How the Commonwealth arose from a crumbling British Empire (2023)

In December 1966, Errol Barrow stood before the United Nations as the first prime minister of a newly independent Barbados. In his speech before the body, which had just admitted Barbados as a member, Barrow famously declared, “We will be friends of all, satellites to none.”

In the 55 years since, Barbados has been among the former British territories to declare independence. While the country did part ways with Britain, it continued to pledge fealty to Queen Elizabeth II as a Commonwealth realm—one of 16 independent countries that recognise the British monarch as its head of state. For some, she’s the colonel-in-chief of their armed forces—and in all of them, she has the rarely exercised authority to sign off on their laws or diplomatic appointments.

But on November 30, Barbados will remove Queen Elizabeth as its head of state and become a republic. It’s a watershed moment for the Caribbean nation that will officially set its own course without consulting the monarch.

Yet still Barbados is not completely cutting its ties: The country remains a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, an organisation composed mainly of former British colonies and headed by the Queen. Member countries work together to protect the environment, boost trade, and support democracy through programs that help members manage their debts and natural resources, improve their economic competitiveness, and promote gender equality, among other initiatives.

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It might seem like a confusing distinction. So how do members of the Commonwealth differ from Commonwealth realms? And what role does the queen play in their affairs? Here’s a look at the evolution of the organisation that historian W. David McIntyre once described as “a loose association of states whose relationship with Britain and each other often defied definition.”

How the Commonwealth was formed

The Commonwealth of Nations was born out of the slow disintegration of the British Empire, which covered a fifth of the world’s land surface at its peak in the late 19th century. Its holdings spanned from Hong Kong to the Caribbean to a wide swath of southern and East Africa. Queen Victoria, whose reign was critical to consolidating the empire, became Empress of India in 1877.

But even as the empire expanded, some of its colonies grew frustrated with imperial oversight. In 1864 representatives from the three British colonies in modern-day Canada began to negotiate merging into one self-governing confederation. The territories—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Canada—feared possible aggression from the United States and wanted to establish their own defence forces. They also sought free trade with their southern neighbour.

Anxious not to stoke another revolution like the one it had lost nearly a century earlier, Britain agreed to its colonists’ terms in July 1867. But it didn’t give up control of the territory: Instead, a united Canada became a British dominion. The distinction meant Canada could rule itself but its laws would still be subject to British oversight—meaning they could be vetoed at the monarch’s discretion. In subsequent decades, other predominantly white British colonies became dominions too, including Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa, and the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland).

In the aftermath of World War I, however, rising nationalism in the dominions, which had fought alongside Britain, sparked a push for more than just self-governance. In 1926 Britain and the dominions agreed that they would all be equal in status, “united by a common allegiance to the Crown.” The declaration—formalised in 1931 with the Statute of Westminster—ushered in the official founding of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Toward a modern Commonwealth

But it would take about two more decades for the Commonwealth to evolve into its modern-day form—with a push from the independence movement in India. Although India was party to the 1926 talks, it didn’t sign on to the agreement that would have ensured its continued recognition of the British monarchy. Instead, a movement led by Mahatma Gandhi fought for full independence from colonial rule.

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India finally won its independence from Britain in 1947. But it wasn’t ready to split entirely. Two years later, the newly sovereign country asked to join the British Commonwealth of Nations—with a few conditions. While India would accept King George VI as head of the Commonwealth, it would be the first country to join that didn’t swear allegiance to the crown.

Then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered a speech before India’s parliament that explained the decision: “In the world today where there are so many disruptive forces at work, where we are often on the verge of war, I think it is not a safe thing to encourage the breaking up of any association that one has.”

The member nations agreed to those conditions, and in 1949 they issued the London Declaration, allowing India, Pakistan, and Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) to join “as free and equal members.” The declaration reformed the Commonwealth of Nations—one that would admit other independent nations without swearing allegiance to the crown.


Members of the Commonwealth

Today there are 54 members of the Commonwealth of Nations, which tackles initiatives related to trade, environmental protections, education, and more. Members have no obligations to one another but are united through their common values—and, for most, their shared histories as former British colonies.

