'Rather a special family of nations': Ideas of the family in the Commonwealth and Africa

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

705 Downloads (Pure)


Since the days of Empire, Britain has employed familial discourse, often with negative connotations, to describe her relationship with her colonies. In the nineteenth century the idea, put forward by the British, that the Empire was a family blurred the lines between the domestic and the international arenas. This practice of familial discourse continues today, albeit in something of a different form, as Britain and the fifty-two states, which make up membership of the intergovernmental organisation known as the Commonwealth, frequently refer to themselves as a family of nations. From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, the Commonwealth and its familial rhetoric might seem outdated, even anachronistic; yet, the notion of the Commonwealth as a ‘family’ continues to endure and is used liberally by the Head of the Commonwealth (the Queen), the Commonwealth Secretary General, and Commonwealth Heads of Government during their biennial Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings.

When a group of post-colonial states and their former coloniser continue to refer to themselves as family, what is the significance of this label? Is it simply a way for smaller, less powerful states to cement ties with richer, more powerful ones? Perhaps, a way for former colonial powers to hold on to some semblance of power? Or is there some kind of legitimacy behind this rhetoric, that positions the Commonwealth, in the eyes of its member states, as analogous to an actual family? These questions form the puzzle at the heart of this thesis. In attempting to answer these questions, the thesis combines historical and theoretical analysis with empirical evidence to consider African understandings of the Commonwealth in order to question whether a familial metaphor, employed in the nineteenth century to bring the idea of the wider Empire home to the British, is anything more than an empty signifier for post-colonial Commonwealth states today.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Gallagher, Julia, Supervisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 May 2017
Publication statusUnpublished - 20 Apr 2017


  • Commonwealth
  • Africa
  • Family
  • Communitarianism
  • Cosmopolitanism
  • Zimbabwe
  • Rwanda

Cite this