Historical Atlas of the British Empire
A British Empire flag designed in 1937 showing the coats of arms of the Dominions
All citizens of the British Empire were British Subjects if they lived in the United Kingdom, Dominions. Colonies or British India or were British Protected Persons if they lived in Protectorates, Protected States, Indian Princely States or Mandates. This common Imperial citizenship lasted until 1948, after which individual national citizenships began to appear.
Movement around the Empire was easy and British people tended to emigrate to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Kenya and Southern Rhodesia only needing a passport and a ticket for travel. They could get a job and buy a home when they got there. Many British people also went to India particularly to serve in the vast administration of the Raj. People in the United Kingdom and in all of the Dominions, colonies, protectorates and mandates had British passports which indicated whether they were British Subjects or British Protected Persons. These were all standardised dark blue passports with the front cover showing the British coat of arms or Dominion coat of arms with the title 'British Passport' on the top and the name of each country they was issued in below the coat of arms. For example, the cover would have BRITISH PASSPORT - UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND, BRITISH PASSPORT - AUSTRALIA, BRITISH PASSPORT - INDIAN EMPIRE, etc. One of these passports gave any British Subject or British Protected Person anywhere in the Empire instant access to their one quarter of the world as it was clearly stated on the first inside page of the passport that it was good for free travel anywhere in the British Empire. This also lasted until 1948. The details inside the passport were written by hand.
Imperial Airways began the first long-distance flights around the British Empire in the mid-1930's. The self-governing Dominions had the best of both - they were autonomous, but they kept all the links that the Empire offered. Many people from the West Indies and Africa moved to Britain, particularly after the Second World War to seek better employment.
Egypt had been officially independent since 28 February 1922. A new Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 withdrew British troops from the country to only the Suez Canal Zone with a plan to eventualy withdraw them altogether within twenty years. Egyptian independence was strengthened and the British High Commissioner in Cairo was retitled as the British Ambassador to emphasise Egypt's independence. A boundary change in 1934 transferred a small section of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, known as the Sarra Triangle, to Libya. The Sarra Triangle was considered by the British to be a worthless desert area so it was transferred to Italy to become part of Libya as an appeasement to the Mussolini government in Rome, which was attempting to expand its empire. Italy, which ruled Libya, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland, later conquered Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1936. The British mandate over Iraq was terminated in 1932 and it was recognised as an independent kingdom in an alliance treaty with Britain.
Economically, the Empire was united. The Empire Marketing Board existed from 1926 to 1933 to promote inter-British Empire trade. A British Empire Conference in Ottawa, Canada in 1932 established Empire preferential trade in which preference was given to goods being traded between Empire countries and at lower tariffs than for other countries. British trade with Empire countries vastly increased after this. Empire countries, and former Empire countries of Egypt and Iraq, formed the Sterling Area which was a bloc made up of countries that used British Pounds Sterling as their currency or the base for their currency. Canada(which had a dollar since 1850) and Newfoundland did not belong to the Sterling Area since their currencies were pegged to the U.S. Dollar.
King George V and British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin with Dominion Prime Ministers of Newfoundland, New Zealand, Australia, the Union of South Africa, the Irish Free State and Canada at the Imperial Commonwealth Conference of 1926. Southern Rhodesia would be represented at the next Imperial Conference in 1930. India and Burma would send observers in 1937.
Imperial Airways poster
British Empire Games began in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1930 with teams from Australia, Bermuda,British Guiana, Canada, England, Newfoundland, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, the Union of South Africa and Wales. Since these games were only for the British parts of the world, the United Kingdomwas represented by its four constituent countries on separate teams. However, they came together as a singleGreat Britain team in the Olympics. In 1930, events included track and field, bowling, boxing, rowing, swimming and wrestling. The games were held every four years, except during the Second World War, in 1934, 1938 and in 1950. The Games were restyled as the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1954. They continue today as the Commonwealth Games.
