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Queen Elizabeth never apologised for her country’s historic colonial oppression. Can her son do better?

The global fascination with Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral showed British pageantry to be in excellent health. But the same can’t be said of Britain’s imperial legacy – and its future world role –  judging by the mixed feelings stirred up in the country’s former colonies by the end of her 70-year reign. 

In India, where the funeral was not widely screened, indifference prevailed in a country that, in the 21st century, has the geopolitical upper hand on its former colonial ruler. But anger welled up undeniably elsewhere, including in Kenya, where memories of the 1950s Mau Mau uprising, in which at least 11,000 died and 1.5 million were forced into concentration camps, have not faded. “Death should not be used to sanitise [the queen’s] brutal legacy,” Kikonde Mwamburi, a 33-year-old Kenyan told the Guardian. “I’m glad this obtuse culture is being questioned by younger generations.”

Postwar, the queen presided over a relatively peaceful decolonisation that saw more than 20 countries gain their independence. But she remained a symbol of empire who never apologised for the UK’s past role of subjugator. Some observers now point out that her political neutrality, benevolent touch and long reign actually prevented closer scrutiny of British wrongdoing. “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 Stanford University history professor recently told Time magazine. “Decolonisation was supposed to force the acknowledgment of wrong. That never came because it was always masked by the continuity of the Queen.”

But the time of denial is over. King Charles III now faces calls for his removal as head of state, notably from several Caribbean nations, and even suggestions that the UK owes reparations for slavery and the economic damage inflicted by colonialism. At a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda in June, the then-Prince of Wales admitted “sorrow” over slavery’s “enduring impact” – but stopped short of an apology for Britain’s role in it, which directly benefitted the Crown. As he seeks to reassert the credentials of a monarchy many say is not fit for purpose in the 21st century, can the new king do what his mother could not and engage meaningfully with his country’s colonial past?

Elizabeth’s death has brought into a sharper relief a debate that has been bubbling under in most ex-imperialist European countries for the last decade. Multicultural Britain – which includes not just the descendants of formerly colonised people but is now reliant on fresh influxes from those countries – is no exception. The statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford’s Oriel College and one of Bristolian merchant-slaver Edward Colston lately became flashpoints as people have rightly questioned whether a pluralist society should still be literally putting colonial figureheads on a pedestal. The Windrush scandal saw the children of Caribbean immigrants settled in many cases for decades in the UK threatened with deportation. It revived a notion that many thought buried by multiculturalism: that of second-class status for minorities with colonial origins dumped on them by high-handed rulers.

But calls for better education about the evils of British rule abroad and a spate of revisionist histories, including Caroline Elkins’ A Legacy of Violence and Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland, have been met by opposing forces. The upswell of petty nationalism that fuelled Brexit has seen a heightened nostalgia for Britain’s imperial heyday and a desire in some quarters to minimise its harms. In 2020, in response to suggestions that the BBC might drop the lyrics to Rule Britannia in its last night of the Proms broadcast, prime minister Boris Johnson admonished those seeking to question the national narrative for their “general bout of self-recrimination and wetness”.

But these are merely culture wars. There’s no doubt that Britain profited from actual colonial wars – and the monarchy reaped the rewards. The future James II established the Royal African Company in 1660, with the involvement of his brother Charles II, partly for the purposes of supplying west African slaves for English colonies in the West Indies. Between 1672 and 1731, it transported more than 187,000 enslaved people to locations in the Americas, more than any other company operating in the Atlantic. As the Guardian writes: “It is difficult to estimate just how much of the current royal family’s wealth is owed to slavery, but it is understood that the profits of the slave trade funded the Treasury, as well as Britain’s industries, buildings, railways, roads and parks.” And this was just the start of Britain’s imperial buccaneering.

As he assumes his new role as king to subjects of all backgrounds in the UK and around the Commonwealth, Charles will have to grapple with his family’s colonial legacy on several fronts. First is the Commonwealth, among whose 56 members 15 are constitutional monarchies that recognise him as head of state. Many, including Jamaica, Antigua, and St Vincent and the Grenadines, are looking to follow Barbados’s example last year and remove him as head of state. The Caribbean,    deeply impacted by Black Lives Matter and where severing the last links of colonialism is seen as a crucial empowering step for these small nations, is where this pressure is greatest. But it exists elsewhere. New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern acknowledged this in the wake of the Queen’s death when she said she believed the country would become a republic “in time”.

Second is the subject of reparations, perhaps the most sensitive aspect for one-time European colonisers, because of the enormous sums of money they might imply. Nevertheless, there is growing awareness of the moral case for economic compensation not just for slavery but for all the wealth and resources extracted under colonial regimes. It is estimated, for example, that the Indian share of the world economy declined from 24% to 4% between 1700 and 1950. Endorsing the momentous decision for reparations would be beyond Charles’s political remit, but recompensing the royal family’s historic role in the slave trade would have huge symbolic power. The £20 million figure paid to slave owners when the trade was abolished in 1833, adjusted for inflation, might be a starting point, the chair of the Bahamas’ National Reparations Commission has suggested. (At the time, that sum represented 40% of annual British government spending.)

Third is the restitution of objects plundered during conquest, an emerging arena in international relations, with European museums increasingly ready to examine their collections for illegally appropriated artefacts. Germany’s Humboldt Museum is about to return its share of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria, and France – in advance of a full restitution plan – has already repatriated 28 pieces to Benin, Senegal and Madagascar. As someone not slow in the past to express himself on art and culture, Charles could lend his voice to the debate about whether the likes of the Elgin Marbles should be returned to Greece from the British Museum. Possible candidates for restitution among the royal family’s own effects are the Koh-i-noor diamond set in the Crown of the Queen Mother, claimed by Britain in 1849 after annexing the Punjab; and the royal sceptre’s Cullinan I diamond taken from a South African mine in 1905.

Lastly, there is the influence the new monarch could bring to bear on British society if he encourages more open debate about the country’s colonial history and its long-term impact. Minority communities in the UK are still disadvantaged in terms of income, health, housing, crime and social mobility – and proponents of systematic racism would argue this is due at least in part to the legacy of the exploitation and exclusion that began with colonialism. Charles could highlight these issues, and help begin to rectify them, according to how he chooses to engage with these communities as king. As Satia tells Time, it is up to him to set the tone in his new era: “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.”

Written by: Phil Hoad


References:

BBC: Windrush generation: Who are they and why are they facing problems?

The Guardian: What are the British monarchy’s historical links to slavery?

The Art Newspaper: What has happened to France’s grand plans to return Africa's heritage?

The Guardian: ‘A brutal legacy’: Queen’s death met with anger as well as grief in Kenya

Time: Queen Elizabeth II's death is a chance to examine the present-day effects of Britain's colonial past

CBC News: Will King Charles's reign open the door for slavery reparations in the Caribbean?

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