A Companion to Commonwealth Studies: Cultural Relations since 1884

Introductory framework


Origins of the Project

Over the years, the meaning of the term ‘Commonwealth’ has been made to fit a number of very different geopolitical realities. Its current associations are emphatically cultural. Researchers working in postcolonial and related fields might well welcome such a cultural turn, were it not for the fact that the idea of culture which is projected on the official sources of information about the Commonwealth seems, to say the least, somewhat hollow. It is to show how rich and dynamic not just the cultures but the cultural reciprocities have been, from the very inception of the Commonwealth, that this book is being written.  

In that sense, the source of this work is the official website of the Commonwealth Secretariat. In 2009, the year which marked the 60th anniversary of the London Declaration, the projection of the Commonwealth moved from that, which it had had in the 1990s, of quaint historical relic to that of an organization which had a ‘vibrant’ cultural role to play in the new world order of the 21st century. In keeping with this reinvigorated image, the ‘modern Commonwealth’ has been given a simpler definition than the one negotiated with such diplomatic nicety in 1926. It is now “a voluntary association of 54 countries that support each other and work together towards shared goals in democracy and development”. The goals, it appeared, were shared because they were based on values which, in November 2009, had been agreed and announced in the Affirmation of Commonwealth Values and Principles which followed the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The latter document reveals that the ‘core values’ of the Commonwealth are now perceived as a collective respect for twelve ideas: international peace and security, democracy, human rights, tolerance, respect and understanding, separation of powers, rule of law, freedom of expression, development, gender equality, access to health and education, good governance and civil society.

Further exploration of the web space devoted to the Commonwealth may suggest one of the reasons why its cultural role is now considered worth re-emphasizing. In 2008 a research report, called Putting Culture First, was published, duly followed by a Commonwealth Statement on Culture and Development (2010). Both publications were based on the ideas that had been circulating since the collection of essays edited in 2000 by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntingdon, called Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress. Throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century, in this and the work of numerous high-profile writers and think tanks, it had been argued that the reasons hampering poor countries from becoming rich were essentially cultural. It followed that the study of the cultural environment of poor countries and communities would create a mutually beneficial understanding between those manifestly in need of development and those who could provide them with the tools for such development.  If the Commonwealth were seen as an already organized network of communication between the haves and the have-nots, then it suddenly took on a new relevance.

Like all values, those supposedly shared by the commonwealth countries are linked to a common experience of something called ‘culture’.  Researchers in the humanities generally, and those working in the fields of cultural studies and postcolonial literature in particular, would certainly have no initial quarrel with that proposition, but they might well feel uncomfortable with a view of culture which sees it primarily – indeed, often exclusively – as a means to a commercial end. Cultural products of whatever kind are of course part of the economic system in which they are produced and, like everyone else, artists need to earn enough money to stay alive, but to consider them merely as economic agents, is surely to limit the discussion, first, to the formulaic and, over time, to the spiritless. Nevertheless, managers and scholars can at least agree that culture is a force to be reckoned with and so, even though ‘forces’ are notoriously hard to analyze, at least the way they work and the results produced were susceptible to study. Indeed, this was the scientific task that in 2010 the members of a research team interested in the literature and cultures of the commonwealth, and based at the University of Toulouse 2, set for themselves.  

A Companion to Commonwealth Studies: Cultural Relations since 1884 will be the result of five years of seminar discussions, conferences and editorial work. As its title implies, its contents will be focused on one specific aspect (cultural relations) of a specific geopolitical organization (the Commonwealth) during a specified period of time (from 1884 to the present). The following remarks are designed to clarify the geographical and historical markers which, together with an outline of what may be understood by the term ‘cultural relations’ define the critical limits of this work.


Geographical limits

What precisely is meant by ‘the Commonwealth’ in 2016? Drawing up an alphabetical list of its 54 members is not difficult:

Antigua and Barbuda; Australia; The Bahamas; Bangladesh; Barbados; Belize; Botswana; Brunei Darussalam; Cameroon; Canada; Cyprus; Dominica; Fiji Islands; The Gambia; Ghana; Grenada; Guyana; India; Jamaica; Kenya; Kiribati; Lesotho; Malawi; Malaysia; Maldives; Malta; Mauritius; Mozambique; Namibia; Nauru; New Zealand; Nigeria; Pakistan; Papua New Guinea; Rwanda; St Kitts and Nevis; St Lucia; St Vincent and the Grenadines; Samoa; Seychelles; Sierra Leone; Singapore; Solomon Islands; South Africa; Sri Lanka; Swaziland; Tonga; Trinidad and Tobago; Tuvalu; Uganda; United Kingdom; United Republic of Tanzania; Vanuatu; Zambia.

