Since Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952, dozens of nations colonized by the British Empire have gained independence and continue to rebuild their societies. 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.
The legacy of colonization has been well documented and often included slavery and the forced movement of people, brutal suppression, and the extraction of resources at the expense of local economies. “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
Presidents and Prime Ministers of former British colonies have paid their respects to the Queen, including leaders from India, Ghana, South Africa, 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 Fighters, a South African political party, said in a statement.
Until her death, Queen Elizabeth II was the monarch of 15 countries in the Commonwealth that are home to around 150 million people. The U.K. also currently holds an additional 14 overseas territories that are home to another 300,000 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 vast 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. Scholars also note the importance of remembering the British oppression and colonization closer to home, in both 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. And there are other colonial holdings that Britain still has. So it’s not only recent, it’s current history.”
In many countries, British occupation lasted for generations, during which the ruling British authorities imposed various systems that many former colonies maintained after their independence. These are reflected in British-origin practices such as tea drinking, parliamentary governments, and playing cricket.
But not all practices that were passed on were as innocuous as tea drinking or 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 following decades, many colonies sought independence and at times violent uprisings took place.
Although the Queen was the head of state and not government, meaning she had limited decision-making power, as a political figure she had the opportunity to be vocal. But she opted for silence, says Satia.
“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.’”
Today, researchers consider ethnic conflict, LBTQ oppression, and environmental injustice as a few of the issues enabled by British imperialism in former colonies.
Colonialism in the U.K.
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 curricula have been criticized for years over their failure to include minority voices and to discuss the negative consequences of empire. This has had an impact, Arabindan-Kesson says, on minorities 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 scandal refers to the wrongful deportation or threatened deportation of hundreds of Black Britons 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.”
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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