Monday , June 17 2024

The Commonwealth – Past, Present and Future
 – Article Three: History Part 2: 1815-1898

In this, the third article of the series on the Commonwealth, we will discover how the grow of the British Empire following the victory in the Napoleonic Wars shaped and folded what would become the Commonwealth. Key to this was the development of a national feeling in many of the ‘Settler-Colonies’ (Australia, Canada, New Zealand & South Africa), but a close attachment to the UK as well. This ‘dual-nationality’ would form the foundation of the Commonwealth.

In 1815, the British Empire stretched across the world, the largest overseas empire to date. Yet while the Empire would grow, a series of issues, crises and events would trigger self-determination in many of the colonies. A whole new system and way of operating an Empire would develop. This time also saw the beginning of the idea of the Commonwealth, as moral norms developed in relation to Empire. Irish Home Rule, and the concept of Self-Government became increasingly popular, and this created the concept of Imperial Federation, which was to grant colonies ‘Dominion’ status, and then accept them as equals in a new Federal State.

This period arguably saw the hight of imperial power, yet the writing was on the wall in many cases, and time would lead to a crossroads: greater self-rule or rebellion. Self-rule, or as it was officially known – ‘Responsible Government’ solved the issue of colonies wishing to have a say in their own matters. It did, however, create a system that was feared would led to the dissolution of the empire by stealth. Because of this, during this time period, both the settler-colonies and colonial power (the UK) desired a further solution to this potential problem. The Imperial Federation League proposed a single government with devolved powers, somewhat similar to the ‘Devo-Max’ of the Scottish ‘independence’ referendum. This, however, was turned down by many of the colonies with responsible government, especially in Australia and New Zealand, who saw is as a threat to their self-governing.


The first event that would cause this were the Canadian Rebellions of 1837. Although the British had won the War of 1812, it could not stamp out the idea of republicanism or self-government, but not for want of trying. Both Upper (Ontario) and Lower (Quebec) Canadas had revolts over the issue of self-government and republicanism. Again, as in the thirteen colonies, republicanism developed after the Colonial Office refused to listen to requests and demands for self-government.

Precisely what all the rebels wanted is still a matter of debate. The government in both Canadas were undemocratic, elitist and anti-American. In Lower Canada, the Roman Catholic Church and a group called the Chateau Clique held the power, while the “Family Compact” were effectively all-powerful in Upper Canada. These two groups had the Governors in their trust, and so legislation and decrees where clearly one-sided.

This rankled many of the immigrants from the US, who formed the majority of the rebels in Upper (Ontario) Canada. It was very short-lived supported by a smaller part of the populace; Canadian Militia were able to put down the revolt. Somewhat famous among the Loyalist forces during this rebellion is the ‘Coloured Corps’, a body of about 120 Canadians of African descent who engaged the Upper Canada Rebels under William Lyon Mackenzie.

In Lower (Quebec) Canada, the rebellion was more serious, and considerably more bloody, with 325 dead. In Lower Canada, there was anti-Francophone violence by English-Canadians who sacked farms and rebel villages.

In both places, the rebellion was short, and led to the British Government deciding that something had to be done. That rebellion was easily put down, yet potential ones in the future probably wouldn’t be; another American Revolution could not be tolerated. What was of further interest was that all three rebellions had started with requests for democratic representation in their own affairs. This was recognised by Her Majesty’s Government led by Lord Melbourne who sent John Durham, 1st Earl Durham to discover a solution.

Lord Durham wrote a report, which is the famous Durham Report. Well known as a liberal, he proposed the uniting of both Canadas, the creation of their own government and a great reordering of the entire colonial system. In 1841, the proposal to unite Upper and Lower Canada was put into action, but the idea of their own government – which became known as “Responsible Government” was delayed; it was only in 1848 when it was made official.

The Commonwealth of Nations owes a lot to Lord Durham and his report. It clearly told the British government that it would have to grant its colonies self government or they would revolt.

New Zealand:

In another major Commonwealth nation with a large indigenous population, British control was expanding. As part of the sale of muskets and trade to New Zealand, British missionaries arrived. The spread of Christianity and the ubiquity of the musket turned the Maori’s Aorotoa into an increasing peaceful land. A peaceful land that the British government began to become more and more interested about annexing. Yet the Maori were powerful, and the British decided it would be wiser to deal with the whole nation.  Therefore, in early 1840, at the British settlement at Waitangi a major Treaty was developed: the Treaty of Waitangi.