Detailed information about the first British Empire Games in 1930 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Detailed information about the second British Empire Games in 1934 in London, England, UK
Detailed information about the third British Empire Games in 1938 in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Detailed information about the fourth British Empire Games in 1950 in Aukland, New Zealand
The British Union Jack was the national flag of the entire British Empire including all of the Dominions until well after the Second World War. The Union Jack was the official flag in India until 1947, in Australia until 1953, in New Zealand until 1956, in Newfoundland until 1980 well after it joined Canada in 1949, in Ceylon until 1956, in the Union of South Africa until 1958 along with its own flag for 30 years, and in Canada until 1965. The Irish Free State, however, dropped the Union Jack in the 1920's. However, all British territories also had a colonial ensign which was either red or blue with the Union Jack in the upper left corner (the canton) and their own badge or emblem on the fly. These ensigns were used at sea and at international gatherings. As the Dominions became more autonomous, these ensigns evolved into their national flags. Australia adopted its blue and red ensign flags with the white stars of the Southern Cross and its Australian Commonwealth star for unofficial use in 1901, while the Union Jack remained the official flag. New Zealand adopted its blue ensign with red-bordered white stars of the Southern Cross in 1902 as a national flag which flew along with the Union Jack. Australia's red ensign was commonly used until 1953 when the blue ensign was declared to be the offiical national flag. The Australian and New Zealand ensigns are still in use today. Newfoundland introduced a red ensign with its coat of arms on the fly in 1904, but adopted the Union Jack as its national flag in 1931. The Union Jack remained as Newfoundland's provincial flag after it joined Canada in 1949 until 1980. The Union of South Africa, which had used a red ensign with its coat of arms since 1910, formally adopted two flags in 1928. The Union of South Africa brought in its own distinctive orange, white and blue horizontal tricolour national flag containing a small Union Jack and two small Boer flags in the centre, and the other flag was the Union Jack which would continue to be flown to show loyalty to the Empire. The South African red ensign continued to be used at sea until 1951. Canada, however, adopted the British Union Jack as its national flag in 1904 and only used a red ensign with its coat of arms at sea and at international gatherings. Calls for a distinctive Canadian flag to be used on land, probably an ensign containing the Union Jack for loyalty to the Empire and a maple leaf for Canada, began in 1925 and debated again in 1938 and 1946, when the red ensign with the coat of arms was authorised for use as a de facto national flag for Canada, while the Union Jack remained the official flag. Disagreement between English-speaking Canadians who wanted the Union Jack and more nationalistic French-speaking Canadians kept the issue unresolved for many more years. The nationalistic Irish Free State used a distinctive tricolour as its national flag, which was adopted during the Irish Revolution of 1919, and still in use by the Irish Republic today. India used a red ensign with the star of India on the fly, however in 1931, Indian nationalists began to use an orange, white and green horizontal tricolour flag for their movement, which evolved into the national flag after independence in 1947. British territories obviously dropped the Union Jack when they got their independence after the Second World War, except for a few which continued to use ensigns with the Union Jack in the upper left corner (the canton).
Imperial Conferences continued with the British Prime Minister and Dominion Prime Ministers from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, the Irish Free State and Newfoundland. The Imperial Conferences of 1926 and 1930 adopted the Balfour Report with the recommendations which were enacted in the Statute of Westminster of 1931. Southern Rhodesia was represented at the 1930 and 1937 Imperial Conferences. The last Imperial Conference before the Second World War was held in 1937 for the Coronation of King George VI. India and Burma were represented at the 1937 Imperial Conference, but the Irish Free State (Eire) was absent (it had declared itself to be a pseudo-republic in that year). Imperial Conferences were renamed as Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conferences in 1944.
Royal tours of the Empire increased over the years. King George V travelled to India in 1911 after his coronation for the one and only Delhi Durbar for his investiture as Emperor of India. He was the only reigning monarch to visit India. Plans for a Durbar in India for King George VI in 1937 were cancelled due to the growing nationalist political situation demanding independence for India. The Prince of Wales carried out a tour of the Empire in 1919-1920. To show the new status of the Dominions as autonomous communities, Royal visits of the reigning monarch to the Dominions began as the Second World War approached. The monarch would spend some time in the Dominions to show that they now had a more important function to play in international relations. In 1939, King George VI became the first reigning monarch to tour an overseas Dominion with his visit to Canada. He was also the first reigning monarch to tour the Union of South Africa in 1947. Queen Elizabeth II was the first reigning monarch to tour Australia, New Zealand and Ceylon in 1954.
