The queen is dead. The legacy of her colonies is not
Queen Elizabeth II is dead at 96. The rule of succession means her eldest son, Charles, for decades known as the Prince of Wales, became King Charles III the moment she drew her last breath.
Now’s a good time to revisit the damage done by the legacy of colonialism over which Elizabeth reigned for seven decades.
Having ascended to the throne in 1952, at 25, Elizabeth was the longest reigning monarch in British history and the second-longest reigning monarch, after Louis XIV of France, in world history.
At the age of 10 she became the heir apparent. At 19, Princess Elizabeth joined the war effort against the Nazis, serving in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). She trained as a driver and mechanic and eventually attained the position of junior commander (equivalent to the rank of captain). At the time of her death, she was the sole surviving world leader to have fought in World War II.
When Elizabeth ascended the throne, Harry Truman was president. At her death, 14 presidents later, it was Joe Biden. She was queen to 15 prime ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill, through Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, to Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
The queen lived a life of service to country, which celebrated her Platinum Jubilee in June. In a gracious note to her supporters – her subjects – posted June 5, she said, “I have been humbled and deeply touched that so many people have taken to the streets to celebrate my Platinum Jubilee,” and pledged to “remain committed to serving you to the best of my ability, supported by my family.”
Elizabeth’s final official act as monarch was formally appointing the new prime minister, the Tory Liz Truss, on September 6, at Balmoral Castle in Scotland, just days before her death.
World leaders, including Presidents Biden and Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Canada is still a constitutional monarchy of the British commonwealth), paid their respects.
Sirs Paul McCartney, Elton John and Mick Jagger, Janet Jackson and Whoopi Goldberg, Helen Mirren, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Elizabeth in 2006’s "The Queen,” and myriad others took to social media to express their condolences and to remark on her extraordinary service and the perceived stability she evoked for Britons, 80 percent of whom were born during her reign.
But there is another side – an unaddressed side – to the monarchy that reflects a brutal and unforgiving legacy. While some declared themselves proud Elizabethans, others saw, on the queen’s passing, a far different vantage point on her years as Britain’s monarch.
Some posts, including those of a Black professor at Carnegie Mellon, were removed from Twitter for violating its rules of service. Both #BlackTwitter and #IrishTwitter were sent trending, groups holding her to task for colonization and oppression throughout her reign.
An article by the Irish Times’ Patrick Freyne circulated. He wrote that “having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbor who’s really into clowns and has daubed their house with clown murals, displays clown dolls in each window and has an insatiable desire to hear about and discuss clown-related news stories. More specifically, for the Irish, it’s like having a neighbor who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.”
Elizabeth’s role in putting down – or attempting to put down – insurrections against the royal crown in the British colonies has rarely been mentioned. Yet the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were fraught with such actions, largely throughout the African continent.
In 2015, Elizabeth surpassed her great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years, as the longest reigning British monarch.
The Postdetailed the change since her coronation. “When Elizabeth was crowned in 1952, Britain still had a real empire, with more than 70 overseas territories. Even then, however, it was clear that the situation could not last. India, often declared ‘the jewel in the crown’ for the Empire, had won its independence just five years before. In 1952, British troops were fighting independence movements in Egypt and Kenya. They would go on to lose both, and many others.”
The Post added that “in 1921, at the empire's peak, the British ruled around a quarter of the land on Earth. However, there is a small silver lining for Queen Elizabeth: She remains the monarch in 15 commonwealth nations in addition to Britain.” As a matter of fact, Britain still retains 14 colonies, though they are now called British Overseas Territories. The term "colonies" is no longer used.
India achieved independence in 1947, Israel, Myanmar and Sri Lanka in 1948, Libya in 1951. Ghana became Britain's first African colony to reach independence in 1957. By 1967, more than 20 territories were independent, including Kenya, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia and Zanzibar. All of these exits came with immense bloodshed.
In Northern Ireland, “The Troubles” raged from 1968 through 1998. Betty Williams and Mairead Maguire received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 for their efforts to peacefully resolve the violent conflict in Northern Ireland. Yet 20 years later the Nobel Peace Prize 1998 was awarded jointly to John Hume and David Trimble "for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland."
These histories are long and brutal.
At the core of each is the British monarchy.
When one looks at a list of the colonies once controlled by the British Empire and considers the plundering of their natural resources as well as the subjugation of the mostly Black and brown populations, control of waterways and air spaces and economic deprivation, it is or should be easy to see and feel the rage of those once colonized.
The brutality with which Britain responded to independence movements cannot be ignored. Nor can the plundering over generations and the sense of entitlement that accompanied it.
A simple walk through the British Museum tells the tale of all that the British Empire stole as it ravaged the Middle East, Asia, Africa and other parts of Europe. The Grecian Elgin Marbles and the statues of Ramses are all there, as is the greatest collection of cuneiform.
And then there is the human toll.
Muthoni Mathenge was part of Kenya’s Mau Mau rebellion in 1952 – a rebellion that was put down brutally by British troops. At the time of the Queen’s Jubilee, Germany’s DW News posted a video of Mathenge describing her torture and detention by British troops, and her request for direct compensation from the queen for her suffering.
Is Queen Elizabeth II to blame for the mayhem wrought in the colonies throughout her reign? Well, the monarchy has become more ceremonial than active. The British monarch is mainly a figurehead abjured from intervention in political matters. In these terms, no.
But as head of state, Elizabeth retained constitutional powers, such as formally investing each prime minister, as she did with Truss.
The American colonies divested of the monarchy early, in 1776, with the Declaration of Independence. The authors of the Declaration and the Federalist Papers made it clear there would be no king nor any divine rights. It was a sound decision. The UK should consider now.
What is the role of the monarchy in 2022, other than a reminder of its long legacy of theft and dominion and enslavement?
For 70 years, Elizabeth’s white face has been on every stamp and pound note and in every photograph in her many trips throughout the commonwealth. When the Irish, Black Americans, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans and West Indians push back against the lauding of the queen, and the erasure of the bloody impact of colonialism and imperialism, is this not a message that should be heeded?
In Jamaica – among those countries still overseen by the monarchy – officials have revealed a plan to become a republic and seek $10 billion in reparations from Britain for the slave trade.
Wasn’t the imperiling nature of the monarchy exposed by Charles’s first wife, Princess Diana, and then again recently by Prince Harry’s wife, Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, who was made suicidal during her first pregnancy by the overt racism within the family?
In the revisionism taking hold over Elizabeth’s story, she’s become the monarch who attempted to heal a nation riven by the tragic death of Diana, rather than what she was: the petty mother-in-law who refused to lower the flags and waited to visit the huge memorial of flowers and other mementos the grieving populace had left at the gates of Buckingham Palace in memoriam to their favorite royal.
At her husband, Prince Philip’s memorial service, the queen chose to be escorted by her disgraced son, Prince Andrew, accused of sexual assault by Virginia Giuffre, who was a minor at the time of the alleged assault. Andrew had just settled with Giuffre for an undisclosed amount prior to the service. While royalty watchers said it was a choice that bespoke the queen’s fealty to family, many were aghast at the tone-deafness and perceived slap at victims of sexual assault.
Seventy years is long time for mistakes to be made. But as Elizabeth is laid to rest and the whitewashing of her legacy begins in earnest, isn’t it time to ask why the monarchy should continue, why British subjects should pay for it and when recompense will be made to the victims of colonialism, with its legacy of racism and deprivations and incidents like that experienced by Muthoni Mathenge?
While one can claim the monarchy is politically neutral, it is not.
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