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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 Heads of Government Meeting, Valletta, Malta, 25-27 November, 2005 2005 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta logo

25 November 2005

Theme: Networking the Commonwealth for Development

Declarations and Statements

  • Valletta Statement on Multilateral Trade
  • Malta Declaration on Networking the Commonwealth
  • for Development
  • Gozo Statement on Vulnerable Small States
  • The Malta Communiqué

Marlborough House becomes Commonwealth centre Image of Marlborough House, its garden and Commonwealth flags. Copyright: Commonwealth Secretariat

1 September 1959

Head of the Commonwealth HM Queen Elizabeth II places Marlborough House in London, UK, at the disposal of the British Government as a Commonwealth centre.

Zimbabwe withdraws from the Commonwealth

4 May 2003

Following the CHOGM Statement on Zimbabwe, the Government of Zimbabwe withdrew from the Commonwealth.

Zimbabwe is suspended from the councils of the Commonwealth

4 March 2002

Zimbabwe, which had been a member since independence in April 1980, is suspended from Commonwealth councils in March 2002, following the presidential election, which was marred by a high level of politically motivated violence and during which the conditions did not adequately allow for a free expression of will by the electors.

Pakistan suspension lifted Flag of Pakistan

3 March 2004

Pakistan's suspension from the councils of the Commonwealth in 1999 is lifted.