protectorate, in international law, a relationship in which one state surrenders part of its sovereignty to another. The subordinate state is called a protectorate. The term covers a great variety of relations, but typically the protected state gives up all or part of its control over foreign affairs while retaining a large measure of independence in internal matters. The relation may originate when the dominant power threatens or uses force or when the subordinate sees advantages (usually military protection) in the arrangement. A protectorate is distinguishable from the relation of home country and colony, for the protected state retains its sovereignty (though often only nominally), its territory remains distinct from that of the protector, and its citizens do not become nationals of the protecting state. Initially, in most cases, the extent to which the dominant state may interfere in local affairs is governed by treaty; but since a protected state usually has no access to diplomatic channels, it is in a poor position to resist attempts at increased control. Protectorates in connection with large empires probably have existed from earliest times, and there are known instances in Greek and Roman history. In World War I, Great Britain made Egypt a protectorate. Before the abrogation (1934) of the Platt Amendment, Cuba was essentially a protectorate of the United States. Today no state formally has the status of a protectorate, but several quasi-protectorates do exist, including the Cook Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Niue. The former trust territories of the United Nations (see trusteeship, territorial) were distinguished from protectorates in that they were being prepared for ultimate independence and that the control of the dominant state was subject to scrutiny by the UN Trusteeship Council.

In international law, a protectorate is a autonomous territory that is "protected" by a stronger state or entity, hense the protector, which engages to protect it (diplomatically or, if needed, militarily) against third parties, in exchange for which the protectorate usually accepts state, however, it retains sufficient measure of sovereignty and remains a state under international law.


Amical protection

In the case of so-called amical protection, mainly extended by the great powers to fellow Christian (generally European) states and tiny ones without significant intrinsic importance, the terms may often be very favorable for the protectorate. The political interest of the protector is often moral (a matter of image, prestige, ideology, internal popularity, dynastic, historical or ethno-cultural ties, etc.), and/or countering a rival or enemy power (e.g. preventing the Ottoman Empire from maintaining or obtaining control of areas of strategic importance). This may involve a very weak protectorate surrendering control of its external relations, which may not constitute any real sacrifice, since the protectorate may not have been able to have similar use of them without the protector's strength.

In the same historical time frame (post-1815), non-Christian state (Manchurian Qing dynasty, see below) may also provide amical protection towards other much weaker states, and the terms are also very favorable for the protectorate. The political interest of the protector is often moral (e.g. prestige, the image of "God approved Great Empire" in Chinese words 天朝大國), and/or countering a rival or enemy power.

Colonial protection

Conditions are often much less generous for areas of colonial protection. Here the protectorate was often reduced to a de facto condition rather similar to a colony, but using the pre-existing native state as an agent of indirect rule. Sometimes a protectorate was even established by and/or exercised by the other form of indirect rule: a chartered company, which truly becomes a de facto state 'in' its European home state (but geographically overseas), allowed to be an independent country which has its own foreign policy and generally its own armed forces.

In fact, protectorates were declared despite not being duly entered into by the traditional states supposedly being protected, or only by a party of dubious authority in those states. Colonial protectors frequently decided on their own to reshuffle several protectorates into a new, artificial unit, a logic disrespectful of the theoretical duty of a protector to help maintain the protectorate's status and integrity. The Berlin agreement of February 26, 1895 actually stipulated that the colonial powers could declare in Black Africa (the last region to be divided among them) protectorates that could be established by diplomatic notification, even without actual possession on the ground. A similar case is the formal use of such terms as 'colony' and protectorate for an amalgamation, convenient only for the colonizer/protector, of geographically proximious territories over which it held (de facto) sway by protective or 'raw' colonial logic.

Foreign relations

In practice, a protectorate often has direct foreign relations only with the protecting power, so other states must deal with it by approaching the protector. Similarly, the protectorate rarely takes military action on its own, but relies on the protector for its defence. This is distinct from annexation, in that the protector has no formal power to control the internal affairs of the protectorate.

Protectorates differ from League of Nations Mandates, and similar United Nations Trust Territories, which gave in practice similar authority to "responsible" Western powers or Japan in various areas of the non-European world over former colonial possessions (including protectorates) of the losers in World Wars I and II, since a protectorate formally enters into the protection itself, while the international mandates are imposed upon them by the world community-representing body.

British and Commonwealth protectorates

In English law, protection is an established term for the duty of a sovereign to keep the subject safe from harm, including harm done by the sovereign; the subject has a corresponding duty of allegiance and obedience. In 1775, George III declared the thirteen colonies "out of his protection" for their disobedience — almost equivalent to a declaration of war.

