HomeEuropeThe queen could have redressed Britain’s colonial sins. She didn’t.

The queen could have redressed Britain’s colonial sins. She didn’t.

Saim Saeed is agriculture editor at POLITICO Europe.

There’s a large statue of Queen Victoria in the middle of Kolkata, once the capital of British India. There, she sits on a throne, holding an orb in one hand, representing the world, and a scepter in the other, representing her power over it. The statue symbolizes the imperial might the monarchy projected in Britain’s colonies, even as its position back home was far more benign.

No matter how ceremonial the monarchy’s role might be in Britain, it has a separate, more malevolent legacy for the over two billion people living in the countries that were ruled in the crown’s name.

And as the British colonies secured their independence, Queen Elizabeth II was in the unique position to explicitly distance herself from the imperial actions of her predecessors — or even better, atone for them — carving out a more just and equitable relationship between them and Britain.

That, she didn’t do.

There was no apology, no regret, no shame, no reparation, no moral responsibility or reckoning by Queen Elizabeth II over the crimes that were committed in the crown’s name. Instead, the late queen applied a more cynical, if effective, approach that refashioned her as the symbol of a modern, friendly Britain, even as the institution she presided over remained — and still remains — as conservative as ever.

The queen didn’t commit any of Britain’s colonial crimes — though it is unclear how much she knew about the violent suppression of rebellions in Kenya, Yemen and Cyprus that took place under her watch. But her rigid apoliticism and insistence on ceremony meant she shied away from any meaningful engagement with her country’s colonial past, or acknowledgment of its sins.

Take the case of the Koh-i-noor diamond. One of the world’s largest cut diamonds, the Kohinoor was surrendered to the British monarchy when it annexed the Indian kingdom of Punjab in 1849, and it’s been wedged into the Crown Jewels ever since. It’s why India was referred to as the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British Empire, its most prized possession.

Immediately upon independence in 1947, India asked for the diamond back, only to be rebuffed. In 1976, Pakistan formally asked for it too, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto writing to the United Kingdom, saying that returning the stone “would be a convincing demonstration of the spirit that moved Britain voluntarily to shed its imperial encumbrances and lead the process of decolonisation.”

Again, neither the queen nor her government acquiesced.

Instead, she worked hard on spin, taking part in a rebranding that transformed Britain’s empire into the Commonwealth. Rather than a literal map of all the places where her predecessors ruled, she refashioned it into a club of friendly peers that play cricket and rugby, and practice common law. Not only that, many former colonies kept her as their head of state.

Given that colonial nostalgia has much to do with the U.K.’s decision to leave the European Union, and the crucial role that Britain’s leaders hope the Commonwealth will play in its attempt to go “global,” how it has managed this relationship has political consequences as well.

Queen Elizabeth carefully avoided anything remotely political, ignoring her own institution’s history, focusing instead on cutting ribbons, visiting charities, waving, handbags, her dogs and her reputation. It meant that even those bearing imperial grudges wouldn’t look at her, and by extension her institution, for redress or reparations. Weddings, divorces, childbirths — events holding no political or moral weight became the preeminent feature of her professional life.

The Koh-I-Noor diamond on display with other famous diamonds at an exhibition intitled “100 World Famous Diamonds” | STR/AFP via Getty Images)

This stands in contrast to her peer, King Philippe of Belgium, who is publicly trying to come to terms with his country’s horrific colonial legacy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — another place where the monarchy played an outsized role — and it even diverges from her own family, as King Charles III and Prince William have both been more upfront in at least acknowledging historical evils.

Some countries are breaking the spell, however. Barbados became a republic last year, removing the British monarch as its head of state. And it’s worth noting that Charles, who attended the ceremony, commented on “the appalling atrocity of slavery” that “forever stains our history.” Elizabeth simply wished the country well for the future.

There’s also a growing republican movement in Australia and Canada, where Indigenous populations were killed in large numbers by British colonial authorities and settlers. And on a recent tour of the Caribbean, William faced protests in Belize and Jamaica calling for an apology and reparations for slavery.

“During her 70 years on the throne, your grandmother has done nothing to redress and atone for the suffering of our ancestors that took place during her reign and/or during the entire period of British trafficking of Africans, enslavement, indentureship and colonization,” wrote one of the protest groups, the Advocates Network.

Still, the messages of condolence pouring in today, many from the Commonwealth countries, express little of that sentiment.

For years, during her long reign, Queen Elizabeth’s charm meant that that her former subjects in Pakistan, Fiji and Nigeria would line the streets holding garlands as she drove by, when they should have been waving pitchforks. Her legacy, essentially, is an extraordinary PR coup.



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