Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
The Blood Behind Britain’s Bling
I understand why millions of Americans enjoy all things royal, despite having revolted against the British monarchy in 1776. There is timeless elegance, breathtaking estates, unimaginable luxury. There are sumptuous gowns, legendary bling, shoe porn. There is the dream of fairytale romance that, if never quite realized, is more than compensated by tawdry scandals.
In a world out of control, there is a profound desire for a realm where genteel manners, storybook tradition, and taking care of your lessers are the highest values of the land. And who does it hurt to fantasize about having one devoted attendant who daubs your toothbrush with a pearl of toothpaste from a crested silver dispenser every night, or another servant who wears your stiff new shoes to break them in for your royal feet?
These royal fantasies inspired millions of Americans to wake up at sunrise on Saturday to watch the coronation of King Charles III, among a global audience of 400 million who tuned into the first ascension of a new British monarch in more than 70 years.
In 1956, two psychologists labeled our obsession with celebrities “parasocial relationships.” They said through mass media like television and movies, we form one-way bonds with Hollywood actors, sports stars, and kings and queens and their broods. We devour tiny details about their lives and emotionally invest ourselves in their troubles and triumphs—or at least what we are led to believe they are.
At its peak in the 1920s, Britain, a tiny rainy island of rocks and sheep, ruled nearly one-fourth of humanity, around half a billion people.
We say, “They are just like us,” when marriages go sour or sibling rivalries explode in fury. And it’s just harmless fun, isn’t it? Perhaps the public bill of $125 million for King Charles III coronation is a trifle expensive, but the royal family generates billions of dollars for the United Kingdom, and the costs hardly compare to billionaires’ super yachts that can top $1 billion.
If pushed on how the Crown acquired its wealth, we might grumble, “Throwing a coronation party is not like dressing up as a Native American, attending a Nazi-themed party, or getting married at a Southern plantation.”
That is true. It is worse. And we need to shift our culture away from such fantasies.
You might retort, “That’s ridiculous.” How could a king and his court, with chic ladies topped with spectacular fascinators, be worse than the most evil people in history?
Perhaps we are reluctant to acknowledge the sinister reality of the monarchy because we are taught from childhood to revere royalty through pop culture and movies like The Princess Diaries, The Princess Academy, Disney princesses, or the legends of King Arthur and The Lord of the Rings. I know I was.
As adults, we project these fantasy kings and queens, who embody the best of us and live the best of all possible lives, onto the real-world royalty we consume in the media. We aren’t taught about the unbelievable scale of atrocities committed by—and in the name of—European monarchs over centuries. If forced to confront the crimes, we deny it: Queen Elizabeth didn’t know. It happened so long ago. What’s past is past. We can’t do anything about it now.
Saying this, thinking this, is every bit as vile as Holocaust denialism. Imperial British atrocities are so staggering in scope and length that even a mainstream publication like The New Yorker asked if it was “a more malevolent influence on world history than even Nazi Fascism?” Still, not enough media outlets question what the royal family actually represents.
It is long past time to stop romanticizing royalty.
At its peak in the 1920s, Britain, a tiny rainy island of rocks and sheep, ruled nearly one-fourth of humanity, around half a billion people. Accounting for how it ravaged the world lapses into lists and numbers with many unknowns that demean all who suffered. Tragically, we know only the outlines of British atrocities. Many details need to be filled in and may have been washed away by the tides of history.
The British Empire was the world’s biggest slave-trading nation. It was largely responsible for the Native genocide in the United States and Canada. European powers and monarchs killed some 56 million in the Western Hemisphere. Or maybe it was 100 million. Britain ran the world’s most vicious drug cartel, turning China into a nation of opium addicts during the 19th century, the devastating social effects of which last to this day. It killed countless millions across Africa and left it underdeveloped. The British forged a Middle East of fanatics, dictators, and endless war.
