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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, Mini Summit, 2008 Eleven men in business wear, five sitting and the other six standing behind them

9 June 2008

Heads met in London from 9-10 June 2008, and then again In New York on 24 September 2008. Concerned that the "current architecture of international institutions no longer responds adequately to the challenges of the twenty-first century." They aimed to "identify underlying principles and the actions that should be taken, as a global priority, to achieve reform of international institutions and lead to new institutions where necessary."

Read the Marlborough House Statement on Reform of International Institutions

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Mini Summit, London, United Kingdom, 3-5 August, 1986 Eminent Persons Meeting, Marlborough House, London 1986

3 August 1986

The leaders of seven Commonwealth member countries gathered to consider the report of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group, Mission to South Africa. They concluded that "There has not been the adequate concrete progress that we looked for.” And agreed a programme of economic sanctions against apartheid-era South Africa. 

 

Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform established Commonwealth Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform logo

1 January 2016

The Commonwealth Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform (OCCJR) supports Commonwealth countries in delivering access to justice and sustainable development through the creation of fair and effective national laws. The Office makes available good legislation practice from across the Commonwealth through model laws, standards, templates, legal insight, and legal networks. It delivers technical assistance to member countries based on these resources. The Office is informed by a high-level panel of distinguished Commonwealth legal experts.

Countering violent extremism unit established People marching in a demonstration with signs and placards

1 January 2017

In line with the mandate given by leaders at their Malta summit, a dedicated unit was established within the Commonwealth Secretariat in 2017 to support national strategies to counter violent extremism (CVE). Its programme work leverages decades of experience in supporting governments – for example in strengthening the rule of law, human rights and youth empowerment – while drawing on the shared values, cultural and regional diversity of the Commonwealth.

Commonwealth Hub launched

9 June 2016

Launched by Her Majesty The Queen the Commonwealth Hub brings Commonwealth organisations together in the same location to create a collaborative, dynamic and innovative way of working. The three Commonwealth organisations moving to the new combined centre of Commonwealth activity are the Commonwealth Games Federation, the Royal Commonwealth Society and the Commonwealth Local Government Forum. They join the Commonwealth Secretariat, Commonwealth Foundation, Commonwealth Association of Tax Administrators and the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council.

Commonwealth Day, 2009 - Commonwealth @ 60. Serving a New Generation Commonwealth Day 2009 theme, Commonwealth at 60. Serving a New Generation

9 March 2009

9 March 2009 In his Commonwealth Day message Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that "the essence of a team is that – like the Commonwealth – its members know the advantage of working together and the strength of mutual support. The essence of a team also is that – like the Commonwealth – it has shared aspirations and a sense of common purpose, and relies on the range of contributions and different strengths of each of its members. The essence of a successful team – such as the Commonwealth – is that together it achieves more than the sum of its parts."

Commonwealth Day, 2010 - Science, Technology and Society Commonwealth Day 2010 theme, Science, Technology and Society

8 March 2010

8 March 2010 In his Commonwealth Day message Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that "In the Commonwealth, we place great emphasis on ensuring that progress embraces all. We build and maintain partnerships and networks, so that people can come together to learn from and share with each other, and profit from this collectively. It is well recognised that science and technology are integral to our future as a global community, and that future possibilities are beyond our present imagining. Science and Technology only fulfil their promise when they serve Society."

Commonwealth Day, 2011 - Women as Agents of Change Commonwealth Day 2011 theme, Women as Agents of Change

14 March 2011

14 March 2011 In his Commonwealth Day message Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that "Women are the barometers of society: they are an indication of its internal pressure levels, and their fortunes can be the clearest forecasts of good or bad things to come. Where women prosper, societies prosper; and where women suffer, so too do the societies in which they live. By investing in women and girls, we have seen that we can accelerate social, economic and political progress."

Commonwealth Day, 2012 - Connecting Cultures Commonwealth Day 2012 theme, Connecting Cultures

12 March 2012

12 March 2012 In his Commonwealth Day message Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that " 'Connecting Cultures’ is about appreciating and celebrating these ways in which others live their lives and express themselves. And it is about much more than that too. It is about exploring how we can bring cultures together, how we can connect them in order to learn, to deepen the appreciation we have of one another. ‘Connecting Cultures’ encourages us to explore how we can use culture to build bridges of exchange and understanding."

Commonwealth Day, 2013 - Opportunity Through Enterprise Commonwealth Day 2013 theme, Opportunity Through Enterprise

11 March 2013

11 March 2013 In his Commonwealth Day message Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma said that "The Commonwealth is a unique enterprise. As a family of 54 independent nations, we unite around shared values and principles. We work together to open up new prospects for individuals and communities, and through national, regional, and international endeavour."

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