September 8th, 2022 marked the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the UK’s longest serving monarch. A nation mourns this end of an era, this sentiment captured in her son’s words: "I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the realms and the Commonwealth, and by countless people around the world." This is a death that shakes not only the country, but the world. There are, however, critics– those who question, perhaps not the direct actions of the late Queen Elizabeth, but at least the values that she and the monarchy represent. This, most of all, is brought up in discussions on British colonialism and imperialism, a brutal cornerstone of British history and power.
Today’s discussions declare that it is difficult to disentangle the Queen from colonialism and imperialism. The monarch serves as a symbol for the British empire, and this is exactly what Queen Elizabeth was. She was a symbol for an empire that was built off of genocide and violence, which is why many of those belonging to colonies or former colonies subjugated by Britain have mixed feelings towards her. Mou Banerjee, a professor of South Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told NPR, “We essentially have to respect her for her very long service, but as the monarch, she cannot be disentangled from colonization of South Asia.” Though many colonies gained independence during or before the queen’s rule, there is still a feeling of animosity from some. Specifically, there is a lingering anger towards the nation, as many desire that the monarchy regard and apologize for their wrongdoings. Banerjee particularly cites the nonchalance with which the 1919 massacre in Jallianwala Bagh was handled, where hundreds of Indian individuals were shot and killed by British troops. In attendance at a memorial for the victims, Queen Elizabeth II had simply stated “history cannot be rewritten,” sparking considerable anger among the people. Additionally, Banerjee mentions a lack of reparations from Britain despite their deep history of looting and coercing the nations under its power. For example, there was never a formal apology from Britain on the African diaspora when over 2.2 million enslaved people were taken to British colonies in the Caribbean. By remaining silent and complacent about the actions of the empire, the horrendous things it has done are never truly defined or acknowledged, making it difficult for others to learn about and be aware of.
In addition to their complacency, many artifacts have been plundered from these nations who were victims of their colonization for display in their public British museums. Only in the past year has Britain agreed to return 72 Nigerian artifacts to the Nigerian government that were forcibly taken centuries ago. The country gained its independence about ten years after Queen Elizabeth II rose to power. She visited parts of Africa and curated an image of herself there that was associated with elegance. So, to many, the queen is a nostalgic figure. For others, there is still a distinct anger towards what she represents. This type of image can often feel like an outright denial of the egregious actions taken by the empire. However, it is necessary to mention the duality Queen Elizabeth II has concerning her image. Colonization was abolished in some countries under her rule, but it simultaneously occurred in others.
Britain’s current occupation of India has caused the nation to react to Queen Elizabth’s death in a somewhat negative manner. Her visits to the country were sometimes marked by riots and the queen, to many, is a figure of slavery and exploitation. It is no surprise that responses to her death were mostly indifferent. Many citizens of India did not hold a large degree of respect for the monarchy.
In contrast, the queen is an inescapable figure in Britain. After her death, her face was put up in many public places, from billboards to bus stops, andher death was even made into a holiday. This demonstrative, and somewhat pompous, mourning is in stark contrast to the very personal, grave conversations on her legacy. Britons themselves are divided with many young people being muted in their reaction, some citing the monarchy as irrelevant. This further establishes the traditionalistic element of the throne, and begs the question: is the British monarchy really necessary?
The British monarchy is a polarizing concept. Most voices, in this discussion, criticize it for its lack of transparency on British history. British curriculum is often criticized for its lack of minority representation and unwillingness to discuss the more horrendous aspects of the nation’s rise to power. Colonial history has had its impact in the contemporary world too, further contributing to the society’s values and injustices.One prominent example was the Windrush scandal, where hundreds of Black Britons were wrongfully deported or threatened with deportation to the Caribbean. Many are more hopeful for a new monarchy with a potentially stronger, moral leadership. However, some view it as a waste of resources. Social and economic inequality is present in Britain, especially amidst a cost of living crisis, and therefore it seems unnecessary and wasteful to devote time and money to an opulent display of power like the monarchy.
For many, there is an intrinsic desire for the nation to come to terms with and acknowledge the atrocities it has committed. This is what a monarch should do - manage and resolve issues of public image and diplomacy. However, during Queen Elizabeth II’s rule, we saw no such action to apologize for past events, acknowledge atrocities of history, or ensure reparations to those irreversibly harmed by the empire. There is an utter lack of knowledge on the brutality that transpired in British colonies - the true danger of complacency. I think it is necessary to be hopeful for the future. Change is possible and straightforward, and perhaps it is time for the sun to set on the British Empire. It is time for it to rise anew, and usher in a new age where history is unfiltered and honest.
Editors: Joyce P., Rachel C., Cathay L., Lang D.