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In the British Empire (most of which became the Commonwealth), High Commissioners were envoys of the Imperial government appointed to manage protectorates or groups of territories not fully under the sovereignty of the British Crown, while Crown colonies (British sovereign territories) were normally administered by a Governor, and the most significant possessions, large confederations and the self-governing dominions were headed by a Governor-General.
For example, when Cyprus came under British administration in 1878 it remained nominally under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire. The representative of the British government and head of the administration was titled High Commissioner until Cyprus became a Crown colony in 1925, when the incumbent High Commissioner became the first Governor.
A High Commissioner could also be charged with the last phase of decolonisation, as in the Crown colony of the Seychelles, where the last Governor served as the High Commissioner from 1975, when self-rule under the Crown was granted, until 1976, when the archipelago became an independent republic within the Commonwealth.
As diplomatic Residents (as diplomatic ranks were codified, this became a lower class than Ambassadors and High Commissioners) were sometimes appointed to native rulers, High Commissioners could likewise be appointed as British agents of indirect rule upon native states. Thus High Commissioners could be charged with managing diplomatic relations with native rulers and their states (analogous to the Resident Minister), and might have under them several Resident Commissioners or similar agents attached to each state.
In regions of particular importance, a Commissioner-General was appointed to have control over several High Commissioners and Governors, e.g. the Commissioner-General for South-East Asia had responsibility for Malaya, Singapore and British Borneo.
The role of High Commissioner for Southern Africa was coupled with that of British governor of the Cape Colony in the 19th century, giving the colonial administrator in question responsibility both for administering British possessions and relating to neighbouring Boer settlements.
Historically, the protectorates of Bechuanaland (now Botswana), Basutoland (now Lesotho) and Swaziland were administered as High Commission Territories by the Governor-General of South Africa who was also the British High Commissioner for Bechuanaland, Basutoland, and Swaziland until the 1930s, with various local representatives, then by the British High Commissioner (from 1961 Ambassador) to South Africa, who was represented locally in each by a Resident Commissioner.
The British governor of the Crown colony of the Straits Settlements, based in Singapore, doubled as High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States, and had authority over the Resident-General in Kuala Lumpur, who in turn was responsible for the various Residents appointed to the native rulers of the Malay states under British protection.
The British Western Pacific Territories were permanently governed as a group of minor insular colonial territories, under one single, not even full-time, Western Pacific High Commissioner (1905–53), an office attached first to the governorship of Fiji, and subsequently to that of the Solomon Islands, represented in each of the other islands units: by a Resident Commissioner, Consul or other official (on tiny Pitcairn Islands a mere Chief Magistrate).
The first dominion High Commissioner was appointed by Canada as its envoy in London in 1880; he was Alexander Tilloch Galt, a prominent Canadian politician. Similar appointments were made by New Zealand in 1905, Australia in 1910, and South Africa in 1911.
Still, the Imperial government did not yet appoint High Commissioners to the Dominions, where the crown was already represented by the relevant Governor-General. This began to prove problematic after the First World War when the Dominions demanded a far greater degree of control over their foreign affairs. In Canada matters would come to a head during the King-Byng Affair of 1926.
The Balfour Declaration made at the Imperial Conference of 1926 established that Governors-General in the independent dominions were not the representatives of the United Kingdom government but the personal representatives of the Sovereign, and with the constitutional development of the Dominions and their assumption of control over their own external and foreign relations it became standard for the United Kingdom and the Dominions to exchange high commissioners to each other's governments. The first British high commissioner was appointed in 1928, and this was to Canada; he was Sir William Clark. South Africa received a British high commissioner in 1930; for Australia, the full mission was opened in 1936; and for New Zealand in 1939.
From as early as the 1930s, some Commonwealth members have indicated a preference for the title to be replaced with that of Ambassador, but over the years whenever the issue has been raised, a majority of members has been in favour of keeping the separate title and status of High Commissioner.
The first high-ranking official envoy from one dominion to another was appointed by South Africa, at the initiative of its prime minister  Yet, because of various procedural complications, only in 1945 was South African envoy to Canada designated officially as high commissioner.
The first high commissioner of India to London was appointed in 1920; he had no political role, but mostly dealt with the business interests of 'Indian Federation'. The first agent of the Indian government was appointed to South Africa in 1927.
Although not a dominion, the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia was represented in the United Kingdom by a High Commission in London, while the United Kingdom similarly had a High Commission in Salisbury. Following the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by the government of Ian Smith in 1965, the Rhodesian High Commissioner, Andrew Skeen was expelled from London, while his British counterpart, Sir John Johnston, was withdrawn by the British government.
As sixteen Commonwealth members, known as the Commonwealth realms, share the same monarch as Sovereign Head of state (currently Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II), diplomatic relations between these states are traditionally at a governmental level – i.e. relations between various governments and cabinets which all share the same Head of State – and so these governments do not appoint Ambassadors to each other.
A High Commissioner from one Commonwealth realm to another carries a simple and often informal letter of introduction from his head of government (Prime Minister) to the head of government (Prime Minister) of the receiving state, while Ambassadors carry formal letters of credence from their head of state addressed to the host nation's head of state. The difference in accreditation is also reflected in the formal titles of envoys to foreign and Commonwealth states: e.g., British High Commissioners are formally titled "The High Commissioner for Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom", whereas British Ambassadors to foreign countries are known as "Her Britannic Majesty's Ambassador".
For historical reasons, High Commissioners are also appointed even in the case of republics in the Commonwealth and indigenous monarchies (e.g. the Kingdoms of Tonga, Swaziland, etc., who have monarchs other than the reigning British monarch) within the Commonwealth. In this case, letters of commission are usually issued by one head of state and presented to the other. However, some Commonwealth governments may choose to use the more informal method of issuing prime-ministerial letters of introduction, while other governments have opted instead for letters of credence.
Instead of embassies, Commonwealth countries have High Commissions in each other's capitals, although it is possible for a country to appoint a High Commissioner without having a permanent mission in the other country: e.g. the British High Commissioner in Suva, Fiji, is also accredited as High Commissioner to Kiribati, Tuvalu and Tonga. Zimbabwe, as a Commonwealth country, traditionally had High Commissioners in other Commonwealth countries. When it withdrew from the Commonwealth, it changed the style of its former High Commission in London to "The Zimbabwe Embassy". The old letters can still be seen on the building.
Outside the capital, practice is less standard. Subordinate commissioners or deputy high commissioners may be appointed instead of consuls, and the commissioner's mission may be known as a consulate, commission or deputy high commission. Historically, in British colonies, independent Commonwealth countries were represented by commissions. In Hong Kong, for example, Canada, Australia New Zealand India, Malaysia and Singapore were represented by commissions, headed by a commissioner. Following the transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997; these were replaced by consulates-general, as in other cities in China, which is not a member of the Commonwealth, with the last commissioner becoming consul-general. However, Canada still has a commissioner to Bermuda, although this post is held by the consul-general to New York.
Despite the differences in terminology, since 1948 Commonwealth High Commissioners have enjoyed the same diplomatic rank and precedence as ambassadors of foreign Heads of State, and in some countries are accorded privileges not enjoyed by foreign Ambassadors. For example, the British Sovereign receives High Commissioners before Ambassadors, and sends a coach and four horses to fetch new High Commissioners to the palace, whereas new Ambassadors get only two horses. High Commissioners also attend important ceremonies of state, such as the annual Remembrance Sunday service at the cenotaph in Whitehall (commemorating Commonwealth war dead) and royal weddings and funerals.