Yet even this lengthy list does not cover the entire geographical area which might come under the heading of ‘Commonwealth culture’. On the one hand, to the 54 countries which qualify for membership because they are independent nation-states, could be added a number of territories which, due to their dependent status, are considered ‘associate’ rather than ‘full’ members of the Commonwealth. On the other, the current list of members ignores those parts of the former British Empire which did not choose to join the Commonwealth: Ireland and Burma, for instance. The Companion articles are focused on the 54 present-day members of the Commonwealth, but references to cultural events concerning associated members of the Commonwealth and former members of the British Empire have been included when they were deemed appropriate.

Naturally, the very act of drawing up such a list draws attention to the immense size and heterogeneity of the collective unit called ‘the Commonwealth’, and therefore to the complexity of our task. Moreover – and this is a point which should give pause to those who proclaim that the Commonwealth is merely a thing of the past – it is a community which has constantly increased over time. It is worth stating the exact numbers involved at different stages of Commonwealth history. Of the present-day members of the Commonwealth, only five (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, United Kingdom) were mentioned in the Balfour Declaration of 1926. By 1948, three new members were able to attend the Prime Ministers’ meeting: India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). At the time of the Singapore Declaration of 1971, the Commonwealth numbered 33 full members. By the time of the Harare Declaration of 1991, this had increased to 51.

Most significant of all, both in terms of the continuing relevance of the Commonwealth and for the cultural questions raised, is the recent addition of three countries which, despite having only the most tenuous of links with the former British Empire, have been accepted as members of the Commonwealth. In the order of increasing controversy, these are Cameroon and Mozambique (1995) and Rwanda (2009). Nor, apparently, does the trend of an ever-expanding Commonwealth look likely to cease: Algeria, Madagascar, Somaliland (a self-declared state), South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen have all applied for Commonwealth membership.

The sheer variety of Commonwealth members has long been presented as a virtue. Early historians of the British Empire used the piecemeal quality of its composition as evidence that the British had never had and, by implication, could never have, any preconceived plan to people and conquer the world. The present-day Secretariat prefers to underline the self-evidently multicultural and pluralistic nature of the Commonwealth, using the quantative terms that have become characteristic of our times:


The world’s largest and smallest, richest and poorest countries make up the Commonwealth and are home to two billion citizens of all faiths and ethnicities – over half of whom are 25 or under. Member countries span six continents and oceans from Africa (19) to Asia (8), the Americas (3), the Caribbean (10), Europe (3) and the South Pacific (11). [1]


The unity of such a far-flung structure has from the first been dependent on the real or symbolic presence of a strong centre. During the period of Empire, this was the metropolitan centre of London which, with the exception of the emergency Prime Ministers’ meeting held in Lagos in 1966, was where the Colonial, Imperial and Commonwealth conferences were always held. Since 1971, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGMs) have been held in other capitals, on a voluntary basis, but the symbolic and structural unity of the commonwealth remain embodied in Windsor and Westminster.

Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of the Commonwealth, and her official duties require her to make periodic visits and partial tours of the Commonwealth, to attend the biannual CHOGMs and the events associated with Commonwealth Day, including a broadcast message. The evolution of the Commonwealth after the compromise reached in the London Declaration of 1949 has demonstrated that the British monarch is a sufficient symbol of Commonwealth unity but it would appear from official sources that she or he may not be a necessary one. The website of the Commonwealth Secretariat is quite clear on this point:

When the Queen dies or if she abdicates, her heir will not automatically become Head of the Commonwealth. It will be up to the Commonwealth heads of government to decide what they want to do about this symbolic role.[2]

The Commonwealth, it has often been noted, functions more like an informal club than a formal political organization. Its organizational centre is a non-executive Secretariat, created in June 1965 and housed in Marlborough House. Here are located the offices of a staff of some 360, headed by the Secretary-General (currently Mr. Kamalesh Sharma, from India) and the Deputy Secretaries-General (currently Mr. Ransford Smith, from Jamaica and Ms. Mmasekgoa Masire-Mwamba, from Botswana). The word ‘culture’ does not figure in the list of sections which these three oversee (see Annex 3) but doubtless it is understood that cultural issues underpin the work done in every section. Since 1987, the Secretariat has been responsible for issuing a nominally annual Yearbook.