James MacCallum Smith, the proprietor of the local weekly newspaper, The Sunday Times started publishing pro-secessionist articles in 1907 under its editor Alfred Chandler. Smith was a committed secessionist and continued to agitate until the mid-1930s when a syndicate of mainly nationalists purchased the paper's parent company. In 1926, Smith and others established the Secession League to provide a public vehicle for advancing the secession cause. Prior to the Great Depression in 1930, the State's major export had beenwheat. However, with the depression, wheat prices plummeted and unemployment in Perth reached 30%, creating economic havoc. Also in 1930, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keith_Watson_(politician) founded the Dominion League which advocated secession and the creation of a separate Dominion of Western Australia. The league held numerous rallies and public meetings which tapped into the general discontent brought on by the depression.
To counter the pro-secession movement, a Federal League of Western Australia was formed which organised a 'No' campaign. They brought several high profile people to Western Australia including the Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, Senator George Pearce, and former Prime Minister Billy Hughes for a brief speaking tour of Perth, Fremantle and country centres, but often received hostile receptions. The Federalists argued for a constitutional convention to examine the state's grievances but was unable to counter the grassroots campaign of the Dominion League. The question of holding a constitutional convention was the second question asked in the referendum.
On 8 April 1933, Nationalist Premier Sir James Mitchell's government held a referendum on secession alongside the State parliamentary election. The Nationalists had campaigned in favour of secession while the Labor party had campaigned against breaking from the Federation. 68% of the 237,198 voters voted in favour of secession, but at the same time the Nationalists were voted out of office. Only the mining areas, populated by keen Federalists, voted against the move.
The Quebec Conference in Quebec City, Canada in 1942 among British and American leaders to coordinate war plans. From left to right: Prime Minister MacKenzie King of Canada, the Governor General of Canada the Earl of Athlone, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, United States First Lady Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom.
At the end of the war in 1945, all imperial territories lost to enemy powers were retaken and restored to the British Empire. Also in 1945, the British Empire expanded to its widest extent as Britain took over administration of Italy’s possessions in Africa including Eritrea, Italian Somaliland (Somalia), part of Libya, the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, and the Dodecanese Islands in the Mediterranean. A British occupation zone was set up in defeated Germany and Austria, as well as French, American and Soviet zones, until 1949. The British planned to make the Dodecanese into a self-governing territory under the British Crown, but they were transferred to Greece in 1947. Britain also briefly administered Madagascar, Syria, Sicily, the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina. Iraq, Egypt, Ethiopia (Italian East Africa after 1936) and southern Iran had also been re-occupied by the British during the war. Egypt, as a fully independent state, had officially remained neutral and did not declare war on Germany and Japan until 24 February 1945. The British removed a pro-German government in Iraq and occupied the country according to the terms of a 1930 treaty which guaranteed an alliance between Britain and Iraq. Iraq officially declared war on Germany and Japan in January 1943. The British occupation of the country lasted until 26 October 1947. Britain planned to merge the Ogaden region of Ethiopia with British and Italian Somaliland into a grand Somalia Protectorate. However, this was later abandoned and Ogaden was returned to Ethiopia in 1948.
The partition of Germany among the Allies at the end of the Second World War in 1945. The British administered the northwest and part of Berlin. West Germany became an independent republic again in 1949.
In 1945, after the end of the war, a general election in Britain swept Winston Churchill, who was a great imperialist who opposed Indian independence, out of power, to be replaced by Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who was more sympathetic to nationalistic demands and creating a British Commonwealth of Nations of completely independent members. Winston Churchill was to return to power in the early 1950's. After 1945, there was now no doubt that the Dominions were nations in their own right. This was recognised by the British Parliament in 1947, and in the case of Canada, King George VI transferred some of his powers to the Canadian Governor General. Australia and New Zealand finally ratified the Statute of Westminster and the Union of South Africa elected a Nationalist government in 1948 which desired a republic. The term 'Dominion' would be abandoned soon after the Second World War as British Commonwealth countries would prefer to be referred to as nations. Indian independence, a key demand for participation in the war by Indian leaders, was only a matter of time. The fall of the world’s greatest Empire was imminent. A new Commonwealth of Nations was about to take shape.
