It’s Time We Have a Serious Conversation about the Royal Family, and their Role in Upholding Colonial Violence
The media coverage of the Queen’s legacy has left me wondering if we all remember colonialism the same way
BY MICHAELA MAKUSHA
"For many of us, colonialism is not a distant memory to be read about in a history book. It is the lived experience of our parents and grandparents."
BY MICHAELA MAKUSHA
22 September 2022
Objectively, it is sad when anyone dies. And when it comes to Queen Elizabeth II, it is understood that she meant a lot to many, a constant in the national psyche for a lot of people, and with a large family who will probably miss her dearly.
However, the coverage of her legacy has left me wondering if we all remember colonialism the same way. With a 70-year reign, it stands to reason that not everyone would be devastated by the news of the Queen’s passing, or that some might be indifferent. Between the 24-hour nationalist coverage, disruption to our lives, food banks closing, and the strange Paddington culture war breaking out, it has certainly been the strangest of times.
It is no secret that the education around Britain's imperial history in this country has been basic and flawed, at best, if not invisible. But through the past two weeks, the British media has shamelessly attempted to revise the Queen and the royal family’s part in upholding the brutality of colonialism. Journalists, especially Black and Asian journalists, whose job is to critically examine British politics and history, have been met with endless racist and xenophobic comments and death threats, as reported by Nadine White in The Independent.
Besides showing us that the UK’s racism problem is still very much real and deeply-rooted, this chaos demonstrates the bizarre nature of British people’s relationship with the monarchy. It also further demonstrates the abysmal lack of education about the monarchy's role in upholding British colonialism - as many seemed to be unable to connect the two.
Some historians have painted Queen Elizabeth II as a monarch who played a peaceful role in the decolonial process. I would personally argue that yes, she did in fact play a role in decolonisation but the violence happening behind her peaceful and symbolic gestures during the end of the Empire proved otherwise. And as Politico once wrote, her so-called ‘apoliticism’ helped Britain avoid atoning for its colonial past.
We also know by now that Britain has destroyed thousands of records of its colonial crimes in Operation Legacy, to avoid the ‘embarrassment’. But the violence of the British Empire still remains a truth, and for many of us, colonialism is not a distant memory to be read about in a history book; it is the lived experience of our parents and grandparents. We have grown up with our loved ones’ stories of the brutality of the British empire. We see it in the family tree.
Don’t ask us to give a minute’s silence and peace to a woman who could not take a moment to condemn the torture being committed in her name from Kenya to the Caribbean. Don’t ask us to forget, or to stay silent on the matter.
In Kenya alone, the atrocities committed by British soldiers against Kenyans at the peak of the Mau Mau uprising between 1952 and 1960 happened during her reign. Around 1.5 million people were put into concentration camps and subjected to torture, rape and other abominable abuse. Some survivors have lived to tell the tale, and in 2013, then-Foreign Secretary William Hague acknowledged these events ‘on behalf of Her Majesty's government’.
But you do not even need to look too far across the world, just look beyond the sea at the island or Ireland. For eight centuries, the British oppressed, killed and starved Irish people who stood against attempts to colonise the whole country. And the Irish have not forgotten either.
After Oprah’s explosive interview of the Duke and Duchess in 2021, Patrick Freyne wrote in the Irish Times: “Having a monarchy next door is a little like having a neighbour 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 neighbour who’s really into clowns and, also, your grandfather was murdered by a clown.”
These words speak volumes on the absurdity of the monarchy in itself as a concept, of having a group of people who are considered above everyone else because they are supposedly anointed by God. And that absurdity cannot be enjoyed as comical, because your family was killed in their name.
The last two weeks have shown a horrifying wave of policing against anyone criticising the British Empire. But as long as there have been monarchies, there have been voices against them. They will last as long as the monarchy exists. It is inherent to the concept of democracy. In the UK, everyone has the right to freedom of expression by law, so people should be allowed to express their distaste - of the monarchy or peas - as per the Human Rights Act 1998, Article 10.
Yet anti-monarchy protesters have been arrested or intimidated by the police all around the country. A woman in Oxford was arrested for holding an ‘abolish the monarchy sign,’ and a heckler who yelled “You're a sick old man” at disgraced Prince Andrew was tackled by the police. In a now viral footage, a man holding up a blank piece of paper near Parliament in London was threatened with arrest by the police ‘just in case’ he wrote “Not my King” on it.
Let us not forget that the nations that suffered at the hands of the British Empire did not ask for independence. They fought for it, bled for it. Am I directly blaming Queen Elizabeth II for the actions of her armies? No, but she was the figurehead of a country that was committing atrocities all the way. She wore the jewels that were stolen from countries invaded by the British. And now so will the King.
We should be able to have a nuanced discussion about the royal family, and the role they have played in upholding colonial violence. About what these crown jewels truly mean, and how they got here. Yet monarchists have argued that “now is not the time”.
We were also told that it was not the time whilst the Queen was alive. So when is a good time to talk about this country’s colonial sins, and how it intends to repair the damage it has done? Why not when the whole world is looking at Britain? We have a responsibility to be serious and critical, not biased and inaccurate in addressing the Queen’s role within this country’s long imperial history. If anything, the death of a monarch marks the end of an era, and signifies the need to reflect and learn, demonstrating a new age in Britain.
Image Credit Gar Lunney, Library and Archives Canada