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Empire and Commonwealth

by W. David McIntyre

In the early 20th century the hugely powerful British Empire spanned the globe. As its colonies gradually became independent, many of them retained their ties, forming the Commonwealth – in the 2000s an association of more than 50 countries which met regularly to focus on business, political and social matters, and to compete in the Commonwealth Games.

Expansion of the British Empire

New Zealand became a modern state as a colony within the British Empire. It took its place as an independent actor in world affairs as a dominion in the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Between John Cabot’s first voyage to Newfoundland in 1497 and the early 20th century, the British Empire grew to be the largest and most powerful of all empires, before ending remarkably quickly – and largely peacefully – during the half-century after 1945.

One legacy is the Commonwealth of more than 50 countries. For New Zealand, empire and Commonwealth marked out the path of the country’s evolution and provided its first windows on the wider world.

British Empire

The first British colonies, settled in the 1600s, were in North America, in what would become Canada and the United States of America. In wars between 1740 and 1815, the British lost 13 of their North American colonies, but gained French Quebec (later part of Canada) and held on to 15 Caribbean colonies and four West African settlements. Through the same period de facto control was established in India. Along the sea route to India, Britain occupied various Dutch and French colonies, of which the Cape of Good Hope, Mauritius and Ceylon were retained.

A ‘swing to the east’, including the great voyages of James Cook in the Pacific, drew Australia and New Zealand into the system. To fill the place of the lost American colonies, to which convicts had been shipped, New South Wales was settled in 1788. Britain reluctantly annexed New Zealand in 1840. Missionaries led the push, arguing that the increasing numbers of whalers, traders and settlers, their sometimes fractious relationship with Māori, and the possibility of French annexation all demanded British action.

Imperial activities

After Britain withdrew its last active troops at a critical moment in the decade-long New Zealand Wars, the colony’s leaders lobbied in London for empire unity with like-minded Canadians and Australians. This movement gave birth to the new label ‘imperialism’, which later changed in meaning to cover expansion of territory, power and influence.

After a major rebellion in India (the ‘Indian mutiny’) in 1858 the British government took direct control of all British possessions in India. Over time, the empire expanded beyond India’s frontiers – to the west, into the Arabian/Persian Gulf and a swathe of territories across East Africa; to the east, into Burma, Malaya, North Borneo, the Straits Settlements, Hong Kong, treaty ports in China – notably Shanghai – and, eventually, a naval base at Wei-hei-Wei in the north.

Local imperialists

British expansion in the South Pacific was in large part ‘sub-imperialism’. By the 1870s the Australian colonies and New Zealand were keen for Britain to acquire these distant dependencies, which were relatively close to Australia and New Zealand, and in an ocean they wanted kept free of foreigners.

Crown colonies were established in Fiji and the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (later Kiribati and Tuvalu), as was a protectorate in the Solomon Islands, a protected state in Tonga, and a condominium shared with France in the New Hebrides (later Vanuatu). Australia took over Papua in south-eastern New Guinea and New Zealand took over the Cook Islands and Niue.

New Zealanders were active in other parts of the empire too – they joined in South African gold rushes from the 1870s, fought in the South African War (1899–1902), saw their gold dredges adapted to Malayan tin mining, and sent missionaries to India and China.

Government within the empire

In the remaining North American colonies new forms of self-government were pioneered from the 1830s, beginning a process that culminated, more than a century later, in the modern Commonwealth. The first Commonwealth nations were a group of self-governing white settler colonies whose independence and unity provided a powerful model for decolonisation.

British governing practice tended towards devolution. The colonial charters that were adopted included executive government by governors and officials appointed by, and responsible to, London, and representatives of the people elected to colonial legislative assemblies.


Tensions between governors and assemblies resulted in rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837. Lord Durham, who was sent as governor-general and commissioner to report on these events, submitted his report to Parliament in 1839, the same year that the decision was made to annex part or all of New Zealand.

Durham suggested that the executive ‘needs but to follow out consistently the principles of the British Constitution. ... if it has to carry on the Government in unison with a representative body, it must consent to carry it by means of those in whom that representative body has confidence’.1 Durham believed that such a system would avert a breakup of the empire.

Responsible government

This advice was not accepted until 1846, when an idealistic secretary of state made the big leap and authorised full ‘responsible government’ in Nova Scotia and Canada. The system was started in 1848. It was soon adopted in other colonies. New Zealand, along with New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania, adopted it in 1856. By the early 20th century, Arthur Balfour (British prime minister from 1902 to 1905) could say: ‘We depend as an Empire upon the cooperation of absolutely independent Parliaments’.2

The ‘Commonwealth’

The self-governing status of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa needed new descriptive labels. ‘Commonwealth’ had cropped up in Victorian times as a feel-good substitute for ‘British Empire’. During the Colonial Conference of 1907, Chancellor of the Exchequer David Lloyd George spoke of ‘this great commonwealth of nations known as the British Empire’.3

The term ‘British Commonwealth of Nations’ was increasingly adopted for the self-governing group of countries.

