As the royal procession escorted Queen Elizabeth II on her last journey from Buckingham Palace to lie in state in Westminster Hall, on top of her coffin rested the Imperial State Crown. It’s one of the most famous Crown Jewels and symbolises the wealth, power and prestige the British monarchy amassed through the systemic plunder of colonies and the transatlantic slave trade, a crime against humanity.
It did not fill me with awe.
It gave me pause for deep reflection on the legacy of the queen. For some, this occasion marked the mourning of a much-loved sovereign, while others believe she had blood on her hands. She was the last colonial queen, in whose name unspeakable acts were undertaken even after the formal end of colonialism, when the playbook of British imperialism was executed under the guise of modernisation and commonwealth.
The queen’s legacy is now so whitewashed and shrouded with exaggerated epitaphs that, while respecting people’s right to mourn her passing, I feel compelled to shred this revisionist history with some pointed truth-telling. Here’s what we should be asking: What is the relevance of the monarchy?
The British monarch is an unelected head of state, a position incompatible with a progressive and advanced society in the 21st century. What is worse is that the British monarchy literally lives off wealth built on the backs of enslaved Africans. It looted trillions of dollars of wealth from Asia and Africa and plundered nations for their natural resources. The queen was the charm offensive wheeled out to give a face of respectability to the monarchy’s racism and anti-Blackness.
Another irrefutable legacy of the queen is her failure to take responsibility for the actions of her government while reaping power and benefits from it. “Britain is the great country it is today because of her,” Liz Truss, the new prime minister, said last week.
The queen can’t be the reason for Britain’s greatness without also taking ownership for atrocities committed by governments under her – for which she never personally apologised. Not for the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, in which torture, rape and the imprisonment of 1.5 million people were tools deployed by the British. Not for Britain’s horrific role in almost a million deaths in the Biafran war in order to protect its strategic interests in Nigeria. Not for the injustices, poverty and underdevelopment that former colonies still endure because of British colonialism. Not for the jewels and artefacts stolen from Asia and Africa that adorn the walls of Buckingham Palace and British museums.
Apologists for the monarchy have called me “spectacularly historically ignorant” for holding the queen accountable for the acts of her government. Yet, history shows that Queen Elizabeth knew she was ultimately responsible. In 1995, she signed an apology to New Zealand’s Maori for atrocities and land theft committed in the name of her ancestor, Queen Victoria. When a personal apology was demanded, New Zealand’s minister of justice at the time said: “The queen acts through her governments and doesn’t do things personally.”
He said the quiet part out loud. Indeed, the queen always acted through her government. The buck stopped with her. If she could sign an apology to the Maori for crimes under an ancestor, she could have done the same for atrocities committed in Kenya, Nigeria and Northern Ireland under her rule.
Here’s the thing, though. While Queen Elizabeth could avoid scrutiny, transparency and accountability under the cloak of reverence and deference, none of her successors will be able to. We live in a different time: The British people have earned rights that are incongruent with the existence of a monarchy they have largely outgrown.
Indeed, surveys show that young Britons are particularly clear about not wanting the monarchy to continue. A regressive institution of entitlement is not sustainable. For instance, it makes no sense that in the worst cost-of-living crisis in recent history – with thousands of people homeless and dependent on food banks, and millions paying exorbitant energy prices – we the British people pay a mini fortune for the queen’s funeral. Remember, the queen’s personal worth was more than $500m and the royal family’s assets amount to $28bn. We pay for our own funerals. Why can’t her estate pay for hers?
The long queues of people lining up to see the late queen lying in state were indicative of the power of indoctrination that the monarchy still holds over Britain. However, a new generation that has grown up relatively indifferent to the royal family is waking up, asking questions and demanding changes to the entrenched systemic inequalities that the monarchy symbolises.