana, the Canary Islands, Greenland, Wallis and Futuna, etc.? Why doesn’t the UN give them the same status as the other 16 listed?
Our story included only the list of 16 "non-self-governing territories" designated by the UN General Assembly. Many other places -- though they may well fit a more general definition of a colony -- do have some form of self-government, and so do not appear on the UN list. You may find this brochure from the UN useful. [LINK TO:] And this one. [LINK TO:] A little additional history: When Puerto Rico became a "commonwealth" of the U.S. in the 1950s, the UN removed it from the list of colonies, though it has been discussed by the UN's decolonization committee every year since 1972. Many Puerto Ricans regret being removed from the list, because they feel Puerto Rico has been treated as a colony and because they’d prefer to be independent. The UN removed French Guiana from the list of colonies after it became an official department of France, in 1946. Another reader wrote in to ask why Tibet hadn't been included on our list, and the answer is that although Tibet was autonomous for much of the first half of the 20th century, it is now officially part of the People's Republic of China. Yet another reader asked if anything could be done to pressure countries to grant their colonies independence. The UN handles these matters with the cooperation of the countries that are immediately involved as well as the people of the colony. The countries that control a territory aren’t always reluctant to relinquish that control, but self-determination is a complex process that may require consensus and can therefore take decades. Moreover, not everyone in a territory may see independence as desirable. -- David Wooddell, GeoPedia editor
Why was the British Indian Ocean Territory not included in the "colonies" list? Is it because the permanent population is decreed to be zero?
By 1971 the British had forced all of the original inhabitants of the islands in the British Indian Ocean Territory to move to Mauritius and the Seychelles (and only retroactively granted them U.K. citizenship). Today the only inhabited island is Diego Garcia, a major military base that's now leased to the U.S. The former residents want to return, but the presence of the base has complicated matters. -- David Wooddell, GeoPedia editor