Also founded in 1965 and housed in Marlborough House, the Commonwealth Foundation assists initiatives between members of what is now called ‘civil society’, by which is meant individuals and NGOs, all that is neither a public service nor a private company. Although membership is open to all Commonwealth members, in fact only 47 countries are currently represented, together with one associate member, Gibraltar. (The Foundation has charitable status, and is run by a Board of Governors currently chaired by Simone de Comarmond, of the Republic of Seychelles. It assists the work of professional bodies working within the Commonwealth (architects, doctors, historians and lawyers, for instance) and runs the website for new Commonwealth Writers, offering annual prizes for the best book and the best short story.

Loosely linked to this clear structural centre are a plethora of satellite associations of all kinds, many of which have a place in this Companion. It is perhaps worth drawing attention here to one series of institutions, because it is closely linked to the question of Commonwealth culture: the Imperial Institute (1893-1958), the Commonwealth Institute (1962-2002) and (since 2007). the Commonwealth Education Trust. As the entries in this Companion will show, the three buildings alone say much about the cultural politics of their different times.


Historical limits

The question of differences over time brings us to the historical limits of this Companion. Despite a general feeling that an earlier date might have been more appropriate, it was agreed that there were two good reasons for confining the focus of our study to the period since 1984. The first was that it was in keeping with the origins of our collective interest in the phenomenon of Commonwealth culture, which had arisen in response to the official view of the Commonwealth according to what could be read on the official websites. It was felt that the Companion could best serve the purpose of contemporary readers if it adhered to the historical markers set by present-day perceptions.

A second reason was that 1884 marked the first use of the term ‘Commonwealth of Nations’, not then a political reality but already a prophetic idea. ‘Commonwealth of nations’ is a term which has a history which there is no need for us to retrace here, since it has already been done, in a classic article published in 1963 and entitled  On the use of the term ‘commonwealth by S.R. Mehrota.


Critical limits

It will be noticed that the title of this Companion uses the term ‘cultural relations’ rather than merely ‘culture’. Initial discussions of culture, ranging from Arnold and Eliot to contemporary definitions by full-time cultural theorists, revealed that the nature and function of culture had meant and might still mean such different things to different people at different times and in different places. Any single view of culture could only be fully operative in its own context. Consequently, we felt, it was better to allow the individual contributors to choose the critical terms they deemed appropriate to the article being written.

One central point, however, was agreed to provide a firm and common perspective: “the production of sense, meaning and consciousness” (culture) depended on” interaction by means of mutually recognized signals” (communication). The definitions belong to John Hartley’s key concepts [3]; the words in italics were the ones we wished to examine.

By a happy coincidence, in 2009, the British Council was celebrating “75 years of cultural relations”. It was quickly agreed that this was a field which would suit our purpose much better. The meaning of “cultural relations”, while perhaps as difficult of definition as “culture” considered for its own sake, did at least contain an intrinsic dynamic which could be related to each individual case. Above all, the term “cultural relations” allowed us to bring to the fore what we felt to be the underlying reason for a renewed official interest in the Commonwealth. What lay behind the newly-enhanced cultural role of the Commonwealth was the recognition of the importance of ‘soft power’.

The phrase has been fashionable since the publication of Joseph Nye’s Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (2000), but the idea itself is by no means new. As early as the seventeenth century Hobbes had distinguished between the colonization by conquest obtained by hard power and colonization by consent, which worked through soft power. Writing from British India in 1867, Charles Dilke observed that:

The Western character of our codes, and their want of elasticity and adaptability to Eastern conditions, is one among many causes of our unpopularity.[4]

A century later, Corelli Barnett, setting out to account for the causes of the collapse of Britain as a world power, acknowledged the need to see ‘power’ as something more than a mere synonym of ‘might’:

The power of a nation-state by no means consists only in its armed forces, but also in its economic and technological resources; in the dexterity, foresight and resolution with which foreign policy is conducted; in the efficiency of its social and political organization. It consists most of all in the nation itself, the people; their skills, energy, ambition, discipline, initiative; their beliefs, myths and illusions. And it consists, further, in the way all these factors are related to one another. Moreover, national power has to be considered not only in itself, in its absolute extent, but relative to the state’s foreign or imperial obligations; it has to be considered relative to the power of other states.[5]

For analytical purposes, ‘soft power’ can be taken as synonymous with ‘cultural relations’. If we have preferred the latter term for our title, it is because we wish avoid the overwhelmingly political connotations of Nye’s term.  Yet it is clear that even in those articles in which the relationships between soft and hard power are not addressed directly, they remain one of the fundamental questions running through the work as a whole.

