Imperial Conferences

Imperial Conferences
   Initially known as colonial conferences, imperial conferences were meetings of representatives of the British government and the governments of the self- governing colonies of the British Empire. The first was held in London in 1887 during Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. The conference took place as advocates of the Imperial Federation called for formal political structures linking the United Kingdom and the self-governing colonies, but these sentiments would never gain widespread support. Defense, trade, and communications were discussed and some decisions were made. The British government agreed to fortify Simon’s Town naval base in Cape Colony, and the Australian colonies and New Zealand agreed to contribute 5 percent of the cost of maintaining a squadron of Royal Navy warships on the Australia Station. The next conference in 1894 was unique in that it was held in Ottawa, Canada, and was the only meeting that did not deal with defense issues. A resolution was passed supporting Imperial tariff preference, although this would not become a reality until a later economic conference was held in Ottawa at the height of the Great Depression in 1932.
   Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee provided the backdrop for the 1897 Colonial Conference in London. Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain proposed the creation of an Imperial Council, but this was firmly rejected. The issue of anti-Asian immigration restriction laws was discussed, as was the laying of a telegraph cable across the Pacific from Vancouver to Sydney, which was completed in 1902. The 1902 Colonial Conference was held to coincide with King Edward VII ’s coronation. During the recently concluded South African War, colonial forces had been hastily created to serve alongside the British army. New Zealand Prime Minister Richard Seddon proposed that this ad hoc response should be regularized with the creation of an “Imperial and Colonial Reserve Force,” but this met with Canadian and Australian opposition. The conference agreed to meetings on a regular basis. During the 1907 conference, hostility to the term colonial led to the self-governing colonies being renamed dominions , and the creation within the Colonial Office of a Dominions Department. Henceforth the meetings would be known as the Imperial Conference. Defense issues dominated the conference with a British proposal for an Imperial General Staff, which was established in 1909, and Canadian and Australian calls for the creation of dominion navies. The Dreadnought Crisis led to a conference in 1909 to discuss naval issues. This was the first meeting to hold closed sessions and laid the basis for the establishment of dominion navies, although the Royal Australian Navy was the only one to be created before World War I. The 1911 Imperial Conference, which was held alongside King George V ’s coronation, was the first to circulate an agenda before the meeting. New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward proposed the creation of an Imperial Parliament, but attracted no support from the other dominions. The conference discussed whether the British and dominion governments should communicate through Britishappointed governors or through dominion-appointed high commissioners. The most significant part of the conference were the closed sessions on defense and foreign affairs. In the Committee of Imperial Defense, Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey briefed the dominions on the decline in Anglo-German relations. Imperial military cooperation in the event of war was discussed in meetings at the Admiralty and the War Office. The dominion representatives refused to make definite commitments, saying this was a decision to be made by the government of the day; but Australia, Canada, and New Zealand all began making plans for expeditionary forces. These plans became the basis for the Australia and New Zealand expeditionary forces on the outbreak of World War I, although Sam Hughes, the quixotic Canadian defense minister, threw out the Canadian scheme for an improvised scheme of his own creation.
   Imperial conferences continued to meet. During World War I, an Imperial War Conference convened during 1917 and 1918. After the war, Imperial conferences were held in 1921, 1923, 1926, 1930, and 1937, coinciding with the coronation of King George VI. The changed relationship between the British government and the dominions was evident when the next meeting in 1944 was renamed the Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Meeting. Since 1961, the conferences have been known as Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM). These conferences never became the vehicle for the Imperial Federation that some had hoped for, but by creating an atmosphere of loose cooperation among states developing their own independence, they established the means by which the British Empire would evolve through decolonization to become the Commonwealth of Nations.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Kendle, John Edward. The Colonial and Imperial Conferences, 1887–1911: A Study in Imperial Organization . London: Longman, 1967.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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