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British Dominions

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British Dominions

This article is about the Dominions of the British Empire. For other uses, see Dominion (disambiguation).

Dominions were autonomous polities that were nominally under British sovereignty, constituting the British Empire and British Commonwealth, beginning in the later part of the 19th century.[1][2] They have included (at varying times) Canada, Australia, Pakistan, India, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), New Zealand, Newfoundland, the Union of South Africa, and the Irish Free State. Over the decades after 1930, the British dominions each became independent of the United Kingdom. Those that became sovereign constitutional monarchies within the Commonwealth of Nations and maintained as their own the same royal house and royal succession from before independence became known after the year 1953 as Commonwealth realms.

The term "dominion" was also used in the names of certain Commonwealth realms; these included (at varying times) Canada, New Zealand, and Fiji.


In English common law the Dominions of the British Crown were all the realms and territories under the sovereignty of the Crown. For example, the Order in Council that annexed the island of Cyprus in 1914 provided that:

"the said Island shall be annexed to and form part of His Majesty's Dominions, and the said Island is annexed accordingly".[3]

Use of the word Dominion, to refer to a particular territory, dates back to the 16th century, and was used to describe Wales from 1535 to around 1800.[4][5] Dominion, as an official title, was first conferred on Virginia, circa 1660, and the Dominion of New England, in 1686. These dominions never had semi-autonomous or self-governing status. Indeed, creation of the short-lived Dominion of New England was designed – contrary to that of later dominions – to increase royal control and reduce the colonies' self-government.

On the other hand, under the British North America Act 1867, eastern Canada received the status of "Dominion" upon the Confederation in 1867 of several British possessions in North America.

The Colonial Conference of 1907 was the first time that the self-governing colonies of Canada and the Commonwealth of Australia were referred to collectively as Dominions.[6] Two other self-governing colonies, New Zealand and Newfoundland, were also granted the status of Dominions that year. These were followed by the Union of South Africa (1910) and the Irish Free State (1922). At the time of the founding of the League of Nations, the League Covenant made specific provisions for the admission of any "fully self-governing state, Dominion, or Colony",[7] the implication being that "Dominion status was something between that of a ‘Colony’ and a ‘State’."[8]

Dominion status was formally defined in the Balfour Declaration of 1926, which recognised these countries as "autonomous Communities within the British Empire", thus acknowledging them as political equals of the United Kingdom; the Statute of Westminster 1931 converted this status into legal reality, making them essentially independent members of what was then called the British Commonwealth.

Following the Second World War, the decline of British colonialism led to Dominions generally being referred to as Commonwealth realms, the use of the word gradually diminished within these countries after this time. Nonetheless, though disused, it remains Canada's legal title;[9] moreover, the phrase Her Majesty's Dominions is still used occasionally in current-day legal documents in the United Kingdom.[10]

Historical development

Overseas dominions

Dominions originally referred to any land in possession of the British Empire. Oliver Cromwell's full title in the 1650s was the "Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, and the dominions thereto belonging". In 1660, King Charles II gave the Colony of Virginia the title of "Dominion" (in name only) in gratitude for Virginia's loyalty to the Crown during the English Civil War. The Commonwealth of Virginia, a State of the United States, still has "the Old Dominion" as one of its nicknames. The name "Dominion" also occurred in that of the short-lived Dominion of New England (1686 – 89). In all of these cases, the word Dominion implied being a subject of the Empire.

Responsible government: the precursor to Dominion status

The foundation of "Dominion" status followed the achievement of internal self-rule in British Colonies, in the specific form of full responsible government (as distinct from "representative government"). Colonial responsible government began to emerge during the mid-19th century. The legislatures of Colonies with responsible government were able to make laws in all matters other than foreign affairs, defence and international trade, these being powers which remained with the Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Nova Scotia and the Province of Canada (which then included Ontario and Quebec) were the first Colonies to achieve representative government, in 1848. Prince Edward Island followed in 1851, as did New Brunswick and Newfoundland in 1855. All of these self-governing Colonies of British North America – except for Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island – agreed to combine in a new federation, named Canada, from 1867. This was formalised by British Parliament in the British North America Act of 1867. Section 3 of the Act referred to the new entity as a "Dominion": the first such entity to be created. From 1870, the new Dominion also included two vast, neighbouring British territories that did not have any form of self-government: Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory, parts of which later became the Provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, as well as the separate territories, the Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut. In 1871, the separate Crown Colony of British Columbia also became a Canadian province. Prince Edward Island joined in 1873 and Newfoundland in 1949.

