Time for the Monarchy to Reckon with its History? | Peter Ongera

While the entire world is mourning Elizabeth II’s death, here is a series of events narrated by Peter Ongera on her rule, and the exploits of the empire.

Elizabeth II passed when she was 96. She reigned longer than any other British monarch. While the entire world is mourning her death, here is a series of events narrated by Peter Ongera on her rule, and the exploits that the British empire whitewashed.

Princess Elizabeth was on the adventure of a lifetime, spotting wildlife from high up on the treetops when her father died and she became queen. The world awoke on February 6, 1952, to the death of King George VI, who had succumbed during the night to lung cancer at the royal Sandringham residence in Norfolk.

His 25-year-old daughter and heir to the throne only heard the news later the same day, when word reached Elizabeth thousands of miles from home in the wilderness of the Aberdare Range.

Kenya, then a British colony, was the first stop on Elizabeth’s tour of the Commonwealth she had embarked upon with her husband, Prince Philip, in place of her ill father. Too ill to travel, 56-year-old George tasked Elizabeth and her husband, Philip, with undertaking a months-long tour of the Commonwealth, in the twilight of the British Empire.

George saw his daughter off at London Airport on January 31, 1952. Newspapers said the king looked “well and cheerful.” One of his biographers would later suggest “haggard” as a better description. The crowd let out a cheer as he waved goodbye to Elizabeth.

It would be the last time the two saw each other. Jim Corbett, the naturalist and hunter who accompanied the royal couple to Treetops, is credited with writing in the visitor book: “For the first time in the history of the world, a young girl climbed into a tree one day a Princess and, after having what she described as her most thrilling experience, she climbed down from the tree next day a queen.”

“There has been much speculation, not least because of historical parallels, about when precisely Elizabeth became Queen,” wrote Sally Beddel Smith in her biography of the monarch. “It undoubtedly happened when she was atop the African fig tree, which draws a romantic line to the moment in 1558 when Elizabeth I, seated next to an oak tree at Hatfield House, heard that the death of her sister, Queen Mary, meant she was the monarch, also at age twenty-five.”

Two years after the historic visit, with Elizabeth having assumed the throne, Treetops burned down in what was rumoured to be an arson attack by anti-colonial Mau Mau rebels. But what has the monarchy got to do with slavery and colonialism? How has it benefited from these systems of exploitation and expropriation?

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s tour of the Caribbean for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee were criticised over the royals’ connection to colonialism and slavery.

An open letter by Jamaican public figures said: “We see no reason to celebrate 70 years of the ascension of your grandmother to the British throne because her leadership, and that of her predecessors, has perpetuated the greatest human rights tragedy in the history of humankind.”

Monarchy is the oldest form of government in the United Kingdom. In a monarchy, a king or queen is the Head of State. The British Monarchy is known as a constitutional monarchy. This means that, while The Sovereign is Head of State, the ability to make and pass legislation resides with an elected Parliament.

As a Head of State, the Monarch undertakes constitutional and representational duties which have developed over one thousand years of history. In addition to these State duties, the Monarch acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence, and supports the ideal of voluntary service.

In all these roles the Sovereign is supported by members of their immediate family. In a speech in 1947 in South Africa, then-Princess Elizabeth declared she would devote her life to the “service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”. The concept of an “imperial family” reflects the idea of the British monarchy as the empire’s figurehead, vested in ideologies of white supremacy and colonialism. According to Laura Clancy of Lancaster University, this idea also plays a role in royal international visits. Royal visits have historically had colonialist implications by portraying the royal as a white saviour.

Media scholar Raka Shome discusses how the late Princess Diana became a symbol of this in photographs of her playing with and caring for black children in Africa as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge shaking hands with Jamaican residents through wire fencing.

Such visits attempt to rewrite colonial and imperial histories through discourses of philanthropy and global community, with the royals as “head” of the global family. The British monarchy was central to the establishment, expansion, and maintenance of the British empire and the transatlantic slave trade.

The declaration of the English empire was first made by Henry VIII in 1532. Elizabeth I granted a royal charter (an instrument of incorporation) to Sir John Hawkins, widely considered one of the first English traders to profit from the slave trade. She also granted a charter to the British East India Company in 1600.

After Elizabeth’s death, Charles II formed the Royal African Company in 1660, led by the Duke of York (later James II), which extracted goods such as gold and ivory from the Gold Coast and transported over 3,000 Africans to Barbados. Many of these people had the initials “DY” burned into their skins to signify their belonging to the Duke of York. Both men invested private funds in the company.

Queen Victoria assumed the title of Empress of India in 1877, and by 1920 the empire was 13.71 million square miles. The British monarch’s global significance and power stemmed directly from the enslavement of people of colour.

The Commonwealth is an organisation of 52 “independent and equal” member states. Despite this “independent” claim, the Commonwealth has imperial origins. Many of the member states are former colonies of the British empire, and Commonwealth expert Philip Murphy describes the way imperial became Commonwealth as “haphazard”.

The Commonwealth emerged from post-World War 2 decolonisation, as a means of reassuring the British public that the demise of the empire would not diminish Britain’s global prestige. The role of the head of the Commonwealth allows the monarch to continue their position of international privilege and influence, which stems from colonial histories.

The London Declaration, of 1949, which addressed India’s position in the Commonwealth as a republic, set the precedent for Commonwealth countries to adopt republicanism. Since 1842, each country has nominated a local governor general as the Queen’s representative, with the power to propose legislation, (dis)prove bills and dissolve parliament. Although the Queen or King has no “direct” political control in these realms, governor generals could be interpreted as ongoing monarchical administrative power.

Many of these countries, including Australia, Jamaica, Grenada, Saint Lucia and Tuvalu still use “God Save the Queen/King” as the national or royal anthem. As sociologist Ty Salandy argues, such cultural texts were used to instil British values and subservience to colonial authority, and their continued use suggests a similar system of values.

In 2021, Barbados removed the queen as head of state, officially becoming a republic but remaining part of the Commonwealth. There are reports that Jamaica is planning to do the same.

Following the National Trust’s report into histories of slavery and colonialism in its properties, the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy Worsley, announced a similar investigation into royal palaces in 2020.

Worsley said that all properties used by the Stuart dynasty in the 17th century were “going to have an element of money derived from slavery” within them. This includes Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace, which have connections to King William III, another part owner of the Royal African Company.

This is not to mention goods now owned by the monarchy that was stolen during colonisation, such as the Koh-i-Noor diamond from India used in the Crown Jewels, which Pakistan and India have repeatedly asked to be returned.

The lack of transparency regarding what the Crown owns versus the Queen’s personal effects makes it even harder to trace these histories. Navaratnam Narajacumaran, a Sri Lanka scholar working on establishing a case against an annexation the UK did when Sri Lanka was its colony.

Due to that, a region which had its own language, legislation, and culture was forced to become a minority since the other region had a larger population with a different language, religion, and legislation. It led to 26 years of civil war which consumed hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, along with every other possible human rights violation. 

In a speech in Jamaica, Prince William expressed “profound sorrow” over slavery which “forever stains our history”. He stopped short, however, of acknowledging the monarchy’s role in that history, an institution from which he continues to benefit. In the wake of global movements against racism and colonialism, it’s finally time for the monarchy to reckon with its history.

Author – Peter Ongera

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