In 1946, following the founding of the United Nations organisation to replace the old League Of Nations, a new Trusteeship Council was set up for previous League of Nations mandated territories. All of the mandated territores of the British Empire such as Tanganyika, Cameroons, Togoland, New Guinea, Nauru and Western Samoa were placed under it along with mandates belonging to other empires. The British and Dominion administration of these territories continued under the supervision of the new Trusteeship Council until these territories eventually gained independence later in the century. The Union of South Africa, however, incorporated Southwest Africa into its own territory, but this was not recognised by the Trusteeship Council and remained a disputed point for many years. Independence was proposed for the mandated territory of Palestine containing a new Jewish state.
The Korean War of the early 1950's was the last conflict in which Commonwealth forces fought together as one Imperial unit as they had done in the Boer War and First and Second World Wars. Afterwards, they went their separate ways though some joining international alliances such as NATO.
Following the Second World War, Britain's economy was devastated and took well into the 1950's to recover. Food rationing continued after the war until it was finally phased out by 1954. Due to a particularly harsh winter in 1947, food rations in Britain were cut during that year. The overseas Dominions showed their loyalty to Britain by coming to Britain's aid with generous donations of food.
Click on the gallery of British Empire maps for 1939 and 1946 below to enlarge them
These maps are low resolution. For quality high resolution maps, please purchase a CD.
A Dominion refers to one of a group of autonomous polities that were nominally under British sovereignty, within the British Empire and British Commonwealth, from 1907. They have included (at varying times) Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, Union of South Africa, and the Irish Free State. Southern Rhodesia and Malta were special cases in the British Empire. Although they were never dominions, they were treated as dominions in many respects. After 1948, the term ‘Dominion’ was briefly used to denote independent nations that retained the British monarch as head of state. The term was phased out in the 1950's.
The concept of self-government for some of the colonies was first formulated in Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America in 1839 which recommended that responsible government (the acceptance by governors of the advice of local ministers) should be granted to Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec). This pattern was subsequently applied to the other Canadian provinces and to the Australian colonies which attained responsible government by 1859, except for Western Australia (1890). New Zealand obtained responsible government in 1856 and the Cape Colony in 1872, followed by Natal in 1893. In 1880, British Empire countries began to exchange High Commissioners to each other. Each unitary colony or dominion had a Governor, but federations like Canada, Australia and South Africa, had a Governor General. A further intermediate form of government, Dominion status, was devised in the late 19th and early 20th century at a series of Colonial Conferences (renamed Imperial Conferences in 1907).
In 1907, all of the self-governing British colonies were restyled as Dominions, a title which previously had only been used by Canada. Canada became a Dominion in 1867, Australia in 1901 (though titled as a Commonwealth), New Zealand and Newfoundland in 1907, the Union of South Africa by 1910 and the Irish Free State in 1922. These five self-governing countries were known as Dominions within the British Empire. Their meetings with the British government were the basis for the idea of the future Commonwealth of Nations. Very limited self-government was granted to India in 1919. This was updated in 1935 with a new act which organised the British Indian Empire into a partially self-governing federation, with the plan to achieve full Dominion Status for India in the near future. Malta and Southern Rhodesia were granted self-government in the 1920's and were almost Dominions. Dominion status, meaning a self-governing territory within the British Empire, existed from 1907 to 1949.
The delegation for the secession of Western Australia in London with the flag of their proposed new Dominion of Western Australia which would remain loyal to the British Crown.
The new Australian Labor government of Philip Collier sent a delegation to London with the referendum result to petition the British government to effectively overturn the previous Act of Parliament which had allowed for the creation of the Australian Federation. The delegation included the Agent General, Sir Hal Colebatch, Matthew Lewis Moss, James MacCallum Smith, and Keith Watson. At that time, the states of Australia had the right to by-pass their Federal government and appeal directly to the Brtish Parliament.
The United Kingdom House of Commons established a select committee to consider the issue but after 18 months of negotiations and lobbying, it finally refused to consider the matter, further declaring that it could not legally grant secession. The delegation returned home empty-handed. As a consequence of the failure of negotiations and of the economic revival, the Secession League gradually lost support and by 1938 had ceased to exist.