The conditions under which four then separate Australian colonies – New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia – and New Zealand could gain full responsible government were set out by the British government in the Australian Constitutions Act 1850.[11] The Act also separated the Colony of Victoria (in 1851) from New South Wales. During 1856, responsible government was achieved by New South Wales,[12] Victoria,[13] South Australia,[14] and Tasmania,[15] along with New Zealand. The remainder of New South Wales was divided in three in 1859, a change that established: (1) most of the present borders of NSW; (2) the Colony of Queensland, with its own responsible self-government,[16] and; (3) the Northern Territory (which was not granted self-government prior to federation of the Australian Colonies).[17] However, Western Australia did not receive self-government until 1891, mainly because of its continuing financial dependence on the UK Government.[18] After protracted negotiations (that initially included New Zealand), six Australian colonies with responsible government (and their dependent territories) agreed to federate, along Canadian lines, becoming the Commonwealth of Australia, in 1901.

In South Africa, the Cape Colony became the first British self-governing Colony, in 1872. (Until 1893, the Cape Colony also controlled the separate Colony of Natal.) Following the Second Boer War (1899–1902), the British Empire assumed direct control of the Boer Republics, but transferred limited self-government to Transvaal in 1906, and the Orange River Colony in 1907.

The Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand and the Dominion of Newfoundland were officially given Dominion status in 1907, followed by the Union of South Africa, in 1910.

Canadian Confederation and the evolution of the term Dominion

The 20th-century usage of the term "Dominion" can be traced to a suggestion by Samuel Leonard Tilley at the London Conference of 1866 discussing the confederation of three of the British North American possessions, the Province of Canada (subsequently becoming the Province of Ontario and the Province of Quebec), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick into "One Dominion under the Name of Canada", the first federation internal to the British Empire. Tilley's suggestion was taken from the 72nd Psalm, verse eight, "He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth", which is echoed in the national motto, "A Mari Usque Ad Mare".[19] The new government of Canada under the British North America Act of 1867 began to use the phrase "Dominion of Canada" to designate the new, larger nation. However, neither the Confederation nor the adoption of the title of "Dominion" granted extra autonomy or new powers to this new federal level of government.[20][21] Senator Eugene Forsey wrote that the powers acquired since the 1840s that established the system of responsible government in Canada would simply be transferred to the new Dominion government:

"By the time of Confederation in 1867, this system had been operating in most of what is now central and eastern Canada for almost 20 years. The Fathers of Confederation simply continued the system they knew, the system that was already working, and working well."[21]

The constitutional scholar Andrew Heard has established that Confederation did not legally change Canada's colonial status to anything approaching its later status of a Dominion.

At its inception in 1867, Canada's colonial status was marked by political and legal subjugation to British Imperial supremacy in all aspects of government—legislative, judicial, and executive. The Imperial Parliament at Westminster could legislate on any matter to do with Canada and could override any local legislation, the final court of appeal for Canadian litigation lay with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, the Governor General had a substantive role as a representative of the British government, and ultimate executive power was vested in the British Monarch—who was advised only by British ministers in its exercise. Canada's independence came about as each of these sub-ordinations was eventually removed.[20]

Heard went on to document the sizeable body of legislation passed by the British Parliament in the latter part of the 19th century that upheld and expanded its Imperial supremacy to constrain that of its colonies, including the new Dominion government in Canada.

