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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

Pakistan suspended from the Commonwealth Flag of Pakistan

22 November 2007

Pakistan was suspended from the Commonwealth, following a decision of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG), 22 November 2007 in Kampala, Uganda. The decision follows CMAG’s statement of 12 November to suspend Pakistan if it failed to fulfil its obligations in accordance with Commonwealth principles.

Nigeria's suspension from membership of the Commonwealth lifted Flag of Nigeria

29 May 1999

"The Commonwealth rejoices with the Nigerian people as they enter this new era. This fresh start is a victory for democracy, a victory for Nigeria - and a victory for a fundamental principle of the Commonwealth." - Commonwealth Secretary-General Chief Emeka Anyaoku

Commonwealth celebrates 50 years as a modern international association

26 April 1999

26 April 1999 marked the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of London where leaders agreed that Commonwealth members are “free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations, freely co-operating in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress”

Fiji rejoins the Commonwealth Flag of Fiji

1 October 1997

"The Commonwealth responded warmly to the wish of the people of Fiji that their country resume its membership of the Commonwealth now that a new constitution has been approved which enjoys national consensus and which conforms with the Commonwealth's Harare principles." - Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku

Nigeria suspended from the Commonwealth Flag of Nigeria

12 November 1995

Military ruled Nigeria suspended from the Commonwealth after a 'serious violation of the principles set out in the Harare Declaration', including the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and ten others.

Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) established Image of a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) meeting

12 November 1995

Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) set up by Commonwealth Heads of Government in New Zealand to "deal with persistent and serious violators of the Commonwealth's shared principles".

South Africa rejoins the Commonwealth Image of ANC President Nelson Mandela with Michael Manley, ex-Prime Minister of Jamaica and leader of the Commonwealth Observer Group (COG) to the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa in 1994.

1 June 1994

South Africa rejoins The Commonwealth following the end of apartheid. 

“The Commonwealth was proud to have been so closely associated with the cause of ending apartheid, for which Nelson Mandela sacrificed so many years of his life in prison. South Africa’s return to the Commonwealth family - under Mr Mandela’s leadership in 1994 - was a moment of joy and vindication, and one which has greatly enriched our association" - Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma in a speech that marked the 20 year anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from incarceration.

Harare Commonwealth Declaration Image of group photo of Commonwealth Heads of Government at their summit in Harare, Zimbabwe

20 October 1991

The Harare Commonwealth Declaration sets the association's priorities for the 1990's and beyond. Strengthened emphasis on Commonwealth contribution to democracy, human rights and equality.

Emeka Anyaoku becomes the third Commonwealth Secretary-General Chief Emeka Anyaoku sitting at a desk doing paperwork

1 January 1990

Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria served as Commonwealth Secretary-General from 1990 to 2000.

Pakistan rejoins the Commonwealth Image of Pakistan flag

1 January 1989

Pakistan rejoins the Commonwealth after an absence of 17 years.