When the British took over Cephallenia in 1809, they proclaimed that "We present ourselves to you, Inhabitants of Cephalonia, not as Invaders, with views of conquest, but as Allies who hold forth to you the advantages of British protection." When the British continued to occupy the Ionian Islands after the Napoleonic wars, they did not formally annex the islands, but described them as a protectorate. The islands were constituted by the Treaty of Paris in 1815 as the independent United States of the Ionian Islands under British protection.

Other British protectorates followed. In 1894, Prime Minister William Gladstone's government officially announced that Uganda was to become a British Protectorate, where Muslim and Christian strife had attracted international attention. The British administration installed carefully selected local kings under a program of indirect rule through the local oligarchy, creating a network of British-controlled civil service. Most British protectorates were overseen by a Commissioner or a High Commissioner, rather than a Governor.

British law makes a distinction between a protectorate and protected state. Constitutionally the two are of similar status where Britain provides controlled defence and external relations. However, a protectorate has an internal government established, while a protected state establishes a form of local internal self-government based on the already existing one.

Persons connected with former British protectorates, protected states, mandated or trust territories may still be British protected persons if they did not acquire the nationality of their country at independence.

Other cases include:


Arab World

South and South East Asia

Subsaharan Africa




The German Empire (Second Reich) used the word "Schutzgebiet", literally protectorate, for its true colonies as well until they were lost during World War I. Cases involving indirect rule included;

In the Pacific:

In Africa:

Besides these colonial uses, within Europe the Nazi Third Reich established:

French protectorates

  • Saar (1947-1956), not colonial or amical, but a former part of Germany that would by referendum return to it, in fact a re-edition of a former League of Nations mandate. Most French protectorates were colonial:


Arab World and Madagascar

Sub-saharan Africa

The legal regime of "protecton" was the formal legal structure under which French colonial forces expanded in Africa between the 1830s and 1900. Almost every pre-existing state in the area later covered by French West Africa was placed under protectorate status at some point, although direct rule gradually replaced protectorate agreements. Formal ruling structures, or fictive recreations of them, were largely retained as the lowest level authority figure in the French Cercles, with leaders appointed and removed by French officials.



In Europe:

In the colonial empire:

  • Ethiopia: the 2 May 1889 Treaty of Wuchale, in the Italian language version, stated that Ethiopia was to become an Italian protectorate, while the Ethiopian Amharic language version merely stated that the Emperor could, if he so chose, go through Italy to conduct foreign affairs. When the differences in the versions came to light, Emperor Menelik II abrogated first the article in question (XVII), and later the whole treaty. The event culminated in the First Italo-Ethiopian War, in which Ethiopia was victorious and defended her sovereignty in 1896.
  • Libya: on 15 October 1912 Italian protectorate declared over Cirenaica (Cyrenaica) until 17 May 1919.
  • Somalia: 3 August 1889 Benadir Coast Italian Protectorate (in the north east; unoccupied until May 1893), until 16 March 1905 when it changed to the Italian Somalia (Italian Somaliland) colony.
    • Majerteen or Harti sultanate since 7 April 1889 under Italian protectorate (renewed 7 Apr 1895), then in 1927 incorporated into the Italian colony.
    • Sultanate of Hobyo (formerly the Hiraab Imamate until its conquest by a Majerteen warlord) since Dec 1888 under Italian protectorate (renewed 11 Apr 1895), then in Oct 1925 incorporated into the Italian colony (known as Obbia).



Qing Empire provided several amical or colonial protections to:

  • Joseon Dynasty (1637-1895, Korean Empire declared independence by 1897). Trade with foreign state is severely affected under the protection.
  • Ryūkyū Kingdom (1644-1876, At 1876 Ryūkyū Kingdom ceased all diplomatic relation with Qing Empire)
  • Tibet (1724-1904)



  • Morocco 27 November 1912 - 7 April 1956 the so-called Spanish Zone (de jure joint protectorate but de facto most of the sultanate was under French protection).
  • Mauritania: Adrar emirate since 1886 under Spanish protectorate till 9 January 1909, then a French protectorate.

Joint protectorates

United Nations

Contemporary usage by the United States

Some agencies of the United States government, such as the United States Environmental Protection Agency, still use the term protectorate to refer to insular areas of the United States such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, as were the Philippines and (it can be argued via the Platt Amendment) Cuba at the end of Spanish colonial rule. However, the agency responsible for the administration of those areas, the Office of Insular Affairs (OIA) within the United States Department of Interior exclusively uses the term "insular area" rather than protectorate.

Sources and references


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