When the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867, it was granted powers of self-government to deal with all internal matters, but Britain still retained overall legislative supremacy. This Imperial supremacy could be exercised through several statutory measures. In the first place, the British North America Act of 1867 provided in Section 55 that the Governor General may reserve any legislation passed by the two Houses of Parliament for "the signification of Her Majesty's pleasure", which is determined according to Section 57 by the British Monarch in Council. Secondly, Section 56 provides that the Governor General must forward to "one of Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State" in London a copy of any Federal legislation that has been assented to. Then, within two years after the receipt of this copy, the (British) Monarch in Council could disallow an Act. Thirdly, at least, four pieces of Imperial legislation constrained the Canadian legislatures. The Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865 provided that no colonial law could validly conflict with, amend, or repeal Imperial legislation that either explicitly, or by necessary implication, applied directly to that colony. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1894, as well as the Colonial Courts of Admiralty Act of 1890 required reservation of Dominion legislation on those topics for approval by the British Government. Also, the Colonial Stock Act of 1900 provided for the disallowance of any Dominion legislation the British government felt would harm British stockholders of Dominion trustee securities. Most importantly, however, the British Parliament could exercise the legal right of supremacy that it possessed over common law to pass any legislation on any matter affecting the colonies.[20]

Furthermore, for decades none of the Dominions was allowed to have its own embassies or consulates in foreign countries. All matters concerning international travel, commerce, etc., had to be transacted through British embassies and consulates. For example, all transactions concerning visas and lost or stolen passports by citizens of the Dominions were carried out at British diplomatic offices. It was not until the late 1930s and early 1940s that the Dominion governments were allowed to establish their own embassies, and the first two of these that were established by the Dominion governments in Ottawa and in Canberra were both established in Washington, D.C., in the United States.

However, as Heard later explained, the British government seldom invoked its powers over Canadian legislation. Indeed, in the Canadian context, British legislative powers over Canadian domestic policy were largely theoretical and their exercise was increasingly unacceptable in the 1870s and 1880s. The rise to the status of a Dominion and then full independence for Canada and other possessions of the British Empire did not occur by the granting of titles or similar recognition by the British Parliament but by initiatives taken the new governments of certain former British dependencies to assert their independence and to establish constitutional precedents.

What is remarkable about this whole process is that it was achieved with a minimum of legislative amendments. Much of Canada's independence arose from the development of new political arrangements, many of which have been absorbed into judicial decisions interpreting the constitution or without explicit recognition. Canada's passage from being an integral part of the British Empire to being an independent member of the Commonwealth richly illustrates the way in which fundamental constitutional rules have evolved through the interaction of constitutional convention, international law, and municipal statute and case law.[20]

What was significant about the creation of the Canadian and Australian federations, then, was not that they were instantly granted wide new powers by the Imperial centre at the time of their creation; but rather that they, because of their greater size and prestige, were better able to exercise their existing powers and lobby for new ones than the various colonies they incorporated could have done separately. Furthermore they provided a new model which certain politicians in New Zealand, Newfoundland, South Africa, Ireland, India, Malaysia and so on could point to for their own relationship with Britain.

The Colonial Conference of 1907

Issues of colonial self-government spilled into foreign affairs with the Boer War (1899–1902). The self-governing colonies contributed significantly to British efforts to stem the insurrection, but assured that they set the conditions for participation in these wars. Colonial governments repeatedly acted to assure that they determined the extent of their peoples' participation in imperial wars in the military build-up to the First World War.

The assertiveness of the self-governing colonies was recognised in the Colonial Conference of 1907, which implicitly introduced the idea of the Dominion as a self-governing colony by referring to Canada and Australia as Dominions. It also retired the name "Colonial Conference" and mandated that meetings take place regularly to consult Dominions in the running the foreign affairs of the empire.

The Colony of New Zealand, which chose not to take part in Australian federation, quickly became the Dominion of New Zealand on 26 September 1907; Newfoundland became a Dominion on the same day. The newly created Union of South Africa would also be referred to as a Dominion in 1910.

The First World War and the Treaty of Versailles

The initiatives and contributions of British colonies to the British war effort in the First World War were recognised by Britain with the creation of the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917, which gave them a say in the running of the war. Dominion status as self-governing states, as opposed to symbolic titles granted various British colonies, waited until 1919, when the self-governing Dominions signed the Treaty of Versailles independently of the British government and became individual members of the League of Nations. This ended the purely colonial status of the dominions.

