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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 of Learning established Image of Lord Asa Briggs with James Maraj, President of the Commonwealth of Learning (COL), and others

1 September 1988

Commonwealth governments sign a Memorandum of Understanding for the establishment of The Commonwealth of Learning on 1 September 1988. Set up in Canada, its purpose is to encourage the development and sharing of open learning/distance education knowledge, resources and technologies.

Fiji's membership of The Commonwealth lapses Image of the Fiji flag

15 October 1987

Fiji's membership of the Commonwealth lapses after it declares itself a republic following a military coup.

Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group visits Nelson Mandela Image of Nelson Mandela

16 March 1986

Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group visits Nelson Mandela in prison and sets out negotiating concept to end apartheid in South Africa peacefully.

Commonwealth Action Group on Cyprus Image of Commonwealth Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal with Spyros Kyprianou, President of Cyprus.

23 November 1983

Commonwealth Action Group on Cyprus set up to assist UN security council efforts to resolve Cyprus problem.

Commonwealth establishes 'Small States Office' in New York

1 July 1981

Commonwealth sets up a 'Small States Office' in New York, so that small states can take part in UN negotiations.

First election observation by Commonwealth Commonwealth Observers and a team from the Commonwealth Secretariat arrive in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe) to observe the first free elections in that country in 1980.

1 January 1980

Commonwealth group observes elections for the first time in newly independent Zimbabwe

Gleneagles Agreement starts apartheid South Africa's sporting isolation Image of UK Prime Minister James Callaghan and Commonwealth leaders relaxing at the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland in 1977

15 June 1977

Commonwealth Heads of Government issued the Gleneagles Agreement on apartheid sport at their summit in Gleneagles, Scotland on 15 June 1977.

Sir Shridath 'Sonny' Ramphal becomes the second Commonwealth Secretary-General Image of Sir Shridath Ramphal

1 June 1975

Sir Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal QC of Guyana served as Commonwealth Secretary-General from 1975 to 1990.

Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC) set up A CFTC expert with a female trainee in Zimbabwe, 1988

1 January 1971

Fund puts the skills of member countries at each others disposal