The dominions

At the 1907 conference, New Zealand Prime Minister Joseph Ward suggested that the self-governing colonies needed some designation to mark them off from the autocratically ruled Crown colonies. It was agreed that those colonies operating ‘responsible government’ would be designated ‘dominions’ – a title that had been used to describe Canada since its unification in 1867.

It was also agreed that the prime ministers of Britain and the dominions would meet every four years in imperial conferences to coordinate trade and defence policies and their relations with the international community.

Partnership or independence?

The concept of partnership between New Zealand and Britain was espoused by Prime Minister William Massey in the 1920s, but other Commonwealth leaders were determined to get a declaration of independence.

Informal meetings of prime ministers during the 1926 Imperial Conference, chaired by the Earl of Balfour, produced the well-known formula describing the position and relationship of Britain and the dominions. They were ‘autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status … united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations’.4

Statute of Westminster

This formula was incorporated in the preamble of the Statute of Westminster in 1931. The statute’s chief operative clause provided that no British act of Parliament would henceforth apply in a dominion unless it was ‘requested and consented to’.

Slow to leave

Despite its reluctance to separate from Britain and its delay in adopting the Statute of Westminster, New Zealand acted as if it applied, particularly once a Labour government was elected in 1935. New Zealand took an independent line in the League of Nations and made its own decision to enter the Second World War in 1939.

The dominions thus became as constitutionally independent as they wanted to be. The statute applied immediately to Canada, South Africa and the Irish Free State. New Zealand did not want to be cited in the statute and only consented to being included on the condition that the operative sections did not apply unless specifically adopted by the dominion Parliament. Australia and Newfoundland chose the same option.

    • John Lambton, Earl of Durham, Lord Durham’s report on the affairs of British North America, edited by C. P. Lucas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912, vol. 2, p. 278. Back
    • Quoted in B. E. C. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour, first Earl of Balfour, K.G., O.M., F.R.S., Etc., 1906–1930. London: Hutchinson, 1939, vol. 2, p. 378. Back
    • Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1907, I, A-5, p. 362. Back
    • Quoted in W. David McIntyre and W. J. Gardner, eds., Speeches and documents on New Zealand history. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, p. 277. Back

Trade and empire

At its peak in the mid-Victorian age, the British Empire was a legacy of three centuries of maritime and colonial activities around two great trading networks focused on the West Indies (which at first included North America) and the ‘East Indies’ (India and adjacent regions). The Caribbean islands of St Kitts, Barbados and Jamaica provided the first great source of colonial wealth, followed by the larger colonies on the North American mainland.

This success was partly based on slave labour from West Africa. Until the abolition of the slave trade within the British Empire in 1807, British companies supplied the colonies with slaves, along with capital and manufactured goods, including cloth and hardware of various kinds. Britain imported agricultural commodities, including sugar, tobacco and rice.

By the late 18th century North America and the West Indies took 57% of British exports and supplied 32% of imports. This was not free trade – even the carriage of goods was controlled. The British Navigation Acts required that British ships staffed by British sailors were used, and that they trade between British ports and those within the empire.

New markets

India was the core of the East Indies trade network. China, with its vast potential market, was an ever-elusive goal. India provided bullion, tea and textiles, and a market for British manufactured goods. China was not a part of the empire; access to the ‘Middle Kingdom’ was very restricted, and in the early 19th century trade was strongly in China’s favour. Chinese tea, silk and porcelain were all sought-after commodities, and British and other European traders who needed to pay for them, turned to opium as an alternative to silver. When Chinese authorities tried to stop the opium trade, Britain went to war to maintain and extend its trading position. British possession of Hong Kong was one outcome of the opium wars.

Passing its peak as the ‘workshop of the world’ by the mid-19th century, the British Empire continued, nevertheless, to expand. Trade remained integral to the empire, and Britain, still with immense economic power, favoured free trade.

New Zealand trade and the empire

New Zealand, like other colonies, sourced most of its manufactured goods from Britain and also regularly raised development loans in London. In the 1870s, 60% of New Zealand’s imports came from Britain, and 75% of exports (mostly wool and gold) went there. Like other colonies, New Zealand promoted and protected its own trade, sometimes angering British manufacturers.

Inter-colonial conferences aiming to improve trade and communication between the Auastralian colonies were held from 1867 onwards. New Zealand representatives attended four of these.

If New Zealand wanted to negotiate commercial arrangements with foreign governments, until the 1920s it had to do so through Britain.