"The First World War ended the purely colonial period in the history of the Dominions. Their military contribution to the Allied war effort gave them claim to equal recognition with other small states and a voice in the formation of policy. This claim was recognised within the Empire by the creation of the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917, and within the community of nations by Dominion signatures to the Treaty of Versailles and by separate Dominion representation in the League of Nations. In this way the "self-governing Dominions", as they were called, emerged as junior members of the international community. Their status defied exact analysis by both international and constitutional lawyers, but it was clear that they were no longer regarded simply as colonies of Britain."[22]

The Irish Free State

The Irish Free State, set up in 1922 after the Anglo-Irish War, was the first Dominion to appoint a non-British, non-aristocratic Governor-General when Timothy Michael Healy took the position in 1922. Dominion status was never popular in the Irish Free State where people saw it as a face-saving measure for a British government unable to countenance a republic in what had previously been the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Successive Irish governments undermined the constitutional links with Britain until they were severed completely in 1949. In 1937 Ireland adopted, almost simultaneously, both a new constitution that included powers for a president of Ireland and a law confirming the king's role of head of state in external relations.

The Second Balfour Declaration and the Statute of Westminster

The Balfour Declaration of 1926, and the subsequent Statute of Westminster, 1931, restricted Britain's ability to pass or affect laws outside of its own jurisdiction. Significantly, Britain initiated the change to complete independence for the Dominions. World War I left Britain saddled with enormous debts, and the Great Depression had further reduced Britain's ability to pay for defence of its empire. In spite of popular opinions of empires, the larger Dominions were reluctant to leave the protection of the then-superpower. For example, many Canadians felt that being part of the British Empire was the only thing that had prevented them from being absorbed into the United States.

Until 1931, Newfoundland was referred to as a colony of the United Kingdom, as for example, in the 1927 reference to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to delineate the Quebec-Labrador boundary. Full autonomy was granted by the United Kingdom parliament with the Statute of Westminster in December 1931. However, the government of Newfoundland "requested the United Kingdom not to have sections 2 to 6[—]confirming Dominion status[—]apply automatically to it[,] until the Newfoundland Legislature first approved the Statute, approval which the Legislature subsequently never gave". In any event, Newfoundland's letters patent of 1934 suspended self-government and instituted a "Commission of Government", which continued until Newfoundland became a province of Canada in 1949. It is the view of some constitutional lawyers that—although Newfoundland chose not to exercise all of the functions of a Dominion like Canada—its status as a Dominion was "suspended" in 1934, rather than "revoked" or "abolished".

Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland and South Africa (prior to becoming a republic and leaving the Commonwealth in 1961), with their large populations of European descent, were sometimes collectively referred to as the "White Dominions". Today Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom are sometimes referred to collectively as the "White Commonwealth".

The Dominions

List of Dominions

Country[‡ 1] From To[‡ 2] Reason for end to dominion
Canada 1867

Continues as a Commonwealth realm and member of the Commonwealth of Nations

Australia 1901

Continues as a Commonwealth realm and member of the Commonwealth of Nations

New Zealand 1907

Continues as a Commonwealth realm and member of the Commonwealth of Nations

Newfoundland 1907 1949 After governance had reverted to direct control from London in 1934, became a province of Canada under the British North America Act, 1949 (now the London Declaration of 28 April 1949
South Africa 1910 1961 Became republic in 1961 under the Republic of South Africa Constitution Act, 1961, passed by the Parliament of South Africa, long title "To constitute the Republic of South Africa and to provide for matters incidental thereto", assented to 24 April 1961 to come into operation on 31 May 1961.[23]
Irish Free State [‡ 3] 1922 1949 The link with the monarchy ceased with the passage of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948, which came into force on 18 April 1949 and declared that the state was a republic.
India 1947 1950 The Union of India (with the addition of Sikkim) became a federal republic after its constitution came into effect on 26 January 1950.
Pakistan 1947 1956 Became republic in 1956 under the name "The Islamic Republic of Pakistan": Constitution of 1956 [4]
Ceylon 1948 1972 Became republic in 1972 under the name Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka Republic Act 1972 passed by U.K. parliament 27 July 1972, long title "An Act to make provision in connection with Ceylon becoming a republic within the Commonealth under the name of Sri Lanka".[5]


