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Some nations have incorporated the Union Jack into their own national flag as a vexillogical symbol of their close relations with Britain. Just as the flag of Great Britain gives visible expression to the union between England, Scotland and Northern Ireland so do the flags of some of these independent nations. The history of the Union Jack not only records the history of the birth and development of Great Britain but also the decline and fall of the British Empire, and the strengthening of common bonds based on equality that now unite Britain to her former colonies.

From the British Empire to the Commonwealth of Nations

At the time when the development of Great Britain was taking place we also have the discovery of new lands during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. We have the rise of British colonialism and the birth of the greatest empire of all times the British Empire.

During the 20th century, after World War II, the process of decolonisation began. The age of colonialism was over and the British Empire came to an end. Those nations that wanted independence were granted it. In the case of many countries, notably in the African continent, this has lead to great instability and continual tribal wars. However, in other countries, it has lead to greater national awareness. Out of that tendency to decolonise came the desire, on the part of many countries, to form a great "family", a special union, for economic, cultural and social reasons. The name of that "family" is "The Commonwealth of Nations", an association of sovereign states that have, at some time in the past, been ruled or are still being ruled by Britain. Recently there has been a new development in the Commonwealth. There are now countries asking to join who have never been part of the Empire. Mozambique is one such example. The most recent members are South Africa (1994), Cameroon (1995) and Mozambique (1995). All members recognise the British Monarch as Head of the Commonwealth.

There are a total of fifty-three countries located in various parts of the world. There are tiny Pacific and Caribbean islands such as Nauru and Tuvalu and larger nations such as Canada and Australia. The total population of these member states has been estimated at 1.6 billion.

One point should be made clear: the Commonwealth of today should not be confused with the Empire of yesterday. This community of nations is built on the principles of partnership, equality, and help for the poorer members.

We shall now take a general look at one or two aspects of that development. The subjects of colonialism and the Commonwealth are so vast that it would be entirely impracticable to attempt to discuss all aspects. We shall restrict ourselves to the greatest island in the world, Australia.


The origins of this second "family" of nations to which England belongs, the Commonwealth, dates from the time of the many great navigators and explorers of Britain, the most famous are Sir Francis Drake (?1540-96), Captain James Cook (1728-79), David Livingstone (1813-73).

An example is the discovery and development of Australia. The relationship built up between Australia and Britain dates from the first voyage of James Cook. It was Cook who claimed the east coast of Australia for Britain in 1770 and from that time on the enormous British influence on this, the largest island in the world.


Captain James Cook

Capt. James Cook

Cook's first voyage (26th Aug 1769-12 July 1771) took him to Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia and other exotic places. The voyage was mainly of a scientific (astronomic and botanic) nature and was the longest journey ever made by an explorer. He set sail from Plymouth on 26th Aug 1769, travelled some 30,000 miles and charted over 5,000 miles of coastline. The ship he sailed in was called the "Endeavour". A replica of the Endeavour was built in Australia in the 1990s and sailed around the world. Here is an image of that replica:



Here is a map of part of that famous first voyage:

map of Cook's first voyage

map of Cook's first voyage
(copyright Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery)

After a warm, but not trouble free welcome given to him by the natives of Tahiti he continued his voyage to New Zealand but he was unable to land because of the hostile nature of the Maoris. Cook called them " 'brave and warlike ' " and added " 'that New Zealanders are cannibals cannot be disputed... Nevertheless I think them a good sort of people' ".

a maori

A Maori
(copyright Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery)

He proceeded to Australia where he found the natives somewhat hesitant and shy. What struck Cook as being odd was the way the natives painted themselves.

He was also struck by what he thought was a curved sword. It was in fact a boomerang, a deadly weapon.

The existence of Australia, then called New Holland, was known long before the discovery of the east coast by Captain Cook in 1770. Hartog, Vlamingh, Nuyts, and Dampier had already discovered parts of the northern, western, and southern coasts, but in their reports they spoke of them as being desolate regions with primitive inhabitants. It appealed to no other nation at the time.

When Cook discovered the eastern coast, a completely different scene lay before him, a scene of fertility. He claimed it for England. The name he gave it was New South Wales.

During the 19th century there was a steady flow of emigration to Australia from Great Britain, which at that time also included the whole of Ireland. It became the place of forced exile to which many criminals and all sorts of political prisoners (especially Irish rebels ) were transported. The place mainly associated with this new tendency was Botany Bay so named by Cook himself. It has been estimated that 157,000 convicts were sent to this place between 1788 and 1856. There has also been a steady stream of emigrants from Britain during the 20th century. The influence of Britain has continued uninterrupted to the present day. In fact, most celebrations and customs are practically the same as those in Britain but with an added "Aussie" flavour. Don't forget that Australia lies at the other end of the globe with their four seasons at completely different times of the year. Their summer, for example is at the time we have our winter (December, January and February). How strange it must feel to celebrate Christmas with all the traditional accompaniments such as snow, in summer. Do the Australians ever sing "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas"? I don't know, but it must seem strange

Here is the Australian flag. Notice that it bears the Union Jack, the flag of the nations that established British influence in the country.

australian flag

Australian flag

The Australian prime minister, Keating initiated a great wave of controversy in Jan 1992 by asserting the need to change the flag: "I suppose people around the world are entitled to say: 'Well, look at your flag. You've got the flag of another country in the corner. I mean are you a colony or are you a nation? ' ". The majority of Australians, however, remain faithful to the nations that made the island what it now is. The bonds run very deep indeed.

There is absolutely no hint of subordination in the flag just as there is no hint of the subordination of Scotland to England in the red cross superimposed over the white cross of St Andrew.

List of Commonwealth Countries A-J

List of Commonwealth Countries K-Z
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latest update: 29/3/04