Importing people

Mosgiel Woollen Mill founder Arthur Burns didn’t just get machinery from Britain – he identified groups of skilled workers and imported them as well. Burns wasn’t the only early manufacturer to go headhunting. Some planned ahead, and migrated to New Zealand bringing their staff with them.

Imperial preference

In the later 19th century New Zealand developed a trade in frozen meat, butter and cheese to Britain, and the proportion of its exports going to Britain rose.

From 1904 New Zealand treated imports from British differently to those from other countries. ‘Imperial preference’ – applying the lowest customs duties or tariffs to British imports, and lower tariffs to those from other parts of the Empire – was maintained for decades.

The 1930s economic depression prompted the British to abandon free trade. At an empire economic conference, held in Ottawa in 1932 and attended by representatives from the dominions, reciprocal trade preferences were agreed to.

Maintaining access to the British market for its meat and dairy products continued to be of primary importance to New Zealand until the 1970s. Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community (later the European Union) in 1973 signalled the beginning of the end of what had been New Zealand’s main trade relationship since the 1840s.

War and empire

War was a recurrent feature of empire, enlarging or reducing Britain’s colonial holdings. It was also a local concern during New Zealand’s first 100 years – British troops fought in the New Zealand wars and the Royal Navy provided external security.

Imperial troops in New Zealand

Once established, the elected New Zealand government handled all internal matters except those concerned with Māori. The British government, sick of settler land-grabbing, wanted out. In the early 1860s Britain moved to reduce its expenditure on the internal security of self-governing colonies.

At this point the New Zealand wars started. The colonial government was dependent on imperial troops. Numbers reached a peak of 18,000 in 1864, and their withdrawal was delayed for several years. Despite New Zealand’s pleas, the last regiment left in February 1870, prompting a furious reaction – the mother country was seen by some as abandoning the colony.

External security

The question of how New Zealand would be defended against an outside attack was raised by Premier William Fox in December 1870. The solution was a strategy known as the Jervois Doctrine or ‘blue water school’. In return for British naval protection, the colonies would provide bases, contribute expeditionary forces to Britain’s wars and help pay for local units of the Royal Navy. From the late 1880s, two Royal Navy vessels were stationed in New Zealand waters. New Zealand contributed £20,000 per year towards their cost (about $4 million in 2020 terms), an amount that increased to £40,000 ($8 million) in 1903 and £100,000 ($17 million) in 1908.

South African War

At the end of the century, when the British fought the South African War (1899–1902), 6,500 New Zealanders enlisted in 10 volunteer contingents. Enthusiasm for the empire was at a high point. Within the government this was boosted by concern for New Zealand’s own security. The New Zealand and Australian governments competed to see who could be the most imperially patriotic, and 40,000 Wellingtonians farewelled the first contingent in 1899.

The South African War established the pattern later New Zealand military contributions would follow. Specially raised units were sent to serve overseas, fighting alongside forces from elsewhere in the empire.

First World War

The 1914–18 war provided a territorial boost to the empire. Germany’s colonies and parts of the former Ottoman Empire were shared out as ‘mandates’ – territories whose overlords would be accountable to the newly established League of Nations.

In the Pacific, New Zealand held on to German Samoa, and Australia to German (north-eastern) New Guinea, which included the Bismarck Archipelago and the northern Solomon Islands. Britain, Australia and New Zealand jointly took control of Nauru, which was administered by Australia. Nauru’s phosphate was mined for use as fertiliser by an Australian–New Zealand–British joint venture, the British Phosphate Commission.

Colonial rule

New Zealand’s occupation of German Samoa at the outset of the First World War gave it a taste of colonial rule. In 1920 the League of Nations allocated the mandate for the territory to New Zealand as Western Samoa. The difficulties of governing were soon apparent. The Mau independence movement of the 1920s culminated in Black Saturday, when New Zealand military police fired on a peaceful demonstration in December 1929, killing at least eight Samoans, including prominent leader Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III. Several others later died of their injuries.

In 1914 Britain’s declaration of war applied also to the dominions, India and all other colonial dependencies, but the dominions made their own decisions about the form their participation took. They also demanded a voice in policy. To coordinate the war effort and to plan for peace, imperial war conferences and imperial war cabinets were held in 1917 and 1918.

Second World War

During the Second World War, the Commonwealth came under serious challenge and a number of territories were overrun. From the fall of France in 1940 until the German attack on the Soviet Union and the Japanese attack on the USA in 1941, the British war effort was underpinned by the dominions, India and the colonies.

The fall of Singapore, then under British control, in 1942 was a decisive event for New Zealand, whose international alignment began to shift to the United States.