The establishment of Imperial Airways occurred in the context of British hopes of prolonging and modernizing maritime empire by using a new transport technology that would facilitate settlement, colonial government and trade. The launch of the airline followed a burst of air route survey in the British Empire after the First World War, and after some experimental (and sometimes dangerous) long-distance flying to the margins of Empire. Created following the advice of the government Hambling Committee in 1923 — that the main existing aircraft companies should be merged to create a company which would be strong enough to develop Britain's external air services — and offered a £1m subsidy over ten years if they merged. Imperial Airways Limited was formed in March 1924 from the British Marine Air Navigation Company Ltd (three flying boats), the Daimler Airway (five aircraft), Handley Page Transport Ltd (three aircraft) and the Instone Air Line Ltd (two aircraft). The land operations were based at Croydon Airport to the south of London. IAL immediately discontinued its predecessors' service to points north of London, the airline not being interested in serving what they regarded as the 'provinces'. The first commercial flight was in April 1924, when a daily London-Paris service was opened. Additional services to other European destinations were started throughout the summer. The first new airliner was commissioned by Imperial Airways in November 1924. In the first year of operation the company carried 11,395 passengers and 212,380 letters. In April 1925, The Lost World(a recent blockbuster film) was shown to the passengers on the London-Paris route. This was the first time that a film had been screened for passengers on a plane. The extension of service to the British Empire (Empire Services) was not begun until 1927 when, with the addition of six new aircraft, a service was instituted from Cairo to Basra. but the first service from London for Karachi did not start until 1929 using newly purchased Short S.8 Calcutta flying boats, even then the passengers were transported by train from Paris to the Mediterranean where the Short flying boats were. In February 1931 a weekly service between London and Tanganyika was started as part of the proposed route to Cape Town and in April an experimental London-Australia air mail flight took place; the mail was transferred at the Dutch East Indies, and took 26 days in total to reach Sydney.
The purchase of eight Handley Page HP.42 four-engined airliners boosted the range of services, in 1932 the service to Africa was extended to Cape Town. Typically, services were inaugurated with considerable ceremony and publicity. In Australia in 1934 Imperial and Qantas (Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services Ltd) formed Qantas Empire Airways Limited to extended services in Southeast Asia. But it was not until 1937 with the Short Empire flying boats that Imperial could offer a real through service from Southampton to the Empire. The journey to the Cape consisted of flights via Marseille, Rome, Brindisi, Athens, Alexandria, Khartoum, Port Bell, Kisumu and onwards by land-based craft to Nairobi, Mbeya and eventually Cape Town. Survey flights were also made across the Atlantic and to New Zealand. By mid-1937 Imperial had completed its thousandth service to the Empire. In 1934 the Government began negotiations with Imperial Airways to establish a service to carry mail by air on routes served by the airline. Indirectly these negotiations led to the dismissal of Sir Christopher Bullock, the Permanent Secretary of the Air Ministry, who was found by a board of enquiry to have abused his position in seeking a position on the board of the company while these negotiations were in train. The Empire Air Mail Programme began in July 1937, delivering anywhere for 1½ d./oz.
By mid-1938 a hundred tons of mail had been delivered to India and a similar amount to Africa. In the same year, construction was started on the Empire Terminal in Victoria, London, designed by A. Lakeman and with a statue by Eric Broadbent, Speed Wings Over the World gracing the portal above the main entrance. The terminal provided train connections to flying boats at Southampton and to the since closed Croydon Airport. The terminal operated as recently as 1980. To help promote use of the Air Mail service, in June and July, 1939, Imperial Airways participated with Pan American Airways in providing a special "around the world" service with Imperial carrying the souvenir mail eastbound over the Foynes, Ireland, to Hong Kong portion of the New York to New York route. Pan American provided service from New York (departing on June 24) to Foynes (via the first flight of Northern FAM 18) and Hong Kong to San Francisco (via FAM 14), while United Airlines carried it on the final leg from San Francisco to New York where it arrived on July 28. Captain H.W.C. Alger was the first pilot to fly the inaugural air mail flight carrying mail from England to Australia for the first time on the Castor for Imperial Airways' Empires Air Routes, in 1937. Compared to other operators (Air France, KLM, Lufthansa) it was lagging behind in Europe and it was suggested that all European operations be handed over to its competitor British Airways Ltd (founded in 1935) which had more modern aircraft and better organisation. However in November 1939 both Imperial and British Airways Ltd were merged into a new state-owned national carrier: British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). The new carrier adopted the Imperial Speedbird logo, which has evolved into the present British Airways Speedmarque, and the term (Speedbird) continues to be used as BA's call sign.
