Prince Harry and Meghan Markle Are Going Down Under. Here’s What to Know About Britain’s Tangled Role in the Region

8 minute read

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle arrived in Sydney on Monday to begin their first major foreign tour as a married couple. The trip is timed around their attendance at the Invictus Games, which begin in Sydney next weekend, but its implications are sure to reach far beyond the sporting world.

The pair, who wed in May, will spend two weeks touring Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga, countries that are all members of the Commonwealth, the association of territories formerly ruled by the British Empire, for most of whom Queen Elizabeth II is head of state. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have both said that when it comes to championing the causes close to their hearts, they plan to pay particular attention to the work that needs to be done across that larger union of nations.

But that commitment comes at a time when the Commonwealth is increasingly strained. In Australia, the leader of the opposition Labor Party has promised to hold a referendum on ditching the Queen if he wins the next election, which must take place by next year. And in neighboring New Zealand, prime minister Jacinda Ardern said in 2017 that she advocates a republican form of government — without an unelected head of state — and that her country should have a public discussion on whether to keep its current relationship with the Queen.

That all means that Harry and Meghan’s visit comes at an important time for the Royal Family looking forward. But what they encounter in Oceania will also be inextricably linked to the legacies of the sometimes painful past.

Here’s a quick guide to Britain’s history in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga.

Early expeditions

The history of European excursions to the Antipodes dates back to the 17th century, when Dutch explorers first “discovered” the land that would later be known as Australia. The first landing came in 1606, by the Dutch sailor Willem Janszoon and his crew.

Over the following century, sorties — mainly by Dutch explorers, but also their English and Spanish counterparts — served to map what was being called the “Southern Continent.” What would become Tonga was first sighted by European eyes in 1616, followed by New Zealand in 1642 and Fiji in 1643.

But it was not until late the following century when Europeans first decided to colonize Oceania. In that enterprise, it was not the Dutch but rather the British who led the way.


The British Empire lost its territories in America in 1783, following the American Revolution, which the British government saw as a threat to its Empire. Just five years later, on Jan. 26, 1788 — a day that is now celebrated as Australia Day — the first British settlers arrived in Australia. The timing was fortuitous for those concerned for the fate of the Empire: an outpost could be established in this newly mapped land, showing that the Empire’s hold on the world was as strong as ever.

The first settlers established a penal colony on the continent in 1788, and many British convicts were shipped over to Australia to ease pressure on overcrowded prisons at home. At the same time as expeditions into the interior, more prisoners followed — a roughly century-long process that would shape British Australia’s social tensions and sow the seeds for the more recent transformation of a stereotype into a source of national pride. Britain claimed Australia for the crown, and over time towns and cities sprang up.

Yet the indigenous people of Australia, known commonly as Aboriginals, had a history stretching back long before European arrival. The British, in claiming Australia as a possession of the crown, did not recognize their existence as worthy of political representation. Some experts estimate that up to 90% of the Aboriginal population was wiped out by disease and conflict within the first 10 years of British settlement.

By the mid-19th century, democratic movements sweeping Europe had made their way to Australia, and London transferred some powers to the provinces. By 1901, Australia had effectively declared its independence, but it remained a member of the Commonwealth. It sent nearly a million troops to fight alongside the U.K. in the Second World War, for example.

Map of Islands Between Hawaii and China
A 1942 map, laying out the World War II battlefields of the Pacific, shows the powers that control or occupy the islands of the areaBettmann/Getty Images

Today the Parliament of Australia uses the “Westminster system” — a parliamentary democracy modeled on the one pioneered in London — and its currency still bears the image of the Queen’s head.

The celebration of Australia Day is today a source of controversy, as many say that in celebrating the “discovery” of Australia it unjustly scrubs out indigenous people from its history. Aboriginals still suffer lower life expectancy and lower levels of employment, the causes of which have been attributed to the effects of colonization and marginalization. In the course of their trip, Harry and Meghan will visit a school and a social initiative both working to improve the lives of indigenous people.

New Zealand

New Zealand was mapped and circumnavigated by the famous British sailor Captain James Cook in the late 1700s. Cook’s voyages were followed by other European expeditions, however it was not until long after British settlement in Australia that Britain decided to try and claim New Zealand too.

In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by representatives of Britain and the indigenous Maori chiefs in New Zealand. The agreement gave Maoris rights as British subjects and ownership over their lands — two conditions that were not extended to Aboriginal Australians.

That treaty didn’t go without a hitch, however. The English and Maori translations were different on the document, and the disagreements culminated in wars between the Maori and the British between 1845 and 1872. Following the war, much Maori land was seized. Over the following decades, many Maori became similarly impoverished to Aboriginals in Australia. But since the 1970s, a strong Maori protest movement has succeeded in bringing legal cases to return some land to indigenous people.

Unlike Australia, New Zealand didn’t gain its independence from Britain in one single act. Instead, New Zealand’s drift away from its colonizer was more gradual. In 1919 New Zealand was given its own seat at the League of Nations, but its defense was still controlled by Britain. A close relationship followed; New Zealand sent around 140,000 troops to fight in the Second World War on the side of the U.K.

However when the U.K. joined the European Union in 1973, it elected to give up its preferential trade relationship with New Zealand in order to comply with E.U. rules. But with less than six months to go until the day Britain is scheduled to leave the E.U., the U.K. government will likely hope that Harry and Meghan’s visit will rekindle old loyalties and make a rosy post-Brexit trade deal more likely.


Fiji was administered as a British crown colony from 1874 all the way up to 1970, when it gained its independence as a constitutional monarchy in the Commonwealth.

Fiji was ruled from the 1870s onwards under a policy known as “Fiji for the Fijians,” which meant land could not be sold to outsiders. The result was that the vast majority of the land is still owned by native Fijians, unlike in Australia and New Zealand.

As a consequence of the relationship to the British Empire and of laws protecting Fijians from being exploited as laborers, sugar-cane plantations often brought people from India to work the fields. These Indo-Fijians, who often worked in conditions comparable to slavery, came to outnumber native Fijians by the mid 20th-century. (They now make up 37.6% of the population.) This was one of the reasons many Fijians resisted autonomy from Britain, as some felt that rule from London was preferable to local majority rule by Indo-Fijians.

Nevertheless, a system of self-government and democracy developed through the early 20th century. As it prepared to sever ties with Britain, a system of parliamentary democracy was enshrined in the 1970 constitution. The system largely mirrors Westminster with one significant difference: the allocation of a set number of seats for each ethnicity.

Fiji’s history since has been less stable than Australia and New Zealand’s. A coup in 2006 resulted in a military government, which was ruled unlawful by a high court in 2009. The most recent election, in 2014, was widely seen as free and fair.


Tonga became a British protected state in 1900. However it was well before that, following contact with Captain Cook, that Britain first began to make its mark on the archipelago. The majority of Tongans converted to Christianity following that contact.

But Tonga is unique in the region, as it’s the only nation in the group never to actually have been colonized. Its relationship with Britain was based on protection instead — it was in Britain’s interest to prevent other nations from establishing a base there, but it never directly governed the archipelago itself.

Tonga is a member of the Commonwealth, enjoying the fraternity of other nations in that group, but as it has its own monarch (King Tupou VI) the Queen is not its head of state. However, it has long had a happy relationship with the U.K. monarchy; its Queen Salote Tupou III attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

It became an independent state in 1970, in line with the wishes of its Queen.

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