This stated that Britain now had control over New Zealand, all the Maori were British Citizens and that any land sales would be done from the Maori tribes to Queen Victoria. As a document, it still remains a triumph of “friendly colonialism”, organised and proposed by numerous Maori tribes fearful and threatened by French expansions in their region.

The treaty therefore enabled the limiting of the settlement of New Zealand, especially North Island, and would ensure the relations between British settlers and the Maori remained fair and beneficial. However, the Maori felt they maintained self-governing in local matters, while the British settlers and governments began to expand at a rapid pace. This unfortunately caused the initially honourable process to slip into many of the flaws and errors of common colonialism.


British India had been greatly expanding. 1813 had seen the end of the H.E.I.C.’s monopoly on Indian Trade, and there were many more Britons living and working in India. Yet as Britain became enriched by Indian trade, and British forces kept order and generally changed little, in London the Liberals were not content.

They saw it as wrong to merely plunder nations without offering development, and following a long debate, they won. The British decided to export “British Values” to India, and get rid of the ‘barbaric’ practices common in the subcontinent. Chief among these was suttee, the ritual burning of widows on their husbands’ funeral pyres, and Thuggee, the ritual ambush and strangulation of unsuspecting innocents to the goddess Kali. Both of these religious practices were deemed by the British to be simple murder, and would be punished accordingly, and eventually the British were successful in stamping both out.

This was connected with wholesale land reform in certain states under H.E.I.C. control, weakening of the caste structure, and the arrival of missionaries. The Christian missionaries were very successful, and when viewed with all of the above, to certain of the Indians the entire process began to look like Cultural Imperialism. They saw their way of life and religions under threat. They also saw the H.E.I.C. as a corrupt institution that was taking but not giving back. As it was run as a company, this is very true; their policy that H.E.I.C. officials couldn’t be bribed and therefore were superior to native ones was understandably viewed as hypocrisy with racist undertones.

Worse, while the British continued to ensure the majority of the Princely States still existed, they were very much the power behind the throne and the long and manipulative reach of the Honourable East India Company was seen through and decried. Leaders who looked after their own people, yet crossed the HEIC found themselves evicted in ‘Palace Coups’. And to top the whole process off, the HEIC had encouraged the growing of cash crops in Bengal (where their authority was strongest), which was typically successful, yet resulted in tragic disasters during famines. Finally, the East India Company’s Doctrine of Lapse, which stated if any allied prince died without male issue, all his territories were forfeit to the Company. This egregious policy, quite similar to the Roman’s border allies, had failed to ensure peace in Roman Britain, and failed equally miserably in India.

The last straw was when the British equipped the Sepoy Regiments with the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle-musket. This fired a cartridge, which may have been greased in pork lard and beef tallow. Due to religious reasons, this was completely unacceptable to both Muslim and Hindu Sepoys, and served as the touch-plate for the great Indian Mutiny of 1857.

The Mutiny was a disaster for all concerned, and the war crimes and atrocities committed by both sides left the nation scarred, certain Indians clear winners and others the losers. According to Dalrymple in his book, The Last Moghul, Indian casualties – combatants and civilians alike were nearly 100,000.

Yet the Mutiny taught the British a vital set of lessons: (1) A point would come where decolonialisation would have to occur, (2) Hearts & Minds were vital, force was only so powerful and could not be applied all the time, (3) Developing and ensuring fair government to all colonies was vital.

Much of the blame was directed at the H.E.I.C., and the British Government decided to nationalise the company and directly rule and develop India – a step in the right direction.

The Dominion Of Canada:

In 1867, one of the masterpieces of forward planning came from the British Empire: The British North America Act. It created a self-governing Dominion called ‘Canada’, which will be celebrating its first 150 years this year. According to HM Queen Elizabeth II, this was when the Commonwealth first began, as Canada was an equal, independent nation sharing inside the British Empire: London would now no longer be responsible for its own foreign affairs, it would be tasked with providing a uniform foreign voice for itself and the first of the dominions: Canada.

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The Quebec Conference of 1864, where Canada was confederated

The development of ‘responsible government’ over the previous ten years in the Canadian Provinces had worked well, as had the uniting of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec into one ‘Province of Canada’. ‘Canada’, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island had all proven to work with local, devolved government, and now proposed uniting into one ‘Confederation’.

