Though the modern Commonwealth is just over 50 years old, the idea took root in the 19th century.

In 1867, Canada became the first colony to be transformed into a selfgoverning 'Dominion', a newly constituted status that implied equality with Britain. The empire was gradually changing and Lord Rosebury, a British politician, described it in Australia in 1884 as a "Commonwealth of Nations".

Other parts of the empire became Dominions too: Australia (1900), New Zealand (1907), South Africa (1910) and the Irish Free State (1921). They all participated as separate entities in the First World War and were separate signatories to the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Subsequently, they became members of the League of Nations.

After the end of the First World War, the Dominions began seeking a new constitutional definition and reshaping their relationship with Britain. The Conferences of Dominions begun in 1887 were resumed and at the Imperial Conference in 1926, the prime ministers of the participating countries adopted the Balfour Report which defined the Dominions as autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

This definition was incorporated into British law in 1931 as the Statute of Westminster. It was adopted immediately in Canada, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland (which joined Canada in 1949) and South Africa. Australia and New Zealand followed. India, Britain's largest colony at the time, had still not achieved self-government and remained a Dominion under the India Act of 1935 until its independence in 1947.

Modern Commonwealth

After the Second World War, the shape of the British empire began changing drastically. India gained independence in 1947, the new state of Pakistan was simultaneously created, and a wave of decolonisation followed which saw several colonies become independent and sovereign states.

The London Declaration of 1949 was a milestone on the road to developing the modern Commonwealth. India provided an interesting test case: it desired to become a republic yet wanted to remain a member of the Commonwealth and this posed a fresh challenge to the entire concept. Would Commonwealth membership only be for countries "owing an allegiance to the Crown" as the Balfour Report had stated? A conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers in 1949 decided to revise this criterion and to accept and recognise India's continued membership as a republic, paving the way for other newly independent countries to join. At the same time, the word 'British' was dropped from the association's title to reflect the Commonwealth's changing character.

The first member to be ruled by an African majority was Ghana which joined in 1957. From 1960 onwards, new members from Africa, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean and the Pacific joined, increasing the diversity and variety that has enhanced the Commonwealth to this day.

With its commitment to racial equality and national sovereignty, joining the Commonwealth became a natural choice for many new nations that were emerging out of the decolonisation process of the 1950s and 1960s. Since then, the Commonwealth has grown in size and shape, expanding its reach and range of priorities. It is now involved in a wide spectrum of activities, all feeding the greater goals of good governance, respect for human rights, and peace and co-operation in the member countries and beyond.

In 1965, the leaders of the Commonwealth established the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, which became the association's independent civil service, headed by a Secretary-General. A year later, the Commonwealth Foundation was launched to assistthe growing number of Commonwealth professional associations and, subsequently,NGOs.

Two significant events in the history of the Commonwealth occurred in 1971. The first was the Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles, which gave the association a formal code of ethics and committed members to improving human rights and seeking racial and economic justice. The second was the creation of the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC), which advanced the idea of technical co-operation among developing countries.