The difference between Dominions and Colonies

The British Empire and later the British commonwealth consisted of both colonies and dominions. But what are the differences between a colony and a dominion?

A colony is politically & economically dependent on the colonizing power and is seen as its possession. Dominion is a separate state with the right to self-governance that shares traditions and language as well as similar institutions with the motherland.

Let`s look at both colonies and dominions separately.


The statute of Westminster from 1931 defines dominions as states that are independent when it comes to domestic & foreign policies. They have equal rights as Britain, are not subordinate in any way but due to the common alliance to the crown accept the British monarch as their head of state.

Or in other words: A dominion is a self-governing country that shares traditions, similar institutions, and language with Great Britain.

 The development of the Dominions until World War I

Canada was the first to get the status of dominion in 1867. Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa followed later. One thing all the dominions had in common was that the majority of its inhabitants were white.

These Dominions were allowed to self-govern in all domestic matters and they still shared many traditions and institutions as well as the common language with Great Britain. But when it came to foreign policies than the dominions were still connected to Great Britain.

It wasn`t until after World War I that the dominions strived for even more independence. A major reason for that can be seen in World War I and the contributions of the Dominions.

The development of the Dominions after World War I

Until World War I the Dominions had not really developed a strong self-assurance.

That changed with World War I. At the moment Great Britain entered World War I the entire Empire with all its colonies and dominions also entered the war.

All in all the Dominions of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada and the Colony India contributed a total of 2 Million soldiers in World War I.

These troops fought in all theatres from the European battlefields to Gallipoli and the Middle East.

The service of soldiers from the dominions in World War I and their participation in important battles increased the feeling of their own national identity and a feeling of national pride.

These feelings would have major impacts on the relationship between the Dominions and Great Britain after World War I.

The Commonwealth of Nations

In 1926 the Imperial conference was held in London and was attended by the prime ministers of the Dominions. During that conference, the „Balfour Declaration“ was developed.

According to the Balfour Declaration of 1926, all dominions were of equal status and were seen as independent states within the organization that was now called the commonwealth.

The principles that were declared in the Balfour Declaration were later molded into the statute of Westminster of 1931.

The statute of Westminster of 1931 transformed the Dominions into largely sovereign nations and was an important step in the development of the Dominions into independent states.


A colony is a state that is fully dependent on the colonizing power and has no right to self-government.

A prime example for colonies are the American colonies where the slogan „no taxation without representation“ pretty much explains the purpose of a colony.

While the North American colonies could vote their own majors the tax and trade laws were still made by the British government.

It actually was another tax on tea that the English king raised that sparked the unrest that would lead to the American Revolutionary War and the founding of the United States of America!

But the events that led to the war of independence are a story for a different time. Let`s leave the North American colonies for now and look at the British colonies during the 19th century.

A colony should function as a supplier for natural resources and as a customer of goods that were produced in the motherland.

While the dominions had a certain level of self-governance the colonies of the British Empire were ruled by the monarch and the parliament in London.

On a day-to-day basis, the control over the colony was delegated to a governor who was appointed by the monarch.

A good example of such a royally appointed governor is Edward Wood, the 1st Earl of Halifax who between 1925 and 1931 was viceroy of India.

It is also important to note that most of the government officials that were sent from the motherland to the colonies didn`t stay there forever.

Edward Wood for example returned to Great Britain on 3 May 1931 and would serve as Foreign secretary between 1938 and 1940.

Edward Wood would also play a role in the designing of the „Government of India act 1935“.

That Government of Inda act was the first (small) step in releasing India from its colonial status. But it would take until 1947 that India would gain its independence.

As Foreign secretary Edward Wood was also in office during the early days of World War II. Have you ever asked yourself why France and Great Britain did not invade the weakly defended western territories of Germany during early World War II?

You can find the answer in my article here.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


P. Clarke: Hope and Glory, Britain 1900-1990 (London 1996).

A. Marwick: A History of the Modern British Isles, 1914-1999 Circumstances, Events and Outcomes (Oxford/Malden 2000).

P. Dewey: War and Progress, Britain 1914-1945 (London/New York 1997).