Although it had been proposed previously, the British government had viewed it as pointless, but times were changing. Economic ties between the Provinces required a new solution, as did the proposed new railway. At the same time, the US was being expansionist. They had purchased Alaska, and now formed two borders with British North America. Manifest Destiny – the idea that the US deserved all the territory in North America it could get its hands on – was in full swing. The British were beginning to balk at the expense of garrisoning their large empire, and wanted to return to the policy of the colonies providing most of their defensive ability themselves. To the Canadians – spectators in the long and hard fought American Civil War – this was a concerning development, and if the British were seen as pulling out, something united needed to fill the perceived vacuum.

Whether internally or externally, the British would need to change their strategy to meet the changing world. The solution was the unification of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into the new ‘Dominion of Canada’; Prince Edward Island, originally involved, refused to join the Confederation. The name ‘Dominion’ was chosen as it was a Royalist name, but it was deemed “Kingdom” to be too inflammatory to the Americans who lived to the south, as well as protestations from the British Colonial Office. The Colonial Office, however, was wholeheartedly in support of the Confederation, and the Governors were all outspoken in their support: the colonial power had not only acquiesced to the idea of handing over power, but was actively supporting the self-government of their colonies.

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Canada following Confederation (Golbez,

The act was called the British North America Act, 1867, but following Canadian Independence, it was renamed the ‘Constitution Act’

An Act for the Union of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, and the Government thereof; and for Purposes connected therewith

(29th March 1867)

Whereas the Provinces of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick have expressed their Desire to be federally united into One Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom:

And whereas such a Union would conduce to the Welfare of the Provinces and promote the Interests of the British Empire:

And whereas on the Establishment of the Union by Authority of Parliament it is expedient, not only that the Constitution of the Legislative Authority in the Dominion be provided for, but also that the Nature of the Executive Government therein be declared:

And whereas it is expedient that Provision be made for the eventual Admission into the Union of other Parts of British North America

The Canadians met first in Charlottetown, PEI – the delegates from Prince Edward Island refused to come if it was not held there – but little was achieved. A month later in September, the delegates met again, and this time results were reached. Like the US, Federalism – a two-level form of government – was deemed to be the best metric, but unlike the US the resolutions were different to either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.  American words were avoided; the “Quebec” or “Canadian” “Resolutions” was their official name, and the wording was legal and precise, avoiding the rhetoric of the American equivalents.

The new government was based off the Westminster system, although the House of Lords was replaced with a Senate, elected from the Provinces to ensure they had a say in the process of government. The BNA Act of ’67 did not create Canada as an independent nation, but it clearly set Canada on the path of nationhood, and gave them quite remarkable powers while still being inside a Colonial process.


In South Africa, the Colonial Office felt that the Canadian system was such a success, it ought to be emulated in South Africa – the other multi-ethnic colony. However, the Boer Republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State were in the way – as was the large Zulu Kingdom.

Relations between the three expanding empires in South Africa had risked coming to a head many times, and there had been many battles between the Boers and the Zulus, culminating in the Battle of Blood River, where the Boers had created their own state.

The first step was to grant the Cape Colony (the Eastern part of S. Africa) Responsible Government. This form of government was indeed responsible, and franchise was based on a set of policies that were expressly non-racial. Indeed, the 1872 government was led by Prime Minister John Molteno, who actively fought against racism in the Cape, and included the Xhosa natives as ‘fellow subjects’. Regrettably, Cape Qualified Franchise would disappear under the increasingly vociferous racist demands of certain South Africans, which would culminate in Apartheid. Nevertheless, it, and the statesmanship of Sir John C. Molteno, stand as a beacon as “Responsible Government” at a time the British were granting more local control to their colonies.

Yet the Zulu were not eager to be included in this large, multiethnic Union under the British crown. They had constructed their own empire under Shaka, which had steamrolled their way across South-East South Africa in a series of campaigns known as the ‘mfecane’ – ‘The Crushing’. It had been shrunk by many wars with the Boers, but was still a considerable power in the area.



South Africa In 1885 (Bartholomew,

The Colony’s Responsible Government under Molteno warned the British government that brinksmanship with the Zulu and Boers was unwise, and Confederation would be difficult to achieve at the current time. (They did, however, annex Griqualand East & West.) However, the Imperial power of the time was not interested, and as the Governor and military authorities were not under Cape control, were able to continue their policies with a free hand.

