From the very beginning, Queen Elizabeth II’s reign was deeply connected to Britain’s global empire and the long and bloody processes of decolonization.
Indeed, she became queen while on a royal visit to Kenya in 1952. After she left, the colony descended into one of the worst conflicts of the British colonial period. Declaring a state of emergency in October 1952, the British would go on to kill tens of thousands of Kenyans before it was over.
Is it possible to disentangle the personal attributes of a gentle and kindly woman from her role as the crowned head of a declining global empire that waged numerous wars and resisted those demanding independence across the globe?
Even though she was a constitutional monarch who generally followed the lead of her parliament, many of Britain’s ex-subjects don’t think so, and some historians agree, with one commenting that “Elizabeth II helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.”
Here in Australia, too, while some Australians remember with nostalgia the time they waved small flags along the route of royal tours as children, one Indigenous scholar has pointed out that the queen “wasn’t a bystander to the effects of colonization and colonialism.”
It Depends Who’s Remembering
How the queen and her reign is being remembered depends on where the remembering is taking place and by whom.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Unforgettable is the royal tour of the Caribbean in March 2022, when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were bluntly told by the prime minister of Jamaica the region was “moving on” from the British monarchy.
Others, too, noted the British monarchy was a constant reminder of the period of slavery, with a government committee in the Bahamas urging them to offer “a full and formal apology for their crimes against humanity.”
This ongoing process of national distancing from a British royal past is continuing today, even in the week of the queen’s death.
In India, for example, only days ago, the once grand boulevard of empire, Rajpath (formerly known as Kingsway in honor of the British Emperor of India George V) has been renamed Kartavya Path and headed with a giant statue of Subhas Chandra Bose, one of India’s most strident (and controversial) anti-British nationalists.
At the unveiling of this statue, India’s nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that “another symbol of slavery has been removed today” and urged all Indians to visit the site.
The theme of a “complicated historical relationship” with the monarchy is also prominent in South Africa, with one African news site declaring that “South Africa’s relationship with the British monarchy is as complicated as it gets.”
It was in South Africa that Elizabeth declared her intention to devote herself to Britain’s “imperial family” of colonies on her 21st birthday. But it was also on the question of South Africa’s apartheid regime that the queen showed a rare moment of dissent with one of her prime ministers, refusing to accept quietly Margaret Thatcher’s decision not to join other countries in placing economic sanctions on the regime.
Elsewhere, Iraq’s complicated history with the United Kingdom, which stretches back to the 1920s, has also been noted in local reports. More recently, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed during the war that Britain began alongside the United States, Australia, and other nations in 2003.
In Malaysia, the role of the British in massacres and mass resettlement programs during the bloody Malayan Emergency (1948–1960) and the period of decolonization is also still clearly remembered. Not only did this conflict rumble on during the early years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, all attempts at an inquiry into events in Malaya have been stymied by British governments.
Even in neighboring Ireland, which has sought to smooth relations with its nearest neighbor, President Michael D. Higgins has spoken euphemistically of Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with “those with whom her country has experienced a complex, and often difficult, history.”
Newspapers there also ponder what her death might mean for Northern Ireland, the site of the Anglo–Irish conflict euphemistically known as the “Troubles” as well as recent strained relations.
The queen may have “charmed” some in Ireland with her commemoration of those who fought the British there. But few will have forgotten the role of the British army in Northern Ireland, including the now infamous “Bloody Sunday” Massacre of 1972, nor the queen’s statement on behalf of Boris Johnson’s government rejecting its victims’ demands for justice.
Some might suggest the tortured history of the declining British Empire should be seen as separate from the reign and person of Elizabeth II. Certainly nothing suggests the queen was particularly bellicose in her demeanor.
But as Thomas Paine once remarked, while a monarch might personally be kind and generous, they remain the monarch, the head of the state that fights its wars and (on occasion) commits its crimes—all in the name of the Crown.
The role of Queen Elizabeth II in the history of British colonialism will continue to be debated well after her death.
This article was originally published by The Conversation. It has been republished here with permission.
Matt Fitzpatrick is a professor of International History and a Future Fellow at Flinders University, Adelaide. His research is in the field of German and European history, particularly the history of European imperialism, German liberalism and nationalism. He is also interested in the comparative history of empires and intellectual history. His most recent book is The Kaiser and the Colonies: Monarchy in the Age of Empire.