Four colonies of Australia had enjoyed responsible government since 1856: New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia.[24] Queensland had responsible government soon after its founding in 1859[25] but, because of ongoing financial dependence on Britain, Western Australia became the last Australian colony to attain self-government in 1890.[26] During the 1890s, the colonies voted to unite and in 1901 they were federated under the British Crown as the Commonwealth of Australia by the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act. The Constitution of Australia had been drafted in Australia and approved by popular consent. Thus Australia is one of the few countries established by a popular vote.[27] Under the second Balfour Declaration, the federal government was regarded as coequal with (and not subordinate to) the British and other Dominion governments, and this was given formal legal recognition in 1942 (when the Statute of Westminster was retroactively adopted to the commencement of the Second World War 1939). In 1930, the Australian prime minister, James Scullin, reinforced the right of the overseas Dominions to appoint native-born governors-general, when he advised King George V to appoint Sir Isaac Isaacs as his representative in Australia, against the wishes of the opposition and officials in London. The governments of the States (called colonies before 1901) remained under the Commonwealth but retained links to the UK until the passage of the Australia Act 1986.


The term Dominion is employed in the Constitution Act, 1867 (originally the British North America Act, 1867), and describes the resulting political union. Specifically, the preamble of the act states: "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..." Furthermore, Sections 3 and 4 indicate that the provinces "shall form and be One Dominion under the Name of Canada; and on and after that Day those Three Provinces shall form and be One Dominion under that Name accordingly".

Usage of the phrase Dominion of Canada was employed as the country's name after 1867, predating the general use of the term dominion as applied to the other autonomous regions of the British Empire after 1907. The phrase Dominion of Canada does not appear in the 1867 act nor in the Constitution Act, 1982, but does appear in the Constitution Act, 1871, other contemporaneous texts, and subsequent bills. References to the Dominion of Canada in later acts, such as the Statute of Westminster, do not clarify the point because all nouns were formally capitalised in British legislative style. Indeed, in the original text of the Constitution Act, 1867, "One" and "Name" were also capitalised.

Frank Scott theorised that Canada's status as a Dominion ended with the Canadian parliament's declaration of war on Germany on 9 September 1939.[28] From the 1950s, the federal government began to phase out the use of Dominion, which had been used largely as a synonym of "federal" or "national" such as "Dominion building" for a post office, "Dominion-provincial relations", and so on. The last major change was renaming the national holiday from Dominion Day to Canada Day in 1982. Official bilingualism laws also contributed to the disuse of dominion, as it has no acceptable equivalent in French.

While the term may be found in older official documents, and the Dominion Carillonneur still tolls at Parliament Hill, it is now hardly used to distinguish the federal government from the provinces or (historically) Canada before and after 1867. Nonetheless, the federal government continues to produce publications and educational materials that specify the currency of these official titles.[29][30][31]

Defenders of the title Dominion—including monarchists who see signs of creeping republicanism in Canada—take comfort in the fact that the Constitution Act, 1982 does not mention and therefore does not remove the title, and that a constitutional amendment is required to change it.[32]

The word Dominion has been used with other agencies, laws, and roles:

Toronto-Dominion Bank (founded as the Dominion Bank in 1871 and later merged with the Bank of Toronto), the Dominion of Canada General Insurance Company (founded in 1887), the Dominion Institute (created in 1997), and Dominion (founded in 1927, renamed as Metro stores beginning in August 2008) are notable Canadian corporations not affiliated with government that have used Dominion as a part of their corporate name.


Ceylon, which, as a crown colony, was originally promised "fully responsible status within the British Commonwealth of Nations", was formally granted independence as a Dominion in 1948. In 1972 it adopted a republican constitution to become the Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka. By a new constitution in 1978, it became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.

India and Pakistan

India acquired responsible government in 1909, though the first Parliament did not meet until 1919.[33] In the 1930s the idea of making British India as it was then into a dominion - the first one with a non-European population - was seriously discussed, but ran into serious snags - notably the increasing tensions between Hindus and Muslims. India and Pakistan finally separated as independent dominions in 1947.[34] In the changed post-WWII conditions this proved a transitory stage, and India became a republic in 1950[33] and Pakistan adopted a republican form of government in 1956.[35]

Irish Free State / Ireland

The Irish Free State (Ireland from 1937) was a British Dominion between 1922 and 1949. As established by the Irish Free State Constitution Act of the United Kingdom Parliament on 6 December 1922 the new state – which had dominion status in the likeness of that enjoyed by Canada within the British Commonwealth of Nations – comprised the whole of Ireland. However, provision was made in the Act for the Parliament of Northern Ireland to opt out of inclusion in the Irish Free State, which – as had been widely expected at the time – it duly did one day after the creation of the new state, on 7 December 1922.[36]