The policy of Sir Henry Bartle Frere, the High Commissioner for Southern Africa, was to ignore the advice of Molteno, supersede his authority from London, over-ride all local protests and engineer his own war with the Zulu to achieve his goal of a South African Union.  Sir Henry found a causus belli over the kidnapping of Zulu refugees under British protection, and presented the Zulu king, Cetshwayo with an impossible ultimatum. When King Cetshwayo understandably turned down the ultimatum in 1879, Sir Henry sent in the Army – without London’s approval.

The result was a disaster. The Zulu army, whom Cetshwayo had been drilling to perfection, won a victory over the overconfident British Army in Isandlwana, where the British were composed of Regulars as well as local forces of many ethnicities, including British settlers and African natives.

The Zulu’s War of Mobility tactics failed the next day at Rorke’s Drift when the forewarned British were able to entrench and use their fast firing rifles to full effect. However, Isandlwana was the death-knell for the Zulu Kingdom. From then on, the British government, which had viewed Sir Henry Frere’s policies as clearly overstepping his authority, now saw the Zulus as a serious threat to security, and this powerful neighbour had to be crushed at all costs – it was time for the Zulus to be on the receiving end of a ‘mfecane’.

This was understandably quite popular amongst a number of South African tribes, who enlisted in the local British units to defeat the Zulu, which was achieved later in 1879. King Cteshwayo was imprisoned and the Zulu Kingdom was deposed until 1883, when he was reinstalled in a small Zulu rump state. This in turn collapsed due to internal civil war, and Cteshwayo was forced to flee to the British Natal colony, where he died in 1884. The Zulu were now no longer a serious threat to a potential South African Union, yet the British forces were seen as weak.

The British had continued to expand in South Africa, and had taken Natal in 1843, and had annexed the Transvaal in 1877. However, the Boers had wanted more self government than they were given and had rebelled in 1881. This war, known as the First Boer War resulted in their bush-fighters defeating the redcoated British, and had achieved a limited form of independence.

However, gold and other natural resources were discovered in the Witwatersrand area, which led to a large number of British and German settlers moving to the area. They were denied citizenship by the Boers, who became the minority, and a fresh cause for offence and war was found. In this divisive war, a further part of the Commonwealth would be developed: Military Co-Operation.

New Zealand:

The New Zealanders were surprisingly active in their position. Despite having been settled late, and still facing wars with the Maori, the rate of national development remains quite staggering; they achieved self government in 1852, and would rapidly become a power in the region. Despite numerous wars with the Maori, they saw themselves as the Britain of the Southern Hemisphere, and their governments were remarkably liberal and yet expansive for such a small and new nation.

West Africa:

Ghana entered the Empire in 1844, when their allies the Fanti were under threat from the Ashanti. The British signed ‘The Bond’ with the local tribesmen, and British power expanded as they took over failed Dutch and Danish colonial attempts and expanded their power in the interior. This strategy of becoming allies with a number of indigenous tribes would be replicated repeatedly in Africa and other non-settler colonies. Again, as the British expanded inland, they led to the Anglo-Ashanti Wars, as the British and their tribal allies fought and finally defeated the Ashanti Empire. This period lasted from 1823 to 1900, with four main wars.

Nigeria had also been settled previously; it had been an important stage on the Slave Trade, so when that was banned in 1807, it became a centre for the British attempts to stamp it out. However, nothing much had happened colonially, and would likely have remained a coastal strip within the British sphere of influence, and the only contact would have remained from settlers and missionaries, who brought Christianity and Quinine – both typically useful in the creation of a state not torn apart by tribal wars or tropical diseases.

Nevertheless, the same story from Ghana was repeated. British allied tribes in the south, mainly the Yoruba, were under pressure from an expansive and slave-trading Muslim empire to the north – the Fulani. Always ready to exploit a rich area – the Palm Oil trade was lucrative – the British administration moved into Lagos in 1861, and expanded north in 1884, setting up the Oil Rivers Protectorate.  As the Scramble for Africa continued, British presence expanded in Nigeria eventually achieving full control over Nigeria by 1900.

What distinguished Nigeria from many other colonies was that the Colonial Office in London decided that the existing form of government was sufficient and therefore their policy would be that of Protectorism, rather than Colonialism. This was known as ‘Indirect Rule’ and meant the British were the power behind the all the local thrones. While many Nigerian intellectuals decried it as keeping Nigeria in the dark in tribalism, it kept ‘The White Man’ out of the government and daily life to much greater extent. In this regard, Nigeria’s colonial experience was unlike South Africa which was settled and then governed. The indigenous laws and forms of government survived, and while this reduced the negative aspects of colonialism, it also avoided many of the beneficial aspects, and Nigeria remains considerably divided by ethnicities and religions. This may have been a leading factor for much of the strife in Nigeria, including the terrorist campaign by Boko Haram and the Biafran Conflict.

