Opinion | The queen’s death has revived a new wave of racist respectability politics

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The death of Queen Elizabeth II on Thursday plunged Britain into a period of mourning for its longest reigning monarch. But Britain was not the only nation to lose its ruler — the queen was the head of state of 15 countries across the globe when she died, from New Zealand to my family’s Jamaica. You would be right to question why the queen remained the figure head for a former slave colony 60 years after it declared its independence, but this is just one of the many uncomfortable legacies of colonialism.

Commentators “attacking” the queen and her “benign” monarchy, Carlson wrote, are doing so “because she lived during a better time.”

The queen also headed the Commonwealth, the collection of former colonies that essentially rebranded the British Empire into a series of sporting events and roundtable meetings in the mid-20th century. Great Britain came together as a nation in 1707, so from inception it included the colonial territories that Britain spent generations plundering.

As the world waited for confirmation of the queen’s death on Thursday, and as family members sped to her royal vacation residence in Scotland, social media posts began going viral demanding that no one speak ill of the queen, out of respect for her loyal subjects. But the queen had many subjects, and they do not all mourn equally.

On Fox News, host Tucker Carlson wrote an oped opining that British monarchs ruled “with decency unmatched by any empire in human history.” Commentators “attacking” the queen and her “benign” monarchy, Carlson wrote, are doing so “because she lived during a better time.”

This, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a profoundly ignorant reading of history. One can appreciate British advancements in government, policy and free speech without whitewashing centuries of history. Indeed, if we are to truly understand the significance and impact of the queen’s death, we cannot just focus on the outpouring of grief from the British Isles. We must consider the true impact on the former empire. 

Britain found its place in the world through its empire, which was the largest that has ever existed, encompassing a quarter of the world at its peak. Britain likes to pretend that it was honest hard work and scientific genius that made the nation “great.” But in reality, it was genocide, slavery and colonialism that propelled a small island nation into a global leader. Let’s not forget that Queen Elizabeth I launched Britain’s involvement in transatlantic slavery, and the Royal African Company was responsible for enslaving more Africans than any other company in the world. In order to abolish slavery, the British government paid 40% of its 1833 budget to compensate slave owners for their losses. It is estimated that as much as a fifth of wealthy Britons at the time received a payout.

The monarchy may have existed before the empire, but its wealth and status cannot be separated from Britain’s colonial plunder.

The monarchy may have existed before the empire, but its wealth and status cannot be separated from Britain’s colonial plunder. The proof is not subtle — on formal occasions, the royal family displays their sparkling loot openly. During the heyday of the empire, the monarch represented the subjugation of the colonies, the incarnation of Britannia ruling the waves. The second longest serving monarch, Queen Victoria, reveled in her title of “Empress of India.” Queen Elizabeth’s empire was already mostly dismantled, but she remained a symbolic connection to the glories of the past. The perfect symbol of colonial nostalgia, of when Britain had its rightful place in the world. The reverence which greeted her on visits to the former colonies bolstered old school British (white) self-esteem. But the mood is changing in the former colonies.

The Caribbean has become increasingly vocal about making Britain atone for its colonial past. Its reparations commission has existed since 2013, and has a 10-point plan calling for significant financial investment in the region from its former colonizers. The natives have become restless, which has led to a decline in the adoration for the British crown.

The disastrous visit of future King William and his wife Kate to the Caribbean in 2022 left many wondering if it was time to move on from the monarchy entirely. The couple’s attempts to recreate photo ops of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip from the colonial era provoked outrage rather than teary eyed reminiscences. They also faced protests, and at the end of their trip left a number of countries considering following the example of Barbados and declaring themselves republics, removing the queen as head of state.

The queen remained very popular around the world, probably in large part to her longevity. Her reign symbolized stability, especially for Westerners, and her steadfastness during World War II in particular endeared her to millions. Like it or not, we all grew up with her, and those raised with a colonial education had fondness for her drilled into them at school.

But that fondness may not extend to a much less sympathetic Charles. And her passing may prove to be the tipping point for change in many, if not all ex-colonies. Countries like Jamaica were already considering cutting ties with the royals, and the queen’s death may mark a true “end of an era.”

Earlier this year, some Caribbean nations turned heads by publicly opposing the transfer of Commonwealth leadership to King Charles upon his succession. India is now the largest economy in the group, which has expanded to include Rwanda, Mozambique, Gabon and Togo — none of which were formerly British colonies. A changing of the guard is long overdue. By removing the centrality of the British crown, perhaps the group can focus on how to actually overcome the legacies of colonialism, rather than symbolically perpetuating British imperialism. And this, ultimately, is what royalists — and Fox News pundits — fail to grasp. Millions of people are mourning Queen Elizabeth II this weekend, as is their right. But millions more are hoping her death marks the end of the monarchy — and you need only to open a history book to understand why.

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