Memoirs of monarch: Mourn the Queen, not her empire

She helped obscure a bloody history of decolonisation whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged
 Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II

The end of an era” will become a refrain as commentators assess the record-setting reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Like all monarchs, she was both an individual and an institution. She had a different birthday for each role — the actual anniversary of her birth in April plus an official one in June — and, though she retained her personal name as monarch, held different titles depending on where in her domains she stood. She was as devoid of opinions and emotions in public as her ubiquitous handbags were said to be of everyday items like a wallet, keys and phone. Of her inner life we learned little beyond her love of horses and dogs — which gave Helen Mirren, Olivia Colman and Claire Foy rapt audiences for the insights they enacted.

The queen embodied a profound, sincere commitment to her duties — her final public act was to appoint her 15th prime minister — and for her unflagging performance of them, she will be rightly mourned. She has been a fixture of stability, and her death in already turbulent times will send ripples of sadness around the world. But we should not romanticise her era. For the queen was also an image: the face of a nation that, during the course of her reign, witnessed the dissolution of nearly the entire British Empire into some 50 independent states and significantly reduced global influence. By design as much as by the accident of her long life, her presence as head of state and head of the Commonwealth, an association of Britain and its former colonies, put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such, the queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonisation whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.

Elizabeth became queen of a postwar Britain where sugar was still rationed and rubble from bomb damage still being cleared away. Journalists and commentators promptly cast the 25-year-old as a phoenix rising into a new Elizabethan age. An inevitable analogy, perhaps, and a pointed one. The first Elizabethan Age, in the second half of the 16th century, marked England’s emergence from a second-tier European state to an ambitious overseas power. Elizabeth I expanded the navy, encouraged privateering and granted charters to trading companies that laid the foundations for a transcontinental empire.

Elizabeth II grew up in a royal family whose significance in the British Empire had swollen even as its political authority shrank at home. The monarchy ruled an ever-lengthening list of Crown colonies, including Hong Kong (1842), India (1858) and Jamaica (1866). Queen Victoria, proclaimed empress of India in 1876, presided over flamboyant celebrations of imperial patriotism; her birthday was enshrined from 1902 as Empire Day. Members of the royal family made lavish ceremonial tours of the colonies, bestowing upon Indigenous Asian and African rulers an alphabet soup of orders and decorations. In 1947, then-Princess Elizabeth celebrated her 21st birthday on a royal tour in South Africa, delivering a much-quoted speech in which she promised that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” She was on another royal tour, in Kenya, when she learned of her father’s death.

On Coronation Day in 1953, The Times of London proudly broke the news of the first successful summiting of Mount Everest by the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and the New Zealander Edmund Hillary, calling it a “happy and vigorous augury for another Elizabethan era.” The imperialistic tenor of the news notwithstanding, Queen Elizabeth II would never be an empress in name — the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 stripped away that title — but she inherited and sustained an imperial monarchy by assuming the title of head of the Commonwealth. “The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past,” she insisted in her Christmas Day message of 1953. Its history suggested otherwise. Initially imagined as a consortium of the “white” settler colonies (championed by the South African premier Jan Smuts), the Commonwealth had its origins in a racist and paternalistic conception of British rule as a form of tutelage, educating colonies into the mature responsibilities of self-government. Reconfigured in 1949 to accommodate newly independent Asian republics, the Commonwealth was the empire’s sequel and a vehicle for preserving Britain’s international influence.

In photographs from Commonwealth leaders’ conferences, the white queen sits front and center among dozens of mostly non-white premiers, like a matriarch flanked by her offspring. She took her role very seriously, sometimes even clashing with her ministers to support Commonwealth interests over narrower political imperatives, like when she advocated multi-faith Commonwealth Day services in the 1960s and encouraged a tougher line on apartheid South Africa.

What you would never know from the pictures — which is partly their point — is the violence that lies behind them. In 1948 the colonial governor of Malaya declared a state of emergency to fight communist guerrillas, and British troops used counterinsurgency tactics the Americans would emulate in Vietnam. In 1952 the governor of Kenya imposed a state of emergency to suppress an anti-colonial movement known as Mau Mau, under which the British rounded up tens of thousands of Kenyans into detention camps and subjected them to brutal, systematised torture. In Cyprus in 1955 and Aden, Yemen, in 1963, British governors again declared states of emergency to contend with anti-colonial attacks; again they tortured civilians. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Troubles brought the dynamics of emergency to the United Kingdom. In a karmic turn, the Irish Republican Army assassinated the queen’s relative Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India (and the architect of Elizabeth’s marriage to his nephew, Prince Philip), in 1979.

Now that she is gone, the imperial monarchy must end too. It’s well past time, for instance, to act on calls to rename the Order of the British Empire, a distinction that the queen has bestowed on hundreds of Britons every year for community service and contributions to public life. The queen served as head of state in more than a dozen Commonwealth realms, more of which may now follow the example of Barbados, which decided “to fully leave our colonial past behind” and become a republic in 2021. The queen’s death could also aid a fresh campaign for Scottish independence, which she was understood to oppose. Though Commonwealth leaders decided in 2018 to fulfill the queen’s “sincere wish” and recognise Prince Charles as the next head of the Commonwealth, the organisation emphasises that the role is not hereditary.

The new king now has an opportunity to make a real historical impact by scaling back royal pomp and updating Britain’s monarchy to be more like those of Scandinavia. That would be an end to celebrate.

Jasanoff, a professor of history at Harvard, is the author of three books about the British Empire and its subjects

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