Like many other sugar islands, Mauritius and the Seychelles were originally French and had been captured by the British in the Napoleonic wars. Governed as one colony, the end of the slavery in 1834 resulted in 200,000 Indian workers moving in to Mauritius. Large scale inter-Commonwealth immigration would not wait for the arrival of the Empire Windrush: It had begun.

The Scramble For Africa:

Eighteen African states are Commonwealth members, are for the majority of these nations, their colonial history, mainly with Britain, started with the Scramble for Africa. Indeed, of the Eighteen nations, only Sierra Leone, South Africa, Nigeria, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Ghana had previous colonial administrations before the Scramble began. The Gambia had also had British administration, as part of their stamping out of the slave trade, however, they are not currently Commonwealth member-states, and so the nation receives an honourable mention here.

Sierra Leone, established as a ‘safe haven’ for rescued slaves, was colonised in 1787 unofficially as a settlement for freemen funded by British Abolitionists. The settlement grew and it was granted Responsible Government in 1863, following acquiring official colony status in 1808 and becoming a British Protectorate in 1896.

The Scramble For Africa has been attributed to many causes. Those who wish to show it in the friendliest possible light, declare the British were benevolent and following David Livingstone’s campaign to end the extensive and extraordinarily brutal Arab slave trade in Africa. Others point out the capitalist backing and cite the Congo Free State and Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. Another theory is that it was all driven by impero-nationalism – the need for each nation to have an empire.


The Rhodes Colossus – Punch’s famous cartoon on C.J. Rhodes’ imperialistic ideas

In the end, it occurred, and while most colonial powers brought with them bans on slavery, in many colonies other forms of misery were imported, chief among them doubtless being the Congo.

The British had a head start, through Livingstone’s work, as well as connections with the tribes with which he worked. They also were aware of the extent of the Arab Slave Trade in Africa, which, along with all other slave trades, they had been trying to stamp out since 1807. Livingstone had estimated that every year 80,000 Africans died while being ‘exported’ from Africa to Arabia, and viewed the prevention of this as of primary importance.

In any case, it provided the British with a moral excuse: They were going to stamp out barbaric practices in all of Africa. This gave the capitalists a smoke screen of considerable effect, and chief among them was Mr Cecil Rhodes, who had a goal of a railway between Cairo and Capetown, which would ensure much of Africa was under British control. The Indian Coast near the Red Sea would provide further protection of British lines of communication to India and the Far East, especially the British colonies of Malaya, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 occurred when Europe met together to carve up Africa, as the colonial powers felt it would be better to construct empires through dialogue and not to risk fighting amongst themselves. Of the future Commonwealth nations, the majority were ‘deeded’ to Britain, although Namibia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Cameroon became German, and Mozambique remained Portuguese.

For most of these nations, their history is remarkably similar: the arrival of colonial authorities and powers, mostly British who enforced mainly British, but often indigenous laws also. Immigration to these nations from the British Isles was low compared to the four “Old Commonwealth” nations of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, and indeed in some cases European immigrants were not allowed to own land. Kenya, due to its fertile landscape and resources, was an exception to the rule, and became colonialised.

In all cases, the British expended considerable amounts of time, money and military force to ensure the slave trade was finally and completely stamped out. The greatest part of this was when the British forced the rulers of Zanzibar to stop selling slaves in 1873 as it had been a major ‘staging centre’ for the exportation of slaves out of Africa to Arabia.

The Far East:

Although not the most populous Indo-Chinan nation, Malaysia is a Commonwealth member, as well as a member of the Five Power Defence Agreement, sometimes heralded as the ‘Commonwealth Defence Treaty’.  Similar to Canada’s relationship with the United States, frustration and often outright hostilities with the Dutch and later Indonesians have isolated the Malaysians and Singaporeans, and this, along with a process of ‘Protectoratism’ over Colonialism have ensured relatively good relations between Malaysia, Singapore and the United Kingdom up to the current date.

The British and the Dutch had been sparring over the Far East since the late 1600s, and the strategic Straits of Malacca were no difference. The series of Anglo-Dutch wars in the period were between two major trading naval powers seeking to expand their power, authority and international standing in the world as the Spanish empire shrunk.

