Commonwealth is a term (in Latin, res publica ) with a rich and varied usage. It literally means the wealth or well-being of a public or whole body of people and sometimes implies a specific form of government. In the English language it was much used from the sixteenth century onwards, by Shakespeare for example. In the seventeenth century it was the name for England’s government, from the overthrow of King Charles I in 1649 until the abdication of Richard Cromwell in 1659. It is also part of the official names for a few U.S. states and, since 1901, for Australia. The term also is used sometimes for a community or organization with shared interests, as in the phrase “the commonwealth of learning.”
The principal and best-known contemporary use of the term is in relation to the more than fifty states that are members of what is today known simply as “the Commonwealth,” which evolved out of what was earlier known as “the British Commonwealth.” This Commonwealth as it is today emerged over decades out of the erstwhile British Empire and showed a considerable ability to modify, adapt, and reinvent itself. Britain initially ran the Commonwealth in tandem with the so-called dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and, from 1921 to 1949, Ireland. Although it is a diplomatic ensemble, the Commonwealth has never been a clear cut economic or trade unit. While there was considerable overlap, the sterling area of the 1930s to the 1970s, made up of countries that used the pound sterling or pegged their currency to it, was never exactly coterminous with the Commonwealth.
By joining the Commonwealth in the late 1990s, India, Pakistan, and Ceylon (from 1972 Sri Lanka) turned membership from a white man’s club into a postimperial multiracial association. In the late twentieth century, decolonization and anticolonial movements, including opposition to South Africa’s apartheid policies, provided dynamism and led to expanding membership. In 1949 there were eight members; by 1965 when the Commonwealth Secretariat was launched (as a servicing bureaucracy for the whole Commonwealth), there were twenty-one members; by 2006 there were fifty-three members, of whom over half were small states with populations of less than 1.5 million each (many had much smaller populations, numbered merely in tens of thousands).
Today, the Commonwealth has an extensive range of special associations amounting to over one hundred nongovernmental organizations. Its two most publicized activities are the biennial Heads of Government Meetings (colloquially known by the acronym CHOGM) and the Commonwealth’s Games held every fourth year. Over the past century there has been a very extensive literature of books, journals, and pamphlets devoted to the Commonwealth’s characteristics, achievements, and shortcomings.
In addition to the commonwealth discussed above, there is another that attracts little publicity: the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The CIS was founded on December 8, 1991, in Vistuli, capital for the Belarussian government, as a community of independent states that proclaimed itself the successor to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in some aspects of international law and affairs. The member states are the founders, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, plus nine subsequent adherents: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
McIntyre, W. David. 2001. A Guide to the Contemporary Commonwealth. London: Palgrave.
Srinivasan, Krishnan. 2005. The Rise, Decline, and Future of the British Commonwealth. London: Palgrave.