The Islands of Great Britain are in an extended holiday mode. Their Queen celebrates 70 years of ascending the throne. Queen Elizabeth II’s reign started post the second world war, and at the start of the decolonisation process has seen many avatars of the world emerging in the following 70 years. She has been served by 14 British Prime Ministers and over 175 Prime Ministers of lands that she reigns even today. The media worldwide has wasted no time, or space, in bringing in the images from the celebrations. Images of the Queen with Paddington Bear, with her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, her extended family, and of course, with her horses.
As Britain celebrates nostalgia and the glory of a world they no longer rule, or even command a position of respect – the packaging and promotion of the Royal Family as the de facto Royal family of the world continues unabated. A project that began with the super glamourisation of the British Monarchy with the advent of Princess Diana, continues till today with the focus on her children and their wives (and lives). The Netflix series, the Crown, just added to the aura of the British Monarchy, with the Queen seen as the pivotal person who holds modern history together. And the positioning of the House of Windsor as the last remnant of a noble and righteous world continues.
But behind all this glamourisation and myth-building lies a different story. A story where the wealth and the power of the British Royal family was built on the triple pillars of slavery, piracy, and legalised loot. And, while this branch of the family might be different from that which caused mayhem in the world, the fact remains that the glory and wealth of the Windsor is based on the wealth and power of those who led the looting.
It was the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, in the 1600s that gave permission for two things that would change the world. The first was the support of Sir John Hawkins, the person who organised and built up the trade of slaves between the continent of Africa, and the continent of America.
The second was the charter to the East India Company that led to much of the world getting enslaved by the corporate interests of that day. Without the Royal Ascent, neither slavery of individuals nor enslavement of populations would have been as widespread or systematised. While the American South still bears the guilt of slavery and is judged for the cruelty of the very practised, both the British monarch, and the British people are given a free pass for their role in this. The prosperity of today’s Britons is based on the lives of others being torn apart.
Last week, while the world media was celebrating, there was a small story about a Kenyan freedom fighter, Muthoni Mathenge, who asked the Queen for restitution. Mathenge had been tortured with axes, by the British army, during Kenya’s fight to overthrow the British colonial grip on the nation. There are countless such cases in every nation that Britain enslaved. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth’s father – King George VI – the Bengal Presidency saw a drought. People had no food to eat. But there was enough food in the warehouses. That food was sent to the British forces, leading to 3.5 million people dying of starvation. There has neither been an apology nor have there been reparations.
If India and the remaining survivors of British imperialism demand reparations for that which was stolen away, it is unlikely to be a debt that can be paid soon. Over here we are not even counting the reparations to be paid for the damage caused. And, as the sun seems to be setting on the reign of the longest-serving British monarch, it is likely that her heirs will not be met with either the respect or the fondness that she does. In a recent visit to Jamaica, Belize, and the Bahamas – lands that suffered slavery, indentured labour, and destruction of the ecology as large tobacco and sugar plantations came up – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were booed by locals and had to cancel large parts of their tour. Demanding an apology for colonisation and slavery, leading citizens wrote to the possible future King of Britain, “We see no reason to celebrate 70 years of the ascension of your grandmother to the British throne because her leadership, and that of her predecessors, has perpetuated the greatest human rights tragedy in the history of humankind.”
While it is all very good to help a very senior citizen celebrate her 70th year in the job – it is important that all this nostalgia and affection that we feel towards this matriarch does not take away from what her job role has done to the world. As Australia begins talking about moving away from the British Monarch as Head of State, to being a Republic, and as Scotland talks about independence – it is likely the next British monarch sees a much more reduced monarchy. And, it seems that in the second decade of the new millennium, the British people are asking the unexpected – do they really need, in this day and age, a Monarchy?
(The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty, and filmmaker. She tweets at @calamur)