Indeed, the importance of the Straits meant that the British needed to ensure they had powerful local allies, and British control began in 1786 when the Sultan of Kedah, one of the thirteen states in Malaysia, gave Penang Island to the British H.E.I.C. Further struggles with the Dutch ensured the capturing of Malacca, and later Singapore.

As more and more Bornean and ‘Malayan’ nations came under British protection, in 1895 the British created the Federated Malay States, a Union of Selangor, Perak, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang. The other states under British control were the ‘Straits Settlements’, composed of Malacca and Penang and a number of ‘Unfederated’ Malay States under more direct British rule. Again, the model was Protectionism, and the British were supposedly concerned only with foreign affairs and defence. However, the ‘Resident General’ – chief colonial official – could offer “advice” which were de facto decrees. As in Nigeria, the British were operating as the power behind the throne, and the local forms of government remained intact as allies.

Due to the lucrative rubber trade, the British accepted the immigration of large numbers of Chinese workers to Malaya and Borneo, and today a significant minority of Malaysians are of Chinese descent, including a dear friend of the author. Unfortunately, ethnic strife was not avoided, especially during the period of decolonialsm, however, this is much less of an issue that it was.

Papua New Guinea was split in 1884, with the British gaining a protectorate over the southern half and the Germans annexed the northern portion of the islands. This created the large number of German names in the area, including the ‘Bismarck Archipelago’, and further raised tensions between the British and Germans.

British expanse into Fiji, like New Zealand, followed the sale of guns, trading and missionary work, which led to considerable tensions at first. In 1874 The British turned Fiji into a Crown colony, with the de facto king Cakobau’s permission. Again, like the Protectorate system, the first British governor’s goals was to keep as much the same as possible, and while he urged the development of the sugar industry – and the resulting inflow of Indian workers, he ensured the tribal system remained intact. This strategy was so successful that to this date, the Chiefs retain a certain amount of authority in Fiji. However, the British laws and the missionary activities stamped out cannibalism and ritual human sacrifice. These practices had made the area known as ‘The Cannibal Islands’ and had led to most ships, traders and explorers to avoid the area completely.

The Imperial Federation League:

In the late 1880s, the general feeling was that as ‘Responsible Government’ and Canadian Confederation worked so well, it made sense to replicate a winning formula. While attempting to do so by force created misery and strife in South Africa, to many the idea of self-governing colonies was sound.

In some respects, however, ‘Responsible Government’ had been a compromise. There were two schools of thought on the Empire; the first believed it should be run with a centralised hand from London for the betterment of all, but especially Britain. The other position was that granting the colonies ‘Responsible Government’ was not unwise, was not guaranteed to lead to rebellion, misrule and a series of disasters, but was indeed the right thing to do for all involved.

While the second party were clearly the party in power following the American Revolution, and more especially the Durham Report, it worried some Imperialists that they were granting the colonies independence on a silver platter. Similar to the concerns of some modern-day Scottish Unionists, the rationale went that to grant further self government (or Devolved Powers) was to weaken the Imperial (or national) ties and eventually would lead to de facto independence. As the Empire was popular in Britain at the time (even if the policies to expand it were often not), this was a serious charge, and a compromise solution had to be found.

The necessity of a compromise was accelerated with the rise of Irish nationalism, and the increasingly vociferous demands for ‘Home Rule’ – giving Ireland ‘Responsible Government’. Among many of the colonies, local development had occurred at staggering rates, and now as nations of their own accord, their pride and patriotism in being both British and Canadian/New Zealander/Australian and even South African was expanding. What was most noteworthy was that they began to view the Empire as a collection of equals. Like the Americans in the Thirteen Colonies 100 years previously, they maintained their British Birthright – that the Rights of Englishmen were theirs.

This is well summed up in Gilbert Keith Chesterton’s (better known as G.K. Chesterton) series of poems on Education. The first stanza of “II. Geography” goes as follows and explains this feeling of Englishness:

The earth is a place on which England is found,

And you find it however you twirl the globe round;

For the spots are all red and the rest is all grey,

And that is the meaning of Empire Day.

Worth noting is the ubiquitousness of the colour red to shade in the British Empire – a shade now replaced by either blue or (less commonly) green for the Commonwealth. Empire Day has also changed, and has become Commonwealth Day, which is celebrated on the second Monday in March. Empire Day was created in Canada as the last school day before Queen Victoria’s birthday, and it spread from its foundation in 1898 to become an official holiday in the soon-to-be-formed Commonwealth.

