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For seventy years, Queen Elizabeth II ruled the United Kingdom through some of the most tumultuous periods of its history. The longest ruling female leader the world has ever known, news of the Queen’s loss spread rapidly around the globe. As words of praise and sadness poured in from leaders, so too did words of criticism and contempt. Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy has been shaped, at least in part, by the long and often sordid history of the monarchy itself.
Through seven decades on the throne, the Queen strived to change the monarchy while simultaneously fighting to maintain it. At the age of 25 when she assumed the throne, the decolonization of the British empire had begun. Between 1946 and 1951, the modern day nations of India, Pakistan, Israel, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Libya all declared independence from the crown. In the decades since, dozens more have followed suit.
While most efforts to secede from Britain were met with little resistance, some fights for independence were met with brutal force.
In 1952, the same year Elizabeth became queen, the Mau Mau uprising began in Kenya. Kenyan nationals formed the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KFLA) to fight against European settlers for control of their country. Their efforts were hampered by British efforts to keep groups divided in order to maintain power. Over the course of eight years, the KFLA fought for freedom but were met with fierce pushback from British forces. In total Britain spent over $55 million and claimed more than 11,000 KFLA lives in its quest to maintain power.
This history of violence to maintain colonialism in Black and brown countries still haunts British history. And no part of British government holds as much of the weight for that history than the crown itself.
Queen Elizabeth II’s legacy carries the weight of colonialism and oppression
It is impossible for any leader to rule for seven decades without accruing a complicated and difficult legacy. For a Queen who leads an empire rooted in colonialism, that legacy will undoubtedly include generations of pain and trauma.
Of the 195 countries in the world, only 22 have never experienced an invasion by Great Britain. The reach of the British Empire has extended across every continent (including Antarctica). At one point, nearly 40% of the African continent was under British rule.
In 1663, the British government – with Royal approval – initiated the “trans-Atlantic slave trade.” For more than a century and a half, Britain reduced the humanity of people across the African continent to commodities, kidnapping them, forcing them into bondage and sending them on an horrific journey across the Atlantic to the American colonies.
Over 3.4 million people had their freedom stripped from them by British leaders, including the direct ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II. Upon news of her death, the Economic Freedom Fighters (a South African political party) issued a statement that reverberated across social media. The statement read in part:
“We do not mourn the death of Elizabeth, because to us her death is a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and in Africa’s history.”
And while some point out that Elizabeth herself “did not colonize any nation” but rather “oversaw the largest period of decolonization in history,” the larger context remains key.
Though the Queen often advocated for human rights, the monarchy ultimately failed to confront its own role in worldwide colonialism. It was not Elizabeth or the royals who worked to decolonize nations and grant them independence. Instead, that fight came from the people long oppressed by British rule.
In the wake of her death, the world grapples with celebrating the vibrant life of the Monarch, while confronting the violent legacy of the Monarchy
The Queen was thrust onto the throne at just twenty five years of age. The young woman who would just be old enough to legally rent a car in modern America found herself leading a nation still reeling from war.
She was only the sixth woman to rule the nation in its more than 1,000 year history. And in these last 70 years, she found herself ruling on the cusp of immense change within her country. Elizabeth assumed a sense of unwavering duty to the crown and to the customs of the monarchy at a time when British approval for the crown diminished significantly.
Elizabeth often found herself defending the lavish budget of the royal family in times of economic strife for the British people.
As she attempted to protect the institution behind the crown, she also fought not to disappear behind its veil herself. She maintained a warmth and an honesty that defined her time on the throne.
Now, in the wake of her passing, the world must parse between honoring the caring woman who was Queen and dismantling the oppressive foundations of the monarchy she upheld.
The Queen sometimes bucked tradition in the face of friendship and on matters of principle
The Queen often broke from protocol during interactions with world leaders who had become friends. In one visit with South African President Nelson Mandela, it’s rumored the two greeted each other with a joke.
“Elizabeth! You’ve lost weight!” Mandela reportedly told the Queen. “Thank you, Nelson,” the Queen retorted, “you don’t look so bad yourself.”
In another story of the Queen’s authenticity, Her Majesty broke from the a-political nature of her role in a fight with Margaret Thatcher.
In the Summer of 1986, forty-nine nations agreed to a barrage of sanctions against South Africa for the government’s ongoing practice of apartheid. The British government, lead by Thatcher, was the only holdout.
Queen Elizabeth II was reportedly incensed by Thatcher’s disapproval of the sanctions, finding it “lacking compassion” and “uncaring.” The Queen’s views were so apparent to staff that one aide gave an anonymous quote to The Sunday Times, a London newspaper.
The revelation of the Queen’s open dissatisfaction with the Prime Minister was a startling break from longstanding norms. However, shortly after the publication of the article, the Queen reportedly called Thatcher to profusely apologize.
According to The Sunday Times, Elizabeth “could not imagine how the story came to be circulated.” The Queen went on to assert that the article “bears no relation to the truth as I understand it.”
Her Majesty’s passing leaves behind lessons on the cost of silence
This last story, perhaps, most succinctly encapsulates the fraught reality of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.
She was a woman whose heart often guided her toward love and affection for those around her. And, at the same time, she saw serving her country by protecting the institution of the monarchy as her utmost responsibility.
So much so that even with the most powerful voice in the world, she often sought safety in silence.
The institution of the monarchy envelopes the royal family in order to cast an image of perfection. But responsibility for the nation’s sins runs through the royal bloodline and the stains of its history are not simply washed away with the passing of the crown.
And so for all of her warmth, all her wit and all her wisdom, not even Elizabeth could escape her responsibility for the system of colonialism her family created.
Nor could she avoid the reality that at the end of her life it may be her moments of silence that ultimately speak the loudest.