What's in a name?

What does ‘dominion’ mean?

New Zealand became a dominion in 1907. The Latin word 'dominium' means property, ownership, authority, or territory subject to a king or ruler. Britain’s first North American colonies were ‘His Majesty’s Dominions beyond the Seas’ (though most people called them colonies). In 1867, to appease the United States' dislike of the word ‘kingdom’, the British North America Act used ‘dominion’ to create ‘one dominion under the name of Canada’.

Why was ‘dominion’ preferred to ‘colony’?

The Dominion of Canada was joined in 1901 by the new federal Commonwealth of Australia. Because people commonly called all British overseas territories ‘colonies’, Canada’s prime minister sought a word to distinguish Canada from small islands.

In 1907, therefore, ‘dominion’ became the distinguishing label for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Newfoundland, Cape Colony, Natal and Transvaal. Australia remained a ‘commonwealth’, and South Africa was, from 1910, a ‘union’, but generally ‘dominion’ referred to the self-governing white Empire.

Why did New Zealand want to become a dominion?

New Zealand's premier, Sir Joseph Ward, echoed Canada’s concerns, but New Zealand had its own reasons for wanting to become a dominion. When Ward visited London in 1907 for an imperial conference, he raised with officials the idea of New Zealand becoming a dominion. Ward wrote to Lord Elgin of the Colonial Office in May 1907, confirming his views: 'having regard to the position and importance of New Zealand, it had well outgrown the "colonial stage", and was as much entitled to a separate designation as the Commonwealth of Australia or the Dominion of Canada'. He was quite sure that New Zealanders would be 'much gratified' with the title 'The Dominion of New Zealand'.

Ward also had regional imperial ambitions. He hoped the term ‘dominion’ would remind the world that New Zealand was not part of Australia. It would dignify New Zealand, a country he thought was ‘the natural centre for the government of the South Pacific'.

Politicians supported Ward's motion to ask His Majesty the King to take the necessary steps to change New Zealand's status. The Order in Council changing the title from colony to dominion was issued on 9 September, and the proclamation was made on 10 September, taking effect on 26 September 1907, when it was read aloud throughout New Zealand.

What did New Zealanders think about becoming a dominion?

In 1907 most politicians liked the change to dominion status. ‘Deep down there is always something offensive about the term “colony”,’ Charles Major (Member of Parliament for Hawera) declared. Those who did not support the shift said that the title change sounded too grandiose. The Leader of the Opposition, William Massey, preferred ‘colony’ and suspected that the change would fuel demands for increases in viceregal and ministerial salaries. There were some who wanted no title at all. One asked, 'Why not cut out the word "colony" and the word "dominion" and be satisfied with New Zealand?'

‘How will the name appeal to the democracy?’ John Bollard (Member of Parliament for Eden) asked Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward in 1907. Not much at the time as it turned out. Historian Keith Sinclair later claimed that ‘the change of title, for which there had been no demand, produced little public interest. It was largely regarded as Ward’s personal show … it was merely cosmetic.’

Politicians may have supported the shift to dominion status, but for a lot of New Zealanders its meaning was unclear. Many newspapers questioned the significance of the change. According to the Evening Post, the ‘man in the street’ had ‘not quite realised the greatness thrust upon him’.

On 26 September 1907 the Feilding Star mocked that:

The Premier was convinced that New Zealand’s only hope lay in being designated in the World’s Metropolis by some high-sounding, mouth-filling term. So to-day, with the gracious consent of the King and his Ministers, our land has become a Dominion, and our people dominionites.

In Nelson, on the first Dominion Day, the Colonist newspaper took a shot at Prime Minister Ward:

Our brave defenders stand to arms,
    Our priests their banners bless,
Our lasses flaunt their latest charms,
    Our babies effervesce …

We merely find another name;
    An honoured one we lose;
All other things are yet the same,
    What other would you choose?

Sir Joseph chuckles in his place,
    For kudos he will gain:
His pipes have played a pretty pace;
   We dance and feel quite vain.