This feeling led to the Imperial Federation League, founded in 1884.  They, to whom we owe much of the idea behind Commonwealth, were the integrationist reaction to Gladstone’s shrinking policy. As developing nations, the self-governing colonies (soon to be dominions) felt their position inside in the British Empire equal to the Britons who lived in Britain. The ways in which many of the settlers had been sent to the colonies (Lowland & Highland Clearances, and Transportation), created resentment, yet this was most often not directed against ‘the British’. This was especially the case where there was an clear opponent, such as Canada and South Africa.

Canada, still growing in the American shadow was populated by those whose definition was “Not-Americans”. Nowhere was this was more apparent than in Quebec. The Quebecois had a good position in Canada and were not subject to integrationist pressure. Indeed, one of the actions of the ‘Responsible Government’ had been to provide aid for the Quebecois who had lost property in the Canadian Rebellion of 1837. They saw what had happened to the Acadians who had fled to Louisiana, and the rapidity in which they had lost their nationality. To the Canadians there were only two options: remain with Britain, or be annexed by the US. For many the second option was an immediate non-starter – they were the United Empire Loyalists and victors of the War of 1812 – which left the former as the only acceptable option by default. The Canadians, with a skill not lost to the present day, proceeded to take every part of American culture to pieces and prove how theirs was superior in every way.


The Imperial Federation League’s Proposal (T.A. Brassey, Page_052_Problems_of_Empire_1904.png)

The Australians and New Zealanders had a forward policy, viewing any American, French or German – or even Japanese – colonisation as a threat. However, this did not stop Australian-American relations remaining friendly: when the Great White Fleet sailed into Sydney in August 1908, the celebrations in the street were reportedly the second largest in Australian history. The circumnavigating US battle fleet also developed invasion plans during their stay, which in turn led to the demands for the creation of a new Australian navy.

The Imperial Federation League, originally founded in London in 1884 rapidly expanded, and had branches in most of the large colonies with ‘Responsible Governments’, and others, including Barbados and British Guiana. Indeed, so large was the League that it was involved with forming government policies numerous times, and was even discussed at a Imperial Conference (what became the Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting). Their first achievement was the calling of the First Colonial Conference in 1887; this was merely advisory, but it achieved the creation of a Australia – Canada telegraph line, and Australia and New Zealand agreed to fund the Royal Navy, while the British, in return, agreed that any reduction of the Pacific Fleet would have to be approved by the Australians and New Zealanders. Despite the locality of the new telegraph line, the Fijian Government decided against sending delegates due to the “pressure of state business”.

The IFL’s proposals were to grant ‘Home Rule all round’ as Churchill would later put it, and then use Westminster for a super-parliament responsible for issues that pertained to the entire Federation; defence, foreign policies etc. Due to the equality of the IFL’s proposals, it attracted Imperial Liberals and Conservatives alike, such as the great statesman Joseph Chamberlain, and W.E. Forster. Colonies deemed not responsible enough for Home Rule, such as British India, would be government run by the Federation, and eventually they would become equal members.

The Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain, was given the golden opportunity in 1897 at the Imperial Conference during Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee to achieve the first steps towards Imperial Federation, yet it proved to be a flash in the pan. The Colonies who had been granted Responsible Government were unwilling to see it undermined. Further funding for the Royal Navy from the Dominions was also partly achieved, but again, no long-term agreement was reached.  The Canadians felt that funding the trans-continental railway was ample defence funding, and they wanted a preferential trade system. Natal (part of soon to be South Africa) and parts of Australia were in favour of external tariffs. Chamberlain pushed for a Customs Union, and reportedly spoke “in general terms”, which led many of the delegates to require more information before anything concrete was agreed to. This Chamberlain could not supply, and the conference ended with no further achievements.

Further Imperial and Colonial Conferences would have similar noncommittal results, despite their frequency of about every five years. These have continued to date, having morphed into  ‘Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference’ and their current format; the Commonwealth Head of Government Meetings held biannually.

The British, along with their dominions, were beginning to feel isolated, especially as Bismark’s strategy of European Alliances began to create powers united against Britain, especially the close ties between the Russians (a threat to British India and their Japanese allies), and the French (rivals everywhere else in the world). The emergence of the United States and Germany continued to stymie British interests, as seen in the Venezuelan Affair.