Following a plebiscite of the people of the Free State held on 1 July 1937, a new constitution came into force on 29 December of that year, establishing a successor state with the name of "Ireland" which ceased to participate in Commonwealth conferences and events. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom and other member states of the Commonwealth continued to regard Ireland as a dominion owing to the unusual role accorded to the British Monarch under the Irish External Relations Act of 1936. Ultimately, however, Ireland's Oireachtas passed the Republic of Ireland Act 1948, which came into force on 18 April 1949 and unequivocally ended Ireland's links with the British Monarch and the Commonwealth.


The colony of Newfoundland enjoyed responsible government from 1855-1934.[37] It was among the colonies declared dominions in 1907. Following the recommendations of a Royal Commission, parliamentary government was suspended in 1934.[38] In 1949, the Dominion of Newfoundland joined Canada and the legislature was restored.[39]

New Zealand

The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852 gave the colony of New Zealand its own Parliament (General Assembly) and home rule in 1852.[40] In 1907 New Zealand was proclaimed the Dominion of New Zealand.[41] New Zealand, Canada, and Newfoundland actually used the word dominion in the official title of the nation, whereas Australia used the name Commonwealth of Australia and South Africa used the name Union of South Africa. New Zealand adopted the Statute of Westminster in 1947[41] and in the same year, legislation passed in London gave New Zealand full powers to amend its own constitution. In 1986, the New Zealand parliament passed the Constitution Act 1986, which repealed the Constitution Act of 1852 thus becoming fully independent of the United Kingdom.[42]

South Africa

The Union of South Africa was formed in 1910 from the four self-governing colonies of the Cape Colony, Natal, the Transvaal, and the Orange Free State (the last two were former Boer republics).[43] The South Africa Act 1909 provided for a Parliament consisting of a Senate and a House of Assembly. The provinces had their own legislatures. In 1961, the Union of South Africa adopted a new constitution, left the Commonwealth, and became the present-day Republic of South Africa.[44]

Southern Rhodesia

Southern Rhodesia (renamed Zimbabwe in 1980) was a special case in the British Empire. Although it was never a dominion, it was treated as a dominion in many respects. Southern Rhodesia was formed in 1923 out of territories of the British South Africa Company and established as a self-governing colony with substantial autonomy on the model of the dominions. The imperial authorities in London retained direct powers over foreign affairs, constitutional alterations, native administration and bills regarding mining revenues, railways and the governor's salary.[45]

Southern Rhodesia was not included as one of the territories that were mentioned in the 1931 Statute of Westminster although relations with Southern Rhodesia were administered in London through the Dominion Office, not the Colonial Office. When the dominions were first treated as foreign countries by London for the purposes of diplomatic immunity in 1952, Southern Rhodesia was also included in the list of territories concerned. This semi-dominion status continued in Southern Rhodesia between 1953 and 1963, when it was joined with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland in the Central African Federation, with the latter two territories continuing to be British protectorates. When Northern Rhodesia was given independence in 1964 it adopted the new name of Zambia, prompting Southern Rhodesia to shorten its name to simply Rhodesia, but Britain did not recognise this latter change.[45]

Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1965 as a result of the British government's insistence on majority rule before independence. London regarded this declaration as illegal, and so applied sanctions and expelled Rhodesia from the sterling area.[46] Nevertheless, Rhodesia continued with its dominion-style constitution until 1970, and continued to issue British passports to its citizens. The Rhodesian government continued to profess its loyalty to the Sovereign, despite being in a state of rebellion against Her Majesty's Government in London, until 1970, when it adopted a republican constitution (following the results of a referendum the previous year).[47] This endured until the state's reconstitution as Zimbabwe Rhodesia in 1979 under the terms of the Internal Settlement; this itself lasted until the Lancaster House Agreement of December 1979, which put the breakaway colony put under interim British rule while fresh election were held. The country achieved independence deemed legal by the international community in April 1980, when Britain granted independence under the name Zimbabwe.[48]

Foreign relations

Initially, the Foreign Office of the United Kingdom conducted the foreign relations of the Dominions. A Dominions section was created within the Colonial Office for this purpose in 1907. Canada set up its own Department of External Affairs in June 1909, but diplomatic relations with other governments continued to operate through the governors-general, Dominion High Commissioners in London (first appointed by Canada in 1880; Australia followed only in 1910), and British legations abroad. Britain deemed her declaration of war against Germany in August 1914 to extend to all territories of the Empire without the need for consultation, occasioning some displeasure in Canadian official circles and contributing to a brief anti-British insurrection by Afrikaner militants in South Africa later that year. A Canadian War Mission in Washington, D.C., dealt with supply matters from February 1918 to March 1921.