If Americans have heard of British crimes, they likely stem from the Boer War and Irish potato famine. Our culture values white victims of Western colonialism the most. It is widely believed that during the early 20th-century Boer War in South Africa, the British developed concentration camps where 28,000 Dutch descendants, known as Boers, perished. But this is an instance of how even British atrocities get whitewashed. In fact, the Spanish invented concentration camps. The term they used, reconcentración, referred to camps into which Cubans were forced in the 1890s with an estimated death toll of 150,000 from disease and starvation. Around the same time, the U.S. used concentration camps in the Philippines, and the Germans used them in Namibia. The lesson Britain seemed to have learned from this appalling history is operating concentration camps on the scale of the Nazis. The same year Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952, the British began using concentration camps in Kenya in a futile attempt to defeat the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion, imprisoning 1.5 million people and killing “perhaps hundreds of thousands.”
Likewise, many Americans know about the horrors of the Irish potato famine that took more than 1 million lives. The Irish call it “The Great Hunger,” although Irish genocide would be even more accurate. But they know almost nothing about the famines in China and India under British rule, with a death toll that likely stretches into the hundreds of millions.
The British ruled India for nearly two centuries. For the last 90 years it was called “The British Raj” as the Crown ruled it. India was nicknamed “The Jewel in the Crown,” and Queen Victoria was the Empress of India. In other words, atrocities committed by the British were all done by and for the British monarchy.
When King Charles III, during his coronation, wore 112-year-old shimmering gold robes, sat on a 727-year-old throne for his investiture ceremony, rode in a gold carriage dating from 1762, and held, as per Town and Country Magazine, “The Sovereign’s Sceptre with Cross [that] has been used in the coronation of every British monarch since 1661,” his ascension was meant to convey centuries of history justifying the continuation of an absurd institution of a divine-right hereditary monarchy.
History is not a buffet, however. You don’t get to pick and choose the parts you like.
Death by starvation is exceedingly cruel and painful, lasting months. In his book Late Victorian Holocausts, the late Mike Davis tried to calculate the number of deaths in British-ruled China and India. The best he could do was estimate a range of 30 million to 60 million deaths from 1876 to 1900. Two scholars, Dylan Sullivan and Jason Hickel, recently examined British-caused famines in India from 1880 to 1920. They provided three estimates: 50 million, 100 million, and 165 million deaths.
Prior to this dreadful period, the British caused 31 “serious famines” in India in 120 years of rule. Compare that to one famine occurring in India about every 120 years over two millennia before British rule. My parents were children in colonial India when a British-caused famine killed 4 million in Bengal, possibly more.
My parents did not suffer hunger, but they lived through Britain’s final atrocity that India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have never recovered from: Partition. The British cleaving of India in August 1947 was catastrophic. Serving as prime minister during World War II and the twilight of the Raj, Winston Churchill deliberately encouraged Hindu-Muslim animosity in the hopes of keeping control of India, according to Madhusree Mukerjee, author of Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II. A rushed British departure from India combined with its utterly incompetent division by Cyril Radcliffe, who had never visited the country, set the stage for massive ethnic cleansing and atrocities. To this day the death toll from partition remains a mystery but is estimated to range from 200,000 to 2 million.
The two worst-hit cities were Lahore and Amritsar, with ghost trains pulling into both cities carrying thousands of butchered corpses in carriages reportedly dripping blood and shedding limbs. It is a distressing sign of how little Westerners know about British crimes that some friends who are well-read political activists confessed to me they only learned about partition from the superhero series Ms. Marvel.
In Lahore in 1947, my then 13-year-old father would go up to the roof of his house every day. “I would see fires and hear the wails of women,” he recalled. In Amritsar, my then 10-year-old mother would accompany relatives to help feed women and children taking refuge in a school. Sexual slavery and sexual violence was rampant. My mother went into the room where women who were mutilated were held. She saw a woman whose breasts had been chopped off. “I ran out screaming,” she said. Telling the story more than 70 years later, she began hyperventilating in panic.
The British monarchy sits atop a billion of these atrocities, stolen lives, and traumas. Like me, nearly all South Asians have family stories of death, devastation, and displacement that was the handiwork of the British Crown. We may not be able to depict them in big-budget television shows, but we can share them in spaces where knowledge can create a better future.
To me and my family, to South Asia, indeed to the entire non-Western world, the British are worse than the Nazis. And King Charles III is the soul and symbol of those horrors.
It is long past time to stop romanticizing royalty and instead consign Charles and all kings and queens to the ashbin of history.
Arun Gupta is a long-time investigative reporter, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and the author of Bacon as Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste.