“Queen Elizabeth was a life well lived; a promise with destiny kept and she is mourned most deeply in her passing. That promise of lifelong service I renew to you all today.” Charles III, delivering his first public address as king, framed his future while honoring the nation’s longest reigning monarch as only a son and heir can. Using time-worn images he gestured to the queen’s wellsprings of soft power—Britain’s “precious traditions,” “unique history,” and “family of nations”—which are now his.
With his speech infused with meaning, the King was creating a legacy that he will inherit. This imperial legacy already fraught is controversy. Just as the queen had taken her last breath, fault lines began to split. This exposed a divided world over whether or not the British Empire was an effective force for good.
For many Britons, the Queen was a steadying force, revered by her subjects for the virtues—duty, honor, and devoted service—she embodied and symbolized. Other people, such as those who hail from the old empire, do not mourn Elizabeth II. She is accused of being complicit in British colonial crimes including torture and murder. Some see her complicity as more subtle, obscuring through decades of reassuring rituals and acts of omission the systemic racism and extreme violence upon which Britain’s imperial power, and hers, depended.
How do we begin to assess Queen Elizabeth II’s fraught imperial legacy? What can we do to distinguish self-professed experts from misinformed critics and hagiographies? Recently, some historians, myself included, have offered revisionist accounts of the empire, describing in detail the centrality of violence to the nation’s colonial project during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.
Here’s some of what we know. As Queen Elizabeth II assumed the throne on 1952, her constitutional responsibility was for hundreds of million of colonial subjects in more than 70 territories and colonies. Britain’s economy was in tatters and independence demands were exploding.
Mau Mau is a suspect in 1952 in Kenyan prison camps.
The nation’s postwar recovery, however, and Big Three (with the U.S. and Soviet Union) status hinged on the exploitation of colonized subjects across the globe. Both Labour and Conservative governments refused to give in to the urgent demands for freedom. Instead, they sacrificed wartime self-determination guarantees on behalf of national selfinterest.
Recurring, brutal end-of-empire conflicts thus marred the first thirty years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. Beginning in Malaya, then in Kenya, Cyprus, Nyasaland, Aden, and Northern Ireland, British security forces moved through the empire and acted in the Queen’s name, unleashing wide-scale detention without trial and illegal deportations. Forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands into barst wire villages in Malaya and Kenya was a form of colonial control. Each conflict saw the deployment of kill squads and terrorization of civilians. In Cyprus, journalists called interrogators HMTs, Her Majesty’s Torturers.
The successive governments at the time denied any allegations of systemic violence. They claimed that each instance of brutality was an isolated incident and the responsibility of individual colonial officers, or “bad apples”.
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However, what we now know reveals an entirely different reality. Beginning with her first prime minister Winston Churchill, the queen’s ministers not only knew of systematic British-directed violence in the empire, they also participated in its crafting, diffusion, and cover-up, which was as routinized as the violence itself. When decolonization seemed imminent, they lied repeatedly to Parliament and the media. They ordered widespread destruction and burning of all incriminating evidence.
A fundamental question remains. It remains to be determined how much the Queen knew at that time and what it meant. It is not possible to find any evidence linking the Queen’s knowledge of systematic violence or cover-up in empire. Her weekly talks with the prime minister were not recorded. We have evidence that suggests she was also told by the prime minister, just like everyone else, that any instances of brutality were an isolated incident and that minor colonial officials were responsible.
However, there have been many serious allegations of systemic crimes in her name over the past three decades. Among them, those from Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and others reached the European Commission on Human Rights. It seems absurd to suggest that a monarch, who was known for her profound knowledge of foreign policies and tireless work ethic, was totally blind.
In fact, the queen was the guardian of Britain’s imperial past and curator of its present and future. As her predecessors she wrapped herself up in the empire. She used symbols and images as well as language of fictional kinship to assert British exceptionalism and benevolence. She detracted from the work that was being done in her honor, while inviting her colonial subjects into her reverence.
The queen finessed the empire’s dissolution by recasting the familiar kinship motif. Under her obsessive direction, the British Commonwealth, or “family of nations,” rose from the empire’s ashes to become a vehicle for perpetual global influence. The Commonwealth, which was almost exclusively made up of ex-colonies from Britain, marked a turning point in British exceptionalism. The matriarch’s family had “grown up” while her power endured.
One thing is for certain: Serious crimes happened on the queen’s imperial watch. King Charles III appears to be well aware of the global demand for British colonial reckoning. This is based on appeals and protests from ex-colonial peoples as well as recent historical evidence. He will need to abandon his paternalistic ways, breaking from the tradition his mother held so dear and revising the “unique history” of imperial benevolence that she cultivated and affirmed for seventy years. The alternative—to simply carry on—will only hasten the monarchy’s demise.
God save the King
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