In population and in industrial capacity, the allies, even after losing France, were stronger than the axis powers.
Union of South Africa 1928
The First World War had enhanced a sense of nationhood among the British Dominions and they no longer wanted to be considered to be nothing more than colonies. This was particularly pushed by the nationalistic Union of South Africa and Irish Free State. They were mostly self-governing and wanted a new status in the British Empire which would give them a large measure of independence and allow them to be consulted on imperial affairs and even to opt out of decisions they did not agree with. This led to the setting up of an inter-imperial affairs committee and the Balfour Declaration of 1926 which stated that the Dominions were"autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate one to another in any aspect of their domestic or external affairs, though united by a common allegiance to the Crown, and freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations." By 1936, the flags of the Governors General were changed from being based on the Union Jack to the royal crest on a blue flag. In 1928, the Union of South Africa adopted a new tricolour national flag containing the Union Jack and the flags of the old Boer Republics. This flag was flown equally alongside the Union Jack. South Africa’s previous British-style ensign continued for maritime use until after the Second World War.
* This does not include all of the British colonies, protectorates and mandates in Africa, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Far East.
The British Empire possessed further resources for war, Canada and Australia had significant industries, and their populations, like those of New Zealand and white Union of South Africa, were well-educated and physically and mentally capable of providing high-quality recruits. These four self-governing dominions followed the British lead and declared war in 1939.
Citizens of the new British Commonwealth retained the common British Subject status. The Governor General of each Dominion would now represent the Crown and not the British Government. New Zealandhad had a Governor General since 1917 but Newfoundland still had a Governor. The King continued to have a common Imperial title throughout all part of the British Empire of 'King of Great Britain and Ireland and the British Dominions Beyond the Seas and Emperor of India'. Individual citizenships of the Dominions was not to be created until after the Second World War.
Despite the passing of the Statute of Westminster and the granting of full self-government to the Dominions, complete constitutional independence was still not yet achieved. The Statute did not, however, immediately provide for any changes to the legislation establishing the constitutions of the Dominions. This meant, for example, that many constitutional changes continued to require the intervention of the British Parliament, although only at the request and with the consent of the Dominions. The constitutional powers of the British Parliament over the Dominions was not removed in Canada, Australia and New Zealand until the 1980's, in the Union of South Africa until it left the Commonwealth in 1961, and in the Irish Free State until it adopted its own quasi-republican constitution in 1937.
Under the provisions of section 9 of the Statute, the British Parliament still had the power to pass legislation regarding the Australian states, although "in accordance with the [existing] constitutional practice". In practice, these powers were not exercised. For example, in a referendum held in April 1933 in Western Australia, 68% of voters voted for the state to leave the Commonwealth of Australia with the aim of becoming a separate Dominion within the British Empire. The state government sent a delegation to Westminster to cause the result to be enacted, but the British Parliament refused to intervene on the grounds that it was a matter for the Commonwealth of Australia. As a result no action was taken.
So in a legal sense, the Dominions remained colonies for long after the Statute of Westminster was passed, gaining full independence once the power of the British Parliament to legislate for them was completely removed. They were completely self-governing in all other matters and were no longer automatically at war when Britain went to war. The Dominions made their own declarations of war at the start of the Second World War in 1939. The Statute of Westminster did provide that any new dominions created in the future would be fully self-governing. This was encouraging to Indian nationalists who were seeking full independence by the 1930's.
Second World War poster showing Imperial unity in the war
At the start of the war, many thought the empire was finished. But the dominions especially had other ideas. The Australian Prime Minister, Robert Menzies announced "We are in this most holy war with you; everything that we have of manpower or treasure or skill or determination is pledged to work and fight for you and with you until victory is attained ... One King, one Flag, One Cause."
The New Zealand Prime Minister Michael Savage, asked the governor general for a formal declaration of war before proclaiming 'Where she goes, we go, where she stands, we stand'.
The Canadians contributed nearly 500,000 and their first contingents arrived in Britain by December 1939. The Australians raised more than half million men and women - 27,000 of them were killed. Two divisions of New Zealanders were in the Pacific and the Middle East. The South Africans, who at first stayed in their own continent, later fought through Italy. Tens of thousands of colonials went through aircrew training - much of it in Canada. Of the more than 30,000 merchant sailors who perished during the Battle of the Atlantic, 5,000 were from the colonies.