Although the Dominions had had no formal voice in declaring war, each became a separate signatory of the June 1919 peace Treaty of Versailles, which had been negotiated by a British-led united Empire delegation. In September 1922, Dominion reluctance to support British military action against Turkey influenced Britain's decision to seek a compromise settlement. Diplomatic autonomy soon followed, with the U.S.-Canadian Halibut Treaty (March 1923) marking the first time an international agreement had been entirely negotiated and concluded independently by a Dominion. The Dominions Section of the Colonial Office was upgraded in June 1926 to a separate Dominions Office; however, initially, this office was held by the same person that held the office of Secretary of State for the Colonies.

The principle of Dominion equality with Britain and independence in foreign relations was formally recognised by the Balfour Declaration, adopted at the Imperial Conference of November 1926. Canada's first permanent diplomatic mission to a foreign country opened in Washington, D.C., in 1927. In 1928, Canada obtained the appointment of a British high commissioner in Ottawa, separating the administrative and diplomatic functions of the governor-general and ending the latter's anomalous role as the representative of the British government in relations between the two countries. The Dominions Office was given a separate secretary of state in June 1930, though this was entirely for domestic political reasons given the need to relieve the burden on one ill minister whilst moving another away from unemployment policy. The Balfour Declaration was enshrined in the Statute of Westminster 1931 when it was adopted by the British Parliament and subsequently ratified by the Dominion legislatures.

Britain's declaration of hostilities against Nazi Germany on 3 September 1939 tested the issue. Most took the view that the declaration did not commit the Dominions. Ireland chose to remain neutral. At the other extreme, the conservative Australian government of the day, led by Robert Menzies, took the view that, since Australia had not adopted the Statute of Westminster, it was legally bound by the UK declaration of war—which had also been the view at the outbreak of World War I—though this was contentious within Australia. Between these two extremes, New Zealand declared that as Britain was or would be at war, so it was too. This was, however, a matter of political choice rather than legal necessity. Canada issued its own declaration of war after a recall of Parliament, as did South Africa after a delay of several days (South Africa on September 6, Canada on September 10). Ireland, which had negotiated the removal of British forces from its territory the year before, chose to remain neutral throughout the war. There were soon signs of growing independence from the other Dominions: Australia opened a diplomatic mission in the US in 1940, as did New Zealand in 1941, and Canada's mission in Washington gained embassy status in 1943.

From Dominions to Commonwealth realms

Initially, the Dominions conducted their own trade policy, some limited foreign relations and had autonomous armed forces, although the British government claimed and exercised the exclusive power to declare wars. However, after the passage of the Statute of Westminster the language of dependency on the Crown of the United Kingdom ceased, where the Crown itself was no longer referred to as the Crown of any place in particular but simply as "the Crown". Arthur Berriedale Keith, in Speeches and Documents on the British Dominions 1918-1931, stated that "the Dominions are sovereign international States in the sense that the King in respect of each of His Dominions (Newfoundland excepted) is such a State in the eyes of international law". After then, those countries that were previously referred to as "Dominions" became independent realms where the sovereign reigns no longer as the British monarch, but as monarch of each nation in its own right, and are considered equal to the UK and one another.

World War II, which fatally undermined Britain's already weakened commercial and financial leadership, further loosened the political ties between Britain and the Dominions. Australian Prime Minister John Curtin's unprecedented action (February 1942) in successfully countermanding an order from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Australian troops be diverted to defend British-held Burma (the 7th Division was then en route from the Middle East to Australia to defend against an expected Japanese invasion) demonstrated that Dominion governments might no longer subordinate their own national interests to British strategic perspectives. To ensure that Australia had full legal power to act independently, particularly in relation to foreign affairs, defence industry and military operations, and to validate its past independent action in these areas, Australia formally adopted the Statute of Westminster in October 1942[49] and backdated the adoption to the start of the war in September 1939.

