Foreign Affairs

The Queen’s Death: A Retrospective Look at the Destructive Legacy of Colonialism

The passing of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8, 2022, marked the end of the longest-reigning monarch in history—one of the last connections to the days of the old British Empire. The death of the Queen elicited strong reactions on social media from both monarchists and anti-imperialists, sparking a debate on whether or not the Queen’s death should be mourned. While monarchists insist on respecting tradition and claim that the Crown evolved under Queen Elizabeth II, others argue that the former monarch was a product and upholder of problematic colonial legacies which still impact people to this day. In navigating the nuance and complexities of this topic, it’s important to first take a closer look at the destructive legacy of colonialism itself.

Colonialism, in a broader sense, can be best described as taking control over a territory, occupying it with settlers, and then subsequently engaging in the economic exploitation of the region in order to benefit the colonizing power. While Britain did not create this strategy, its use allowed them to become the world’s largest empire by the year 1920. In order to maintain and strengthen political control in their colonized territories, Britain engaged in brutal displays of cultural genocide and repression. Take India for example, a highly populated and resource-rich colony the British formally incorporated in 1858. As time progressed, and more Indians demanded freedom, the British began to forcefully respond to cries of independence. This is best exemplified by the Jalianwala Bagh Massacre in 1919, where British forces fired upon peaceful protestors for 15 minutes without any proper warning. General Dyer, who ordered the massacre, ensured that all exits were blocked and even directed troops to fire at those fleeing for their lives. The massacre was so horrific that even colonial officials were appalled, and Dyer was sent back to England on permanent leave. Nevertheless, many English intellectuals, such as Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book, celebrated and justified the General’s actions. While the Jalianwala Bagh incident was one of the more notable and grotesque displays of colonial brutality, it was an embodiment of the oppression and domination entangled with imperial powers like Great Britain.

Given this context, is it fair to associate these past atrocities with the Monarchy and the late Queen Elizabeth II, who was not in power during such events? Many monarchists assert that the late Queen presided over the breakup of the British empire and made amends to rectify past wrongs. Therefore, according to them, she is exempt from criticism directed toward the late atrocities of the British Empire. However, this is not entirely true. Just like her predecessors, the late Queen also supported brutal repressions of revolts like the Biafran separatists, which led to a million children starving to death in Nigeria. Furthermore, the Monarchy’s generational wealth can be traced to institutions of slavery and colonialism. In Colonial India alone, Great Britain removed nearly $45 trillion in value from the region through taxation and the draining of natural resources without properly compensating locals. This would amount to more than 15 times the current GDP of India today. Despite these appalling numbers, Queen Elizabeth II never formally apologized for the pillaging of colonies like India, and made no effort to return stolen possessions to their indigenous territories such as the infamous Koh-i-Noor diamond. Even after the Nazi reign in Germany, European governments made active efforts to return stolen Jewish artwork to their rightful owners. Reluctance to do so by the Crown up to this point not only highlights the Monarchy’s hubris, but also its willingness to continue the harmful and destructive legacy of colonial power structures. Similar to Critical Race Theory’s claim of the importance of acknowledging slavery in understanding U.S. history, it is impossible to move on from Britain’s morally reprehensible past without recognizing the painful history and origin of the country’s wealth.

The Crown’s flaws, largely under the rule of the late Queen, are not just limited to their ineptitude at acknowledging colonial atrocities, but also include racist policy within its own country. Recent papers have revealed that Buckingham Palace banned the hiring of ethnic minorities and non-white employees from office roles until at least the late 1960s. Her office was in fact exempt from U.K. segregation laws until the end of her life, leaving it unknown to the general public for how long she continued racist hiring practices. Her legal protection is an undeniable indictment of the Monarchy’s moral and legal supremacy. Despite granting independence to the many colonies and drafting new laws, the Head of State of England remained above the law. Even now, Meghan Markle’s allegations of racism within Buckingham Palace evoke painful images of white supremacy, which was used as the basis for past colonial projects and expansions. The unwillingness of the Monarchy to adapt and its insistence on whiteness as the basis of legitimacy is not only a flawed belief, it is detrimental to any hopes of racial progress and atonement in the present and coming future. 

The nearly 71-year-long reign of Queen Elizabeth II was a monumental and critical era for Great Britain in that it finally seemed the sun had set on the British Empire. With 62 countries becoming independent from the U.K. within her reign, it was an unprecedented phenomenon and a new era of promise for the formerly oppressed territories. Nevertheless, the Monarch’s willingness to continue to utilize instruments of racial subjugation both at home and abroad signifies the unyielding imperialist tendencies of the institution. Evils like racism are not easy to eradicate because they remain pervasive in society until something is done to repent and correct it. Despite being given a chance to adapt throughout decades of changes in societal attitudes, the Crown’s adherence to toxic traditions proves that the fault remains in the institution of the Monarchy in addition to the legacy left behind by Queen Elizabeth II. After looking at the history and all of the facts, the arguments made by monarchists come across as excuses—failures to recognize the far-reaching consequences that the British have caused in the past and continue to exert to this day. In light of this knowledge, this institution should not carry forward to the present day. It would be of service to the whole world if the British government abolished the Monarchy to begin the long-awaited healing process for its people and former colonies.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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