SNumerous colonies colonized under the British Empire gained independence since 1952 when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned. Many of these nations are still rebuilding their communities. Some critics of the royal family see last week’s death of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch as an opportunity to re-envision the monarchy’s role and to finally acknowledge the struggles of all those who were affected by British imperialism around the world and in Britain itself.
There is a lot to know about the legacy of colonization. It often saw slavery and forced migration of people. “For many of us from the ‘colonies,’ the death of Elizabeth II signifies in very particular ways that she was the symbol of an empire built on genocide, slavery, violence, extraction, and brutality, the legacies of which continue in our present day,” says Anna Arabindan-Kesson, a professor of Black diasporic art at Princeton University. “She was not only a symbol, she was complicit in this empire.”
This part of the monarchy’s history is often “conveniently hidden or ignored in Britain,” says Arabindan-Kesson. This history needs to be addressed in the wake of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, she adds. “The current rhetoric, pageantry, and colonial nostalgia around her death reinforces this refusal to acknowledge and deal with this imperial history–a history that defines so much of our current moment, that defines what Britain is.”
The Queen’s complex legacy
Former British colonies’ presidents and prime ministers have visited the Queen to pay their respects, which included leaders from India and South Africa as well as Barbados and Jamaica. But these diplomatic gestures don’t necessarily reflect the sentiment of all of their inhabitants or diaspora, some of whom have been very vocal about how destructive they feel British colonialism was.
“We do not mourn the death of Elizabeth, because to us her death is a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and Africa’s history,” the Economic Freedom FightersA statement was released by a South African political party called ‘The Party of South Africa.
Queen Elizabeth II, who was monarch over 15 Commonwealth countries that were home to approximately 150 million people until her death in 2002, is still the sovereign of these nations. There are 14 additional overseas territories where the U.K. currently has a presence that is home to 300,000 more people.
The length of the Queen’s reign and her personal popularity may have prevented a full discussion about the impact of colonization. “I think Elizabeth II’s rule prevented a reckoning and allowed for a sense of continuity and continued denial about the extent of change in the last 70 years,” says Priya Satia, a history professor at Stanford University who specializes in the British empire. “Decolonization was supposed to force the acknowledgment of wrong. That never came because it was always masked by the continuity of the Queen.”
The rich history of the British Empire
A colloquial saying, “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” rang true for arguably more than two centuries, a span over which Britain colonized or established rule over dozens of nations across the Americas, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Australasia. It is important to remember the British oppression, colonization in Scotland and Ireland.
The exact years of the British Empire and the number of colonies it held are debatable, but the empire’s effects are still widely-felt. “It depends on how you’re defining empire—like right now, there’s a movement for Scottish independence,” Satia says. “Or the ongoing issue between the two Irelands. There are also other colonies that Britain has. So it’s not only recent, it’s current history.”
Many countries were under British occupation for many generations. During this time, the British government imposed many systems on former colonies that they maintained even after independence. They are evident in British-origin traditions such as tea drinking and playing cricket.
Not all of the practices passed down were benign, such as tea drinking and sport. “Entire societies were changed,” Satia says.
“Ideas about property and possession were shaped by colonialism, such as the fact that the land was empty, and was able to be possessed by colonists,” Arabindan-Kesson says. “This is something that of course First Nations communities in Australia or New Zealand and Canada, even in the US, continue to highlight.”
While colonization did not take place under Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Britain still had a large empire at the time of her coronation in 1952. In the decades that followed, colonies sought independence. Sometimes violent uprisings were also seen.
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The Queen, although she was head of the state, not the government, meant she only had limited power to make decisions, but she could be vocal as a politician. Satia says she chose silence.
“The crown jewels, they’re mostly made up of stones that have been stolen from various places in the British Empire. The Queen always wore them, never suggesting in any way that they be returned,” Satia says. “There hasn’t been a moment in which the monarchy turned its back against empire and said, ‘No more,’ or, ‘We regret having been part of this.’”
Researchers today consider LBTQ oppression and ethnic conflict as just a few examples of issues that British imperialism has enabled in ex-colonies.
The U.K. Colonialism
An often underlooked aspect of Britain’s colonial legacy is its effects at home. Arabindan-Kesson points out that colonialism disadvantaged the country’s minority communities through systemic racism and oppression.
“Health, their access to facilities, their involvement and participation in politics, their access to economic mobility, all of this is so much lower,” says Arabindan-Kesson, referring to minority communities in the U.K.
British school curriculums have been criticised for their inability to listen to minority voices or to address the negative effects of empire. This has been going on for many years. Arabindan Kesson explains that this has had an effect on minority communities within the U.K.
“Not just to the Queen’s death, but how people have responded to particular events, for example, the Windrush scandal and current immigration policies, really show this lack of historical awareness of just how central empire was to what is now contemporary Britain,” she says. (The Windrush controversy refers to hundreds of Black Britons being deported or threatened to be deported to the Caribbean.
“The monarchy, in general, is an incredibly spectacular symbol of the huge social and economic inequalities of modern Britain,” Arabindan-Kesson says. She adds that is particularly true amid a cost of living crisis where people are “struggling to heat their houses, pay bills, and feed their families. The fact that so much attention and so many resources are spent on this institution seems completely anachronistic and really, a complete waste of resources.”
But Arabindan-Kesson and Satia are hopeful that more conversations about the monarchy’s legacy will continue to be discussed.
“I think education is really important,” Arabindan-Kesson says. “[Also] listening particularly to the Black and Brown scholars, activists, writers, and artists who have always been making these critiques and highlighting these issues, and then really working on policy and structural change and the process of repair, which I think does involve reparations in various forms.”
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For her part, Satia hopes the monarchy can be more open about it’s history. “Imagine a very different kind of monarchy, where in the name of decency rather than politics, a monarch could say things like, ‘We acknowledge and regret the role of Britain, the British government and the British monarchy in slavery and colonialism.’ That kind of moral leadership could have such a different impact in the world,” she says.
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