National Geographic : 1943 Apr
The British Commonwealth of Nations "Organized Freedom" Around the World BY ERIC UNDERWOOD Sometime Member of the Council of the Overseas League JUST over forty years ago, a young Dutch South African was causing the British Army a great deal of trouble by a new type of warfare with which its generals did not know how to cope-Commando raids. With daring, skill, and a burning hatred of the British in his heart, he led his tough Com mandos on horseback against them in swift and devastating surprise attacks. His tactics cost the British many casualties and helped to prolong the Boer War. Not long ago that same brilliant Commando leader, now Field Marshal Jan Christiaan Smuts, Prime Minister and Commander in Chief of the Union of South Africa and one of the world's great statesmen, described the British Commonwealth of Nations as "the widest system of organized freedom which has ever existed in history." Today that former rebel against the British heads the magnificent war effort of South Africa in common cause with Britain against the Axis, and pilots his country on a course which she chose of her own free will. For South Africa was as free to choose between war and neutrality as any British Dominion, and, like them, is as independent of Britain as is the United States. When Smuts was leading his Commandos against the British, a young war correspond ent with the British forces was making a name for himself by his vivid dispatches to the Lon don Morning Post. Fortunately this brilliant young journalist was not shot by one of Smuts' men. His name was Winston Churchill, and, years later, in tribute to his former enemy, he gave the name "Commando" to the hand picked raiders of a world war. Some years ago, in the musty files of the Morning Post were found some personal letters from young Winston to his editor of those days. One of these asked the editor's per mission for his dispatches to be republished in the United States, where, he understood, they might pay him "as much as $40 a col umn." It is interesting to reflect what Amer ican editors would pay this war correspondent today for a column, say, from Casablanca! Last October the former rebel leader and war correspondent met in London on an unique occasion-a joint gathering of the House of Lords and House of Commons to pay tribute to Field Marshal Smuts, who gave an address which was broadcast to the world. One-time Rebel Leader Suggested "Empire's" New Designation This is a spectacular example of the con tinuous process of change in the destiny and outlook of the leaders and peoples of the Brit ish Empire. It is typical of the constantly evolving association of free peoples around the globe to which, in 1917, at the suggestion of Smuts himself, was given its present title, the "British Commonwealth of Nations." The title "British Empire" was officially discarded because it had never been appro priate and by 1917 was a misnomer for an association of free peoples.* The word "empire," suggesting the rule of one people by another, is related to the Latin imperator, meaning a general, and has a mili tary significance. This word always has been inappropriate, because the British have never been a military people and the British Com monwealth has little basis of conquest in its origin. Not a tenth of the vast area of the world under British rule was acquired from its former inhabitants by the sword. The British standing army has always been very small. At the outbreak of war in 1939, it numbered only about a quarter of a million men, of whom one-half were on garrison duty overseas. This was a tiny force to protect the inter ests of a quarter of the earth's land surface and 500 million people. If it had not been merely a protective police force, existing with the assent of the 500 million people it pro tected, and had been a repressive army of occupation, it could not have lasted for a month. By contrast, we know the enormous * The term "British Commonwealth of Nations," adopted by the Imperial Conference in 1917, is the official name for the aggregate of states and terri tories which are united by the British Crown. The term "British Empire," in common colloquial use, has no official existence. The British Commonwealth may be divided into: (1) The Dominions: Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Union of South Africa, and Eire; (2) The Indian Empire, and Burma; and (3) The "British Colonial Empire," an unofficial but convenient term to denote those ter ritories not included under 1 and 2. There are also the Condominiums, Mandated Territories, and Pro tectorates. See Supplement Map of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and page 481.