Commonwealth membership has seen significant churn in the more than 70 years since it was formed. Ireland withdrew from the organisation in 1949 when it officially became a republic, while countries such as Fiji and Nigeria were suspended during periods of autocratic rule. Meanwhile, Mozambique and Rwanda became the only two countries without any historical ties to the British Empire to join the organisation, in 1995 and 2009 respectively. Both countries sought to take advantage of the diplomatic and economic ties that membership would bring.

Many other countries joined the Commonwealth after winning independence from Britain in the mid-to-late 20th century—including Barbados, Cyprus, and Singapore. Papua New Guinea joined after gaining independence from Australia, a former British dominion. Following India’s lead, most chose not to swear fealty to the British monarchy.

However, some members still do recognise the Queen. Known as the Commonwealth realms, these countries include Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, the United Kingdom—and until recently, Barbados.(Here’s why Queen Elizabeth’s portrait is still on the money of some former British colonies.)

The British monarch’s role in the Commonwealth

The British monarch is not automatically the head of the Commonwealth. Although Queen Elizabeth succeeded King George, the position is technically not hereditary but selected by member nations. In 2018, the organisation announced that Prince Charles will succeed his mother—but that may not hold true for future monarchs.

Either way, the role is symbolic. While a bureaucracy oversees the day-to-day work of the organisation, Queen Elizabeth’s role has mainly been to reinforce the bonds among member nations by embarking on regular royal tours.

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The monarch’s role is slightly different in the Commonwealth realms. Although they are not part of Britain—and they elect their own governments—these countries do still swear fealty to the British monarch. She is represented in the Commonwealth realms by governors-general, de facto heads of state who carry out ceremonial duties like approving legislation and appointing ministers, ambassadors, and judges.

Yet these roles too are largely ceremonial. Many countries select their own governor-general—who the queen then approves and appoints—and advise them on how to carry out their duties. But the Council on Foreign Relations notes that the governor-general does have the authority to override local governments in exceptional circumstances. In 1975, for instance, Australia’s governor-general John Kerr unilaterally dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to break a parliamentary deadlock, setting off a constitutional crisis.

Modern relevance

In recent years, some of the Commonwealth realms have begun to consider making a change—particularly in the former colonies in the Caribbean and Pacific where younger people view the Commonwealth as a colonial relic.

In the 1970s, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Dominica all dropped the queen as their head of state while remaining in the Commonwealth. Other countries followed but until Barbados made its decision to remove the queen as its head of state in late 2020, the last country to do so was Mauritius in 1992.

Some speculate that Barbados’ decision could signal a new wave of republican sentiment. Richard Drayton, a professor of imperial history at King’s College London, told the New York Times in 2020 that Barbados’ decision to remove the queen as its head of state “could be a tipping point” for other countries such as Jamaica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Meanwhile, even the former dominions have considered changing their relationship with the royal family. In a 1999 referendum, Australia very nearly did so with 45 percent of voters supporting removing the Queen as head of state. A February 2021 survey found that 55 percent of Canadians believe the British royal family is no longer relevant to their lives—and half said that the Queen should be removed as their head of state.

Yet even as countries debate these historic steps, their leaders echo the sentiments of Errol Barrow and Jawaharlal Nehru: In an increasingly globalised world, it’s critical to retain allies—even their former coloniser—through organisations like the Commonwealth of Nations.

“We look forward to continuing the relationship with the British monarch,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley said in an October address to Barbados Parliament members. Summarising the inspiration behind the move to separate from the queen, she added, “The right to be able to chart the destiny of a people and to stand up and to defend them against all the odds is a sacred right which we claim on behalf of our people and which we express now with absolute confidence that irrespective of the challenges, cognisant of the opportunities, conscious of the need for unity, that Barbados shall move forward on the first of December as the newest republic in the global community of nations.”


How did the British Empire turn into the Commonwealth? ›

At the 1926 conference Britain and the Dominions agreed that they were all equal members of a community within the British Empire. They all owed allegiance to the British king or queen, but the United Kingdom did not rule over them. This community was called the British Commonwealth of Nations or just the Commonwealth.

How did the Commonwealth evolve? ›

In the early 20th century, the once-mighty British Empire began to fall as its territories—including Canada, South Africa, and India—pushed for self-rule. Yet these nations maintained their ties as the British Commonwealth of Nations, now simply the Commonwealth of Nations.