In Africa, as many as 200,000 became miners, carriers and labourers to harvest the natural resources needed to manufacture weapons and feed those who would use them. Ghana produced industrial diamonds and manganese for guns. Nigeria produced timber, palm oil, groundnuts, rubber and tin. Sierra Leone raised war funds for Britain "in grateful recognition of the great benefits which Sierra Leone has received during the past 135 years under the British flag." The ruler of Benin gave £10 a month out of his salary.
The Dominions, including Australia, had the option of joining the war or not. Not so the Indians. The viceroy, Lord Linlithgow declared war without consulting any of the major political or cultural figures. They were treated just as they had been at the start of the First World War. Indian Congress refused to participate in government. But Gandhi told Linlithgow that he viewed the war with an English heart. Nehru said he was offended by the viceroy's proclamation but not its sentiment and, 2.25 million Indian Army soldiers were committed to the war.
The Seonc World War briefly revived British imperialism. But the Attlee government that followed Churchill's coalition in 1945 knew the end of empire was in sight. By 1947, even Churchill could see that.
The Dominions and India had had their own armed forces since the early 1900's. They were all modelled on the British armed forces, flew British ensigns and they served alongside British forces as one Imperial fighting force in both world wars. Even though they flew British flags, the Dominions began to use their own markings on their ships and fighter planes after 1940.
A banner from Australia in the 1930's promoting inter-Empire trade with Canada
Union of South Africa 1910
Packages of food destined for London, UK during the 'Food for the people of Britain Campaign' in Toronto, Ontario, Canada 1947.
Dominion Status was very inexactly defined until the Statute of Westminster in 1931 established it as complete self-government within the British Empire, as recommended in the Balfour Report of 1926. The Statute had established a new sovereign Dominion Status in the Empire which it was hoped would eventually sastisfy the demand for self-government in other parts of the Empire as well such as India. Southern Rhodesia and Malta had gained autonomy in the 1920's and were considered de facto British Dominions, but the Statute of Westminster did not apply to them yet, so they continued with the pre-Statute British constitutional status. It was expected that they would soon become fully autonomous Dominions like the others and they even participated in the Imperial Conferences.
By an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament, the Statute of Westminster took effect immediately in Canada, the Union of South Africa and the Irish Free State making them the first sovereign British Dominions. Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland would remain as colonial Dominions until their parliaments passed resolutions adopting the Statute as was required in their constitutions. Australia did not adopt the Statute until 1942 (though it was backdated to 3 September 1939 at the start of the Second World War) and New Zealand did not adopt it until 1947. Newfoundland never adopted the Statute since on 16 February 1934, Newfoundland reverted back to full colony status governed by British Commissioners due to financial difficulties and eventually joined Canada as its tenth province in 1949. The Canadian government requested that the British North America Act, acting as Canada’s constitution, remain in the possession of the British government since Canadian politicians could not agree on an amending formula. Australian States still had the right of appeal to the British Government and New Zealand's constitution remained in British hands. The Statute had granted legislative independence, but not constitutional independence, which came much later.
The Dominions even gained the right to secede from the Empire, a right which Ireland soon exercised. The Union of South Africa contented itself for now by giving itself its own national flag, but it too would ultimately secede thirty years later. Canada, Australia and New Zealand remain under the Crown today by their own choice. The Statute of Westminster provided that all new Dominions created in the future would be fully sovereign. Discussions had already begun on granting this status to India, which was not to happen until after the Second World War.
Despite this new sovereign status, the Dominions were still firmly parts of the British Empire by still being constitutionally bound to the United Kingdom. Governors General often moved around the Empire. Lord Willingdon, for example, was Governor General of Canada in 1926 and then Viceroy of India in 1931. The Earl of Athlone had been Governor General of the Union of South Africa since 1924 and he later became Governor General of Canada in 1931. Members of the British Royal Family continued to be Governors General in the Dominions until well after the Second World War.