An interest in cultural relations implies an interest in the transmission of ideas: both for their own sake, in terms of the messages being transmitted, and for the relation those messages might bear to the power struggle taking place at the time they were being emitted and received. As Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan and their followers would argue, the content of Commonwealth culture depends on the forms of communication available at any given time. The age of empire was also the age of cable and wireless. The railway, the steamship, the telegraph, film, recording technology, radio, TV, satellite and Internet were all developed during the period covered by this Companion. The technological forms dominant in different ways and at different times quite literally shape the ideological messages they carry.

Soft power flows through certain channels which can be located and studied. That is why most of the entries that we propose in this call for contributions correspond to local expressions of cultural relations: official and non-official institutions, educational establishments, the media, cultural events and invented traditions. To these classic locations of culture we have added two other categories, connected to the cultural aspects of language and literature: the publication of dictionaries, the export of certain words, and a number of literary controversies.


New styles of architecture, a change of heart [6]

By any standards, the goal we had set ourselves was ambitious, and obviously beyond the scope of a single research group. Like the preliminary seminars, the final work could only be cooperative one, to which all scholars, national and international, with an interest in the Commonwealth might be invited to contribute an article on the subject of their choice. Cairn-like, the final work would be the sum of these individual contributions: a compendium of articles, under entries arranged in alphabetical order, for ease of reference. The original research group could not on their own write a work which would do justice to the complexity of their theme, but they could make themselves responsible for the editorial work: the soliciting of the articles, the checking of their conformity to a style sheet, the peer-reviewing of their content and the coordination of the whole.

The audience we had in mind were all those who, for whatever reason, wish to know more about the constitution and communication of the many cultures of the Commonwealth than can be found on the official web pages. The articles would be written by individual scholars, for students, colleagues and independent scholars. They would condense real research into a short jargon-free format that could be easily and inexpensively accessed from a virtual bookshelf. In conscious tribute to similar reference works published in hardback a generation ago by Oxford and Cambridge, we felt the term Companion best reflected the reader-friendly goal we had in mind.

As our General Bibliography indicates, there are already many fine theoretical works on culture and communication, but few of them pay any attention to more than one area of the Commonwealth. There have also been many useful histories of the British Empire and Commonwealth, but they have either paid little heed to cultural relations, or studied exclusively one aspect of the cultural field. There was a need therefore for a broader-based work, which condensed deeper thought into concise dictionary-like articles.  The anthology form reflects our conviction that if the idea of a ‘Commonwealth culture’ is to be better apprehended, then what is needed is not more application of literary and cultural theory to a particular area, but the gathering-together of as broad as possible a series of particular case studies. If, as the official website suggests, the legacy of the Commonwealth, and its ongoing role, are indeed cultural, then that can be shown to be true, and from the sum of the demonstrations, interesting lessons about cultural relations can be learnt.

The choice of entries has been and, up to the final call for contributions, will remain, emphatically empirical. With the present call for contributions comes a list of proposed entries, drawn from thematic seminar discussions. The length for each entry (3000, 6000, 9000 signs + bibliography of 3, 6 or 9 titles) has also been fixed. Most entries concern cultural events or institutions which cannot be ignored. They are representative of their time and are all the more worthy of entry if they have become the subject of controversy since. The coordination of the whole requires that each article be focused on the problematic of cultural relations (soft power) and on the contribution of the institution/event/word/work in question to the enhancement and/or hindrance of cultural understanding within the Commonwealth.  But within that general thematic constraint, each individual author is free to describe, explain and discuss his/her chosen topic in the critical terms he/she pleases. The research team is also open to further suggestions for entries, so that the widest possible range of research into cultural aspects of the Commonwealth may be represented. Indeed, the best anthologies are the product not only of rational, albeit reluctant choice, but also serendipity.

In 2012 the annually-chosen Commonwealth theme was a concern for Connecting Cultures. This Companion aims to do exactly that. The project began locally, in Toulouse, but its completion will connect French and international scholars who share the same desire to understand what, precisely, might constitute ‘Commonwealth culture’. When the final work is published in 2016, exclusively online, by the Presses Universitaires du Mirail, it will have brought together scholars from every area of Commonwealth Studies. In sum, the connecting of cultures within a scholarly framework are both the means and the end of this book.




[3]John Hartley, Communication, Cultural and Media Studies: The Key Concepts, Routledge, 3rd edition, 2002.

[4]Charles Dilke, Greater Britain, Cosimo Classics, 2005, 526.

[5]Corelli Barnett, The Collapse of British Power, Sutton Publishing, 1972, 1984, xi.

[6] The quotation is taken from W.H. Auden, Selected Poems, 1979, 7.