The Dominions Office merged with the India Office as the Commonwealth Relations Office upon the independence of India and Pakistan in August 1947. The last country officially made a Dominion was Ceylon in 1948. The term "Dominion" fell out of general use thereafter. Ireland ceased to be a member of the Commonwealth on 18 April 1949, upon the coming into force of the Republic of Ireland Act 1948. This formally signaled the end of the former dependencies' common constitutional connection to the British crown. India also adopted a republican constitution in January 1950. Unlike many dependencies that became republics, Ireland never re-joined the Commonwealth, which agreed to accept the British monarch as head of that association of independent states.

The independence of the separate realms was emphasised after the accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, when she was proclaimed not just as Queen of the United Kingdom, but also Queen of Canada, Queen of Australia, Queen of New Zealand, and of all her other "realms and territories" etc. This also reflected the change from Dominion to realm; in the proclamation of Queen Elizabeth II's new titles in 1953, the phrase "of her other Realms and Territories" replaced "Dominion" with another mediaeval French word with the same connotation, "realm" (from royaume). Thus, recently, when referring to one of those sixteen countries within the Commonwealth of Nations that share the same monarch, the phrase Commonwealth realm has come into common usage instead of Dominion to differentiate the Commonwealth nations that continue to share the monarch as head of state (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, etc.) from those that do not (India, Pakistan, South Africa, etc.). The term "Dominion" is still found in the Canadian constitution where it appears numerous times; however, it is largely a vestige of the past, as the Canadian government does not actively use it (see Canada section). The term "realm" does not appear in the Canadian constitution. Present-day general usage prefers the term realm because it includes the United Kingdom as well, emphasising equality, and no one nation being subordinate to any other. Dominion, however, as a title, technically remains a term that can be used in reference those self-governing countries within the Commonwealth of Nations, other than the United Kingdom itself, that share the same person as monarch.

The generic language of dominion did not cease in relation to the Sovereign. It was, and is, used to describe territories in which the monarch exercises sovereignty, the phrase His/Her Majesty's dominions being a legal and constitutional phrase that refers to all the realms and territories of the Sovereign, whether independent or not. Thus, for example, the British Ireland Act, 1949, recognised that the Republic of Ireland had "ceased to be part of His Majesty’s dominions". When dependent territories that had never been annexed (that is: were not colonies of the Crown), but were protectorates or trust territories (of the United Nations) were granted independence, the United Kingdom act granting independence always declared that such and such a territory "shall form part of Her Majesty’s dominions", and so become part of the territory in which the Queen exercises sovereignty, not merely suzerainty.

Many distinctive characteristics that once pertained only to Dominions are now shared by other states in the Commonwealth, whether republics, independent realms, self-governing colonies or Crown colonies. Even in a historical sense the differences between self-governing colonies and Dominions have often been formal rather than substantial. Thus, the practise of appointing a High Commissioner for purposes of inter-government communication between the home government of a dominion and the British government in London, instead of a diplomatic representative such as an ambassador, continues in respect of Commonwealth realms and Commonwealth republics as sovereign states.

See also



  • Choudry, Sujit. 2001 (?). University of Alberta, Centre for Constitutional Studies: Edmonton.
  • Holland, R. F., Britain and the Commonwealth Alliance 1918-1939, MacMillan, 1981.
  • ISBN 0-662-39689-8) Canada: Ottawa.
  • Hallowell, Gerald, ed. 2004. The Oxford Companion to Canadian History. (ISBN 0-19-541559-0) Oxford University Press: Toronto; p. 183-4.
  • Marsh, James H., ed. 1988. "The Canadian Encyclopedia. Hurtig Publishers: Toronto.
  • Martin, Robert. 1993 (?). 1993 Eugene Forsey Memorial Lecture: A Lament for British North America. The Machray Review. Prayer Book Society of Canada. — A summative piece about nomenclature and pertinent history with abundant references.
  • Rayburn, Alan. 2001. Naming Canada: stories about Canadian place names, 2nd ed. (ISBN 0-8020-8293-9) University of Toronto Press: Toronto.

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