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Our history

The Commonwealth is one of the world’s oldest political associations of states. Its roots go back to the British Empire, when countries around the world were ruled by Britain.

The early Commonwealth

Over time different countries of the British Empire gained different levels of freedom from Britain. Semi-independent countries were called Dominions. Leaders of the Dominions attended conferences with Britain from 1887.

The 1926 Imperial Conference was attended by the leaders of Australia, Canada, India, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand and South Africa.

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.

Birth of the modern Commonwealth

The Dominions and other territories of the British Empire gradually became fully independent of the United Kingdom.

India became independent in 1947. India wanted to become a republic which didn't owe allegiance to the British king or queen, but it also wanted to stay a member of the Commonwealth.

At a Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting in London in 1949, the London Declaration said that republics and other countries could be part of the Commonwealth. The modern Commonwealth of Nations was born.

King George VI was the first Head of the Commonwealth, and Queen Elizabeth II became Head when he died. But the British king or queen is not automatically Head of the Commonwealth. Commonwealth member countries choose who becomes Head of the Commonwealth.

The modern Commonwealth

Since 1949 independent countries from Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and the Pacific have joined the Commonwealth. Membership today is based on free and equal voluntary co-operation.

The last 2 countries to join the Commonwealth - Rwanda and Mozambique - have no historical ties to the British Empire.

The Commonwealth Secretariat was created in 1965 as a central intergovermental organisation to manage the Commonwealth's work.

Commonwealth library and archive

The Commonwealth library and archives are available for historical research and study at Marlborough House in London.

Stories from the Commonwealth archive

Commonwealth Day, 2017 - A Peace-building Commonwealth Commonwealth Day 2017 theme, A Peace-building Commonwealth

13 March 2017

13 March 2017 "Deep-rooted and resilient, Commonwealth solidarity bears us up individually and collectively. It helps us in troubled and troubling times to make the world a safer place. That is why this year we are celebrating ‘A Peace-building Commonwealth". stated Secretary-General Patricia Scotland in her Commonwealth Day message.


First meeting of Commonwealth Youth Ministers

29 January 1973

29 January 1973, Lusaka, Zambia. Minister met to consider the creation of a Commonwealth Youth Programme. Commending them for their endorsement of the Programme Secretary-General Arnold Smith stated that "I believe that it will stand as a monument to the delegates' realistic appreciation that in mutual assistance and support across the frontiers of geography, race and persuasion lies the best hope for the future of mankind."

Commonwealth Ministers' Forum on Public Sector Development

26 October 2006

26 - 27 October 2006, Sydney, Australia. The aim of the Forum was to advance public sector development in the Commonwealth. Its focus was on modernising governance for integrated service delivery; renewing human resources for leadership development and on bridging the digital divide for networked government.

First Commonwealth Sports Ministers Meeting

24 July 2002

24 July 2002, Manchester, United Kingdom. Government ministers responsible for sport in the Commonwealth met on 24 July 2002 in Manchester on the eve of the XVIIth Commonwealth Games. Participants affirmed their commitment to the development of sport and sporting co-operation in three key areas: Anti-doping, social cohesion and women in sport.

First Commonwealth Foreign Ministers Meeting

14 September 2002

14 September 2002, New York, Unites States of America. Meeting at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, Secretary-General Don McKinnon stated that "with more than half of the Commonwealth's membership made up of small states, there was concern among foreign ministers about the increasing vulnerabilities of these countries and their ability to compete in the globalised world. The meeting provided a welcome opportunity to have these concerns heard and debated"

First Commonwealth Consultative Group of the Environment meeting

22 June 1993

22 June 1993, New York, Unites States of America. Following the first Earth Summit in Rio 1992, the Secretary-General convened the meeting of Environmental officials at Ministerial level to strengthen Commonwealth dialogue and cooperation on sustainable development and thereby contribute to effective follow up on the Summit recommendations.

First Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting

13 July 1985

13 July 1985, Nairobi, Kenya. Ministers considered means to empower national machineries and the bodies responsible for ensuring government policies and programmes addressed the needs of women, examined programme initiatives through the Commonwealth Secretariats Women's and Development Programme. In addressing Commonwealth Strategies to the Year 2000 they focused on Women and Credit, Violence Against Women and the importance of Women's Employment and Equal Opportunities to Development.

First Commonwealth Employment / Labour Ministers Meeting

1 June 1982

1 June 1982, Geneva, Switzerland. Meeting in Geneva in the wings of the International Labour Conference ministers discussed the effect of the world recession on employment, particularly its impact on young people and women who were disproportionately affected.

First Commonwealth Senior Officials Meeting

16 October 1972

16 - 19 October 1972, Ottawa, Canada. The meeting considered comparative techniques of government across the Commonwealth and tasked the Secretariat with establishing procedures for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings which would ensure 'flexibility, informality and the opportunity to engage in frank discussion of common problems, even from opposing standpoints.'

First Commonwealth Law Ministers Meeting

26 April 1966

26 April - 3 May 1966, London, United Kingdom. The meeting reviewed arrangements for the extradition of fugitive offenders within the Commonwealth and recommended the creation of a Legal Section within the Commonwealth Secretariat.