On 11 December 1931, the United Kingdom and the now completely legislatively self-governing Dominions of the British Empire: the Dominion of Canada, the Union Of South Africa and the Irish Free State formed the British Commonwealth. The Commonwealth of Australia and the Dominion of New Zealand became parts of it in 1942 and 1947 respectively when they adopted the Statute of Westminster. The British Commonwealth was the collective name for the now completely autonomous Dominions of the British Empire united by a common allegiance to the Crown. The United Kingdom would only act on their behalf with their consent and they made their own declarations of war at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. They could even negotiate treaties with foreign countries with no British involvement.
In 1935, a large measure of self-government was granted to India with an elected central parliament, but ultimate executive power still remained with the British-appointed Viceroy. There was an expectation that India would soon gain full Dominion Status within the British Commonwealth, though many Indian nationalists preferred full independence outside the British Empire. India, Southern Rhodesia and Malta continued to be Dominions in the pre-Statute of Westminster sense with self-government, but with the final power still resting with Britain. In 1937, Burma was separated from the British Indian Empire and made into a separate British colony. It was expected to eventually gain Dominion status along with India. Northern Ireland was almost a Dominion with a full parliament of its own, but continued to send members to the British Imperial Parliament at Westminster as a part of the United Kingdom. In 1938, a West Indies Royal Commission recommended the establishment of a federation of the British West Indies as a new self-governing Dominion in the British Commonwealth similar to Canada. This did not happen for another twenty years and then only briefly, ending in failure due to disagreement amongst the constituent islands.
Union of South Africa
It is often said that the British Empire peaked in the 1920s, following World War One (1914-18), in which it gained most of the German territories in Africa, and Ottoman provinces in the Near East by League of Nations mandates. After the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the British monarch remained (and still remains, except for South Africa), the monarch of the Dominions, represented by British Governors General and their citizens remained British Subjects until at least 1947, so the Dominions continued to be counted as parts of the British Empire. World War Two (1939-45) showed that they were indeed parts of the Empire: in 1939 the Australian prime minister informed his country that Britain had declared war on Germany and that "as a result Australia is also at war", and in 1940 millions of pounds of gold were shipped to Canada in preparation for a possible relocation of the British royal family. By this reckoning, the Empire reached its greatest extent following that war, in 1945 when most of the Italian territories in Africa (Libya, Eritrea and Somaliland) were occupied by Britain, as was all of Northwest Germany and parts of Austria and Berlin.
Pounds Sterling circulated in the British Empire, but in some parts, they were used alongside local currencies such as the Indian Rupee. For example, the gold sovereign was legal tender in Canada despite the use of the Canadian dollar. Several colonies and dominions adopted the Pound as their own currency. These included the Australian, British West African, Cypriot, Fijian, Jamaican, New Zealand, South African and Southern Rhodesian Pounds. Some of these Pounds retained parity with Sterling throughout their existence (e.g. the South African Pound), whilst others deviated from parity in later years (e.g. the Australian Pound). These currencies and others tied to Sterling constituted the Sterling Area.
The Sterling Area arrangement lasted until 1967 and was phased out by 1972, when most of its members had either quit or pegged to the U.S. Dollar and the United Kingdom was negotiating to enter the European Common Market.
Empire troops from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, South Africa, India and other colonies served loyally in the Boer War (1899 – 1902), in the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939 – 1945). In the Boer War and in the First World War, the Dominions were automatically at war when Britainwent to war. However, after the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, the Dominions could choose to serve or to remain out of Britain’s wars. British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who led the British Empire during the Second World War, consulted the Dominions on the war effort. In the Second World War, the self-governing Dominions came loyally to Britain's side immediately when war broke out.Australia and New Zealand declared war on the same day as Britain – September 3, 1939. A bitterly divided South African parliament also declared war on this day. The Canadian parliament took one week to debate and approve the declaration of war, which was issued for Canada on September 10, 1939. However, Ireland, which had declared itself a de facto republic in 1937, remained neutral. India, not yet fully self-governing, was automatically at war when Britain went to war, much to the anger of Indian nationalists who were demanding independence. Many Indians fought loyally with the British and others helped the Japanese.
During 1939 -1945 the British Empire joined together in war for the final time. More than 8.7 million from the colonies and dominions rallied round the Union Flag. More than 450,000 were killed. Churchill in 1940 proclaimed "Without victory there is no survival. Let that be realised. No survival for the British Empire. No survival for all that the British Empire has stood."