What happened to the British Commonwealth? ›

After the Second World War ended, the British Empire was gradually dismantled. Most of its components have become independent countries, whether Commonwealth realms or republics, and members of the Commonwealth.

Did the Commonwealth replace the British Empire? ›

About the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 54 independent countries, almost all of which were formerly under British rule. The origins of the Commonwealth come from Britain's former Empire.

What was the reason for the formation of Commonwealth? ›

The Commonwealth of Nations was formed in 1949 to maintain an association between countries that had once been part of the British colonies, but which were considered 'free and equal'. Commonwealth countries span the globe and, with a combined population of 2.5 billion, include almost a third of the world's population.

Why was Commonwealth formed? ›

History of the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth was born out of an attempt by Queen Victoria to maintain control over the colonies as movements for independence grew stronger.

When was the British Commonwealth formed? ›

How has the Commonwealth changed over history? ›

The Commonwealth used to be an organisation linking all of the British Empire colonies. But as more nations gained their independence, the role of the Commonwealth changed and morphed into what is now a group of countries with a shared history who work together on trade, the environment and human rights.

What happened to the Commonwealth period? ›

The Commonwealth ended when the U.S. recognized Philippine independence on July 4, 1946, as scheduled.

How many Commonwealth countries got independence from British? ›

In 1939, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand were the first to be given independence within the Commonwealth. Since then a total of 62 countries have gained independence from the United Kingdom.

Does Britain lead the Commonwealth? ›

The British monarch is head of the Commonwealth. In some Commonwealth countries, such as the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, the monarch symbolically holds the highest office as head of state.

What is the difference between Commonwealth and British Empire? ›

The British Empire does not exist today. However, the Commonwealth is a free association of sovereign states comprising the United Kingdom and many of its former dependencies that acknowledge the British monarch as the association's symbolic head.

Which country just left the British Commonwealth? ›

In 2021, Barbados announced it would be the latest country to remove the British head of state and become a republic.

Why America is not part of Commonwealth? ›

The Commonwealth is a group of 54 nations that were once part of the British Empire. The US became independent from the UK in 1776, after 13 American colonies broke away and declared themselves a republic, refusing to recognise the British monarch as their head of state.

What is the Commonwealth and its purpose? ›

The Commonwealth is an association of 56 countries working towards shared goals of prosperity, democracy and peace. The Commonwealth Secretariat is the intergovernmental organisation which co-ordinates and carries out much of the Commonwealth's work, supported by a network of more than 80 organisations.

Why is the Commonwealth so important? ›

The simple answer is self-interest. The Commonwealth amplifies the voice of African nations, providing it with an additional means of lobbying major donors and diplomatic players like the UK, India and Canada. It also provides a potential framework for resolving disputes between African members.

What was the first country to join the Commonwealth? ›

Known as the "British Commonwealth", the original and therefore earliest members were the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Irish Free State, and Newfoundland.

Why is it called a Commonwealth? ›

Legally, Massachusetts is a commonwealth because the term is contained in the Constitution. In the era leading to 1780, a popular term for a whole body of people constituting a nation or state (also known as the body politic) was the word "Commonwealth." This term was the preferred usage of some political writers.

Who established the Commonwealth? ›

Commonwealth of Nations

When was the Commonwealth government restored? ›

Statement: President Osmeña on the First Anniversary of the Restoration of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, February 27, 1946. One year ago today, the Commonwealth Government was reestablished in this our capital city.

How has the Commonwealth changed under the Queen's reign? ›

The Commonwealth changed significantly during The Queen's reign, with a number of realms becoming independent. Her Majesty and other members of the Royal Family often attended independence events marking the transition from realm to republic.

What is the summary of Commonwealth era? ›

The Commonwealth was the culmination of efforts to secure a definitive timetable for the withdrawal of American sovereignty over the Philippines. It was not until the Jones Law of 1916 that the pledge of eventual independence—once Filipinos were ready for self-governance—was made.

When did the Commonwealth start and end? ›

The Commonwealth was the political structure during the period from 1649 to 1660 when England and Wales, later along with Ireland and Scotland, were governed as a republic after the end of the Second English Civil War and the trial and execution of Charles I.