The British under Lord Salisbury responded with the 1889 Naval Defence Act, which enforced the Two Power Standard. This required the Royal Navy to be larger than its two nearest potential opponents combined. While this would expand the RN to truly remarkable sizes, it would present a considerable cost to Britain, which in turn would try to further spread the cost of defending its Empire around the dominions.

Summary of the Era:

By far the most formative years in the laying down of the foundation to what know of as the Commonwealth, the period from 1815 to 1899 saw the emergence of the English language as the international main language, the creation of the idea of a Commonwealth, and the majority of Commonwealth nations were in the British Empire by this time.

It saw the creation of devolved parliaments – the Responsible Governments. Although these began in the mainly white, settler colonies, such as Nova Scotia in 1848 – the first example, they would later spread and form the basis of most Commonwealth nations’ governments; Sierra Leone gained self-government in 1863. This greatly simplified the hand-over of power, and would encourage peaceful development.

Central in this time period was the Imperial Federation League, and despite the fact the League collapsed in division and shrunk considerably, the idea had been sown, and a form of union, or at the least a series of conferences would occur. By the time they would shrink into obscurity, they had achieved the aim of creating a discussion, and, like a runner in a relay, had passed on the baton. The next runner was to be in uniform, and it would see the Balfour Declaration of 1926 – the creation of the British Commonwealth.

By proposing Responsible Government, the Colonial Office had accepted that many of their colonies were separate nations and would become independent eventually. Nevertheless, it had created a sort of semi-nationality, they were proud of their historical ties to the UK and to each other, and this familial feeling would also be key in the development of the Commonwealth.

By 1898, in name it did not exist, but the idea and process was already firmly ingrained in the citizenry of the British Empire – independence was most likely inevitable, but it would not be the divisive and belligerent type as seen in the American Colonies. Another option was available and was worth achieving.


Readers may note the article covers the development of the ‘Old Commonwealth’ in considerably more detail than most of the African, Asian and Pacific member-states. This is entirely due to the author’s lack of expertise on such matters and inability to find sources for such honourable and noteworthy nations. Unfortunately, in certain aspects of British culture, the Commonwealth may carry racist undertones, hence this statement that it is not in the least the author’s intention to promote, accept or tolerate such harmful and erring views, which he wholeheartedly decries.

Furthermore, to the best of the author’s knowledge, the creation of the Commonwealth was mostly from the UK and the Dominions; if this is not correct, then the author would greatly appreciate further information on this.

The difference in coverage by no means suggests some Commonwealth nations are more important or superior to others. Inclusion, equality and the other qualities of the Round Table style of organisation are dear to all and all nations and nationalities are indeed equal. The author hopes this will not led to any umbrage as none was intended in any way. Lastly, he wishes all citizens of all Commonwealth nations; realms, republics and monarchies alike, a belated happy Commonwealth Day. May peace, brotherhood and understanding continue to grow among us.

Table of Contents:

The Commonwealth: Past Present & Future

Pt 1: The Commonwealth of Nations

1. Introduction

2. History to Date:

       A. 1756-1815

         B. 1815 – 1898

       C. 1899-1931

                         D. 1932 to the Present

3. Global Role & Work

4. Issues facing the CW – Continuing Relevance & The Future

5. Why closer relations & Freer Trade?

Pt 2: Closer Ties

6. Inter-CW Proposals – Historical & Existing

7. Inter-CW Proposals – CANZUK

8. Inter-CW Proposals – The ‘C9’, ‘CW11’ & Similar

9. Inter-CW Proposals – Commonwealth Realms & Federation

10. Inter-CW Proposals – Defence & ‘TrAID’

11. Proposals – The Commonwealth & The Anglosphere

12. Proposals – The Commonwealth & The World

13. Conclusion: Suggestions & Final Comments

Appendix A: Statistics

Appendix B: Scottish Nationalism & The Commonwealth


By Walter Crane –, Public Domain,

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By SouthAfrica1885.jpg: John George Bartholomewderivative work: Themightyquill (talk) – SouthAfrica1885.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Edward Linley Sambourne (1844–1910) – Punch and Exploring History 1400-1900: An anthology of primary sources, p. 401 by Rachel C. Gibbons, Public Domain,,322193&dq=colonial+conference&hl=en

E. Harris -

E. Harris -


About Ted Yarbrough

Ted is the co-founder and editor of the Daily Globe. He is a long-time blogger on British politics and has written a thesis on Thatcherism.

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