From Empire to Commonwealth

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How the Empire became the Commonwealth

After the loss of American colonies in 1783, British colonialism expanded around the whole globe, with India being the most cherished colony. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Cape Colony were settlement colonies while most of the other ones were used for trading, for example India, which was the most interesting trading company and purveyed spices, cotton and tea. Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and the Suez Canal were used as important strategic locations and all the colonies were under direct rule of Britain. The commonwealth gradually evolved out of this imperial past, mainly through decolonisations, the effect of two world wars and changing patterns of international relations. The modern Commonwealth has its roots in the 19th century and should help to advance democracy, human rights and tolerable economic and social development within its member countries. Nowadays, the Commonwealth’s 1.7 billion people in 54 countries make up 30% of the world’s population. In 1867, Canada became the first colony to be transformed into a self-governing Dominion. Australia became a Dominion in 1900, New Zealand in 1907, South Africa in 1910 and the Irish Free State in 1921.

What’s the meaning of Dominion?

Dominions are defined in the Balfour Report as:

… autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate  one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations. This definition later was adopted into British law ( in 1931 ) as the ‚Statute of Westminster‘.

The British Empire in 1900

In 1876, Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India, which was known as the most important colony, brought Britain great wealth, strategic advantage and was even called the ‚jewel in the crown of the Empire‘. Local Indian rulers could stay in their positions provided they were loyal to the viceroy.

The British Empire was at its largest and most powerful around 1920, when 25% of the world’s population lived under British rule. In addition to that, over a quarter of the land in the world belonged to Britain. It was said that it was an Empire ‚on which the sun never sets‘ , and the value of exports and imports was ₤970 million, which made Britain one of the greatest economic and political powers in the world.

Development of the Commonwealth after the Second World War

The Second World War changed the nature of the British Commonwealth, but also the face of the modern world forever. It marked the transitions of the Commonwealth to a multiracial association of sovereign and equal states. That process began with India’s and Pakistan’s independence in 1947. With India’s desire to become a republic yet remain in the Commonwealth, the principle of Commonwealth membership had to be rethought and the prime ministers of the Commonwealth decided in 1949 that India should be accepted as the Commonwealth’s first republican member. At the same time, the word ‚British‘ was dropped from the association’s title to reflect the new reality of the Commonwealth. In the following years ( 1950s and 1960s), the Commonwealth evolved as a natural association of choice for many new nations emerging out of decolonisations. In 1957, Ghana became independent and joined the Commonwealth as its first majority-ruled African member.

From 1960 onwards, the Commonwealth expanded rapidly with new members from Africa, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific. Today, 33 members are republicans and five have national monarchies of their own ( Brunei Darussalam, Lesotho, Malaysia, Swaziland and Tonga). On top of that, sixteen members  have constitutional monarchies and recognize Queen Elizabeth 2. as their Head of State. But all of the members accept the Queen as the Head of the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth’s opposition to all forms of racism, and especially apartheid, led to the withdrawal of South Africa in 1961, which rejoined the association after the end of the apartheid in 1994. In 1965, the Commonwealth leaders established the Commonwealth Secretariat in London to be the association’s own independent civil service, headed by the Commonwealth Secretary General.



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