Why did the Commonwealth end? ›

Attempts to have Richard take over from Oliver Cromwell fell foul of the loyalty of the army. It would not be too long before feelers were put out to Charles II to return to England as a stabilising factor and so end the short lived period of the Commonwealth.

What factors led to the fall of the British Empire? ›

The Empire was overstretched and - combined with growing unrest in various colonies - this led to the swift and decisive fall of many of Britain's key assets, some diplomatically, some violently. In 1947 India became independent following a nonviolent civil-disobedience campaign spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi.

Why did Britain give up colonies? ›

In Africa, Britain reluctantly granted independence to its colonial possessions in face of the perceived threat of a Soviet-backed communist subversion of the Continent. In the Middle East, Britain was usurped from its last remaining (and so vital) strategic hub by the compulsion of economic crisis.

Do Commonwealth countries have British citizenship? ›

All citizens of Commonwealth countries were collectively referred to as 'British subjects' until January 1983. However, this was not an official status for most of them. Since 1983, very few people have qualified as British subjects.

Why do countries stay in the British Commonwealth? ›

Commonwealth member countries benefit from being part of a mutually supportive community of independent and sovereign states, aided by more than 80 Commonwealth organisations. The Commonwealth Secretariat, established in 1965, supports Commonwealth member countries to achieve development, democracy and peace.

Are all Commonwealth countries ruled by Queen Elizabeth? ›

16 nations in The Commonwealth share Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State, although each of these nations are governed separately.

Why China is not a Commonwealth country? ›

Q: Why China is not part of the Commonwealth Games? A: As China was never a part of the British Colonization thus it is not a Commonwealth of Nations.

Could the US join the Commonwealth? ›

Could the US join the Commonwealth? Actually yes, as membership isn't based on being a former British possession. The US could apply for membership the same as any other country, and indeed of the 54 members (at the time of writing) at least two were never British Possessions.

What will happen to the Commonwealth when the Queen dies? ›

Charles assumes the ceremonial role as head of the Commonwealth as both the U.K. and the other 55 member states are increasingly reexamining the colonial roots of the organization.

What is the only US Commonwealth? ›

There are four states in the United States that call themselves commonwealths: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The distinction is in name alone. The commonwealths are just like any other state in their politics and laws, and there is no difference in their relationship to the nation as a whole.

What are the 7 Commonwealth states? ›

Which states are commonwealths? Four US states are technically designated as commonwealths: Pennsylvania (admitted to the union December 12, 1787), Massachusetts (February 6, 1788), Virginia (June 25, 1788), and Kentucky (June 1, 1792).

What country is really a Commonwealth of the United States? ›

Commonwealth is a term used by two unincorporated territories of the United States in their full official names, which are the Northern Mariana Islands, whose full name is Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico, which is named Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in English and Estado Libre Asociado de ...

When did the British Empire end and the Commonwealth begin? ›

Also Known AsBritish Empire and Commonwealth
Date1601 - 1997

When was British Commonwealth formed? ›

How did the Queen became head of the Commonwealth? ›

In February 1952 Elizabeth II acceded to the throne following the death of her father, George VI. While the role of Head of the Commonwealth is not a hereditary one, she also assumed the position.

What was the last country to leave the British Commonwealth? ›

In 2021, Barbados announced it would be the latest country to remove the British head of state and become a republic.

Are Commonwealth countries part of the British Empire? ›

The Commonwealth is an association of countries across the world. Although historically connected to the British Empire, any country can apply to be a member of the Commonwealth, regardless of its intersection with Britain's colonial past. The Commonwealth consists of 54 countries, including the United Kingdom.

Why is US not part of Commonwealth? ›

The Commonwealth is a group of 54 nations that were once part of the British Empire. The US became independent from the UK in 1776, after 13 American colonies broke away and declared themselves a republic, refusing to recognise the British monarch as their head of state.

Does the Queen own land in America? ›

As one might imagine, the monarchy held properties around the globe. A lesser-known holding was in Bolivar County, Mississippi. As of 1968, the Queen through investment in the British textile company Courtaulds owned an interest in a 38,000-acre cotton plantation in Mississippi.

How many countries have left the British Commonwealth? ›

Some countries did not gain their independence on a single date, therefore the latest day of independence is shown with a break down of dates further down. A total of 65 countries have claimed their independence from British Empire or The United Kingdom.


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