At the end of the war, the lost British territories were all recovered, and in Europe, the Mediterranean and Middle East, Africa and South-East Asia, new territories were occupied. In 1946 the ‘British world system’ reached its maximum territorial span.

From empire to Commonwealth

After the Second World War, with the empire intact and the dominions prospering, there were expectations that the British ‘world system’ would recover its global role. But in fact decolonisation had begun its dramatic course. Dominion status and Commonwealth membership already denoted the independence of the white settler colonies. Over the next half-century they would be joined in the Commonwealth by many of the other countries that had made up Britain’s empire.

Beloved empire

When New Zealand Prime Minister Sidney Holland said that he loved the British Empire with all his heart he was expressing the feelings of many Pākehā New Zealanders. Despite this, New Zealand adopted the Statute of Westminster in 1947, and sought closer ties with the United States. In 1951, worried that the US would retreat into isolation and leave New Zealand without a defender in the Pacific, Holland advocated standing with the United States 'through thick or thin, right or wrong'.1

Commonwealth members

The empire was dismantled with astonishing speed. Many newly independent countries joined the Commonwealth, which by the early 1970s had more than 30 members. Most of these new members were Asian or African nations, and there was at times tension between one or both of these groupings and the 'old Commonwealth' (sometimes known as the white Commonwealth), of which New Zealand was part. The 1966 Commonwealth conference, at which an Afro-Asian caucus began meeting, was the most divided, with a split narrowly avoided. Particularly contentious issues included Rhodesia's white minority government and sporting contacts with South Africa.

Commonwealth structure

The new Commonwealth evolved its own slender infrastructure. In 1965 members approved the creation of a secretariat as a ‘clearing house’ for cooperative endeavours and the organisation of conferences. The Commonwealth Foundation was created to foster professional linkages in 1966, and its mandate was extended to welfare organisations and culture in 1980. In 1971 the regular meetings of prime ministers were restyled as Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM), which were hosted by different Commonwealth members.

The 1991 CHOGM was accompanied by a forum for non-governmental organisations and meetings that produced the Harare Commonwealth Declaration, a manifesto for the post-Cold War age. Among the ‘fundamental political values’ listed were democracy, good governance, the rule of law, human rights, gender equality and universal access to education. These were seen as concomitants of sustainable development, free trade and the market economy.

Playing together

The most popular element of the new Commonwealth was the Commonwealth Games, held every four years, between Olympiads. New Zealand has played host three times, in Auckland in 1950 (to the Empire Games) and 1990, and in Christchurch in 1974.

At the Auckland CHOGM in 1995 (the only CHOGM to be held in New Zealand), Nelson Mandela represented South Africa and Mozambique (a former colony of Portugal, not Britain) was accepted for membership. Named for the site of the retreat, near Queenstown, the Millbrook Action Programme set up a Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to deal with ‘serious and persistent’ violations of Commonwealth principles. The programme empowered the secretary-general to respond to such violations with a range of measures.


In 1961 South Africa announced it would withdraw from the Commonwealth because of criticism of its apartheid system. There were moves to expel New Zealand from the Games Federation after the All Black rugby tour of apartheid-era South Africa in 1976.

Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, who upheld the right of sporting bodies to decide where and whom to play, was, nevertheless, a pragmatist. He supported the Statement on apartheid in sport (Gleneagles agreement) of 1977, which condemned racial discrimination and indicated that major sporting contacts with South Africa would be ‘unlikely’ until apartheid ended.

Tri-sector Commonwealth

A new pattern was pioneered at the Edinburgh CHOGM in 1997. The meetings were preceded by a Commonwealth Business Forum, which created the Commonwealth Business Council. There was the first Commonwealth Youth Forum and a Commonwealth Centre for NGO presentations, which became the model for the Commonwealth People’s Forum.

This tri-sector Commonwealth, comprising political, corporate and civil society sectors, was described by the secretary-general in 2009 as a ‘three-legged stool’ which required all three legs for stability.

Commonwealth in the 2000s

In the early 2000s the Commonwealth emerged as a rules-based system, with sanctions to deal with backsliding, and with the majority of its membership made up of republics and small states. Former New Zealand Foreign Minister Don McKinnon, who was secretary-general from 2000 to 2008, reorganised the CHOGMs to include foreign ministers’ meetings for routine business, so that heads of government could concentrate on key global issues.

Critics of the system accuse it of a lack of positive leadership, but others cherish the contemporary Commonwealth as a global good. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Jenny Shipley described it as a place where people could be comfortable with diversity.

    • Quoted in Malcolm McKinnon, Independence and foreign policy: New Zealand in the world since 1935. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993, p. 120. Back

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How to cite this page: W. David McIntyre, 'Empire and Commonwealth', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

He kōrero nā W. David McIntyre, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012