The 1960s were a monumental decade for the people of the African continent, who saw the status quo of colonial rule by European powers, in place in most areas for three quarters of a century, dramatically disrupted. The most dramatic single year was 1960. During that year, Ghana abolished the monarchy and became a republic; South Africa saw the devastating Sharpeville massacre and the beginning of the anti-apartheid movement; and a full 17 countries gained their independence.
The CIA, a prolific publisher of maps from its inception in the 1940s, produced a series of maps titled Africa administrative divisions. This series captures the changing political status of a large number of African countries in visual format. Countries or regions are colored and shaded depending on the nation which held sovereignty over them, be it themselves, a European power, or in a few cases, another African nation.
Prior to 1959, the CIA’s Africa administrative divisions maps included a simple year in their title; beginning in 1959 and reflecting the rapid changes occurring across the continent, a month was added to the title, and multiple maps were published per year. This pattern continued through the 1960s.
This Africa administrative divisions map issued in March of 1959 shows the presence of six European nations on the African continent, holding lands designated either “Colony, Protectorate, Etc.” or “Trust Territory.” It is a testament of colonialism in vibrant color.
One country, South-West Africa, is ruled as a “Mandate” by the Union of South Africa, which itself is labeled as an independent country, along with a handful of others. Most of these had become independent only in the 1950s, though a few – Ethiopia, Liberia, and the Union of South Africa – had longer histories as sovereign nations.
The excitement of 1960 began on the very first day of the year, when Cameroon gained its independence from France. This CIA map dated February 1960 marks it as independent.
In the map’s lower left corner, the key has grown more complex. In March 1959 it had 11 possible designations; in February 1960 that number has risen to 17 and includes “Projected independence – 1960” and “Independence under negotiation.”
By July 1960, just five months later, the pace of change has quickened. Five more countries are now marked “independent,” most of them from France: the Federation of Mali, Togo, and the Malagasy Republic. The center of the map is dominated by the Republic of the Congo, labeled “Belgian Congo” on the February map. In the Horn of Africa, the independent Somali Republic has been formed from a union of British Somaliland and the Italian Trust Territory of Somalia; Italy has disappeared from the map’s key.
The northern half of this next map, dated September 1960, is the most visibly changed. The French presence in north, west, and central Africa that was so pronounced prior to 1960 has all but vanished, save for Mauritania (“Projected independence – 1960”) and Algeria. Algeria was one of France’s oldest colonies in Africa, and in 1960 was fighting a fierce war for independence, which would not come for two more years.
The last Africa administrative divisions map published in 1960 shows that the tide of independence continued its sweep across the continent through the very last month of the year (and indeed through most of the 1960s). Mauritania and Nigeria have achieved independence, and Sierra Leone is projected to join them in 1961. The colonial presence remains strongest in southern Africa and in maritime regions – islands and coastal areas – where European settlements were typically established first.
Looking at one more map in the Africa administrative divisions series, dated May 1961, we can see that the pace of change has slowed: only Sierra Leone has joined the ranks of independent nations since December 1960. Perhaps that fact puts into stark perspective how extraordinary 1960 was.
In May 1961, the map is dominated by independent countries, both new and old. France retains a toehold in the form of Algeria, Djibouti, and the Comoro Islands, as well as the island of Réunion, a French possession to this day. Similarly, Belgium’s presence is limited to Ruanda-Urundi, which would become independent Rwanda and Burundi in 1962.
Notable too are the names which have changed from the 1959 CIA map, and those which have changed since. By 1961, Soudan has become Mali, named after the medieval West African empire. Many more names, of both countries and their capitals, would change in the following decades.
In a speech to the United Nations in October 1960, former Prime Minister and newly-elected President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah stated:
The flowing tide of African nationalism sweeps everything before it…Africa must be free.
Though it was also a year of violence, in South Africa and the Congo particularly, for many Africans, 1960 was the year in which that freedom was achieved.