Sarmad Ishfaq is an independent researcher and writer whose work has been published by Harvard Kennedy School Review, the Diplomat, Open Democracy, Paradigm Shift, Mondoweiss, and Eurasia Review to name a few. He has also been published by several international peer-reviewed journals such as Taylor and Francis' Social Identities. Before becoming an independent writer, he worked as a research fellow for the Lahore Center for Peace Research. He has a master's degree in International Relations from the University of Wollongong in Dubai where he was recognized as the 'Top Graduate'.
“It is worth imagining what the monarchy and Britain would be today had the Queen gone further and apologized for the violence, loot, and racism of empire… What if she had publicly acknowledged that her family’s wealth derived from it? What sort of moral capital might the institution have accrued?”
Priya Satia, Professor at Stanford University
The Queen is Dead
While millions are mourning the queen’s loss, many around the world are refusing to do so. For some, the Queen was a symbol of stability and elegance, while for others, primarily people of former colonies, the Queen and the British royal family represent occupation and oppression.
Rather than presenting both sides of her legacy, the Anglo-American media is narrating only the “good” side – i.e. the queen was a beacon of humanity. This is an affront to many around the world as it obfuscates the complete picture. The truth is, there is a frighteningly dark side to the legacy of Elizabeth II which has affected billions and this must also be examined.
The queen represents an empire and a royal family that, at its peak in 1922, controlled around 25% of the world’s land surface making it the largest empire ever and ruling over almost half a billion people. The British Empire had colonies on all continents save Antarctica and ruled “one out of every five people in the world”.
The empire colonized, pillaged, tortured, and killed on such a massive scale that its adverse effects still resonate globally today. It also deliberately and inadvertently demarcated the world’s borders in such a manner that it led to ongoing conflicts, which have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands (such as Kashmir and Palestine).
Crimes of the Past: Is Elizabeth II Culpable?
Elizabeth II’s accession took place in 1952 during the British Empire’s swansong—in this tumultuous period, she is heralded for providing much-needed stability to the fading empire. The sun was finally setting. She is cited as being dignified, friendly, dutiful, sagacious, and someone who possessed a good sense of humor. However, she also represented a crown that committed heinous crimes on a global level.
Although there are enough British crimes to fill a large library, I will only cite a few instances in brief that transpired before her reign. For example, the British were an integral part of the transatlantic slave trade from 1640 to 1807, which led to 3.1 million Africans being captured and transported to the Americas; the Opium Wars in China to maintain Britain’s illegal opium trade; a 1940 Indian famine that killed 4 million Bengalis due to Churchill diverting Indian-grown food to troops fighting WW2.
For the latter example, Churchill, considered a hero in the West, is accredited to saying “The famine was their [Indians] own fault for breeding like rabbits.” The Queen’s apologists, however, assert that these crimes and a multitude of others are in the past when Elizabeth II was not reigning and so targeting her for such is fallacious. This assertion is flawed in my opinion because while she was not the queen when such past atrocities were committed, she had for decades represented the royal family proudly and never unglued herself from the monarchy until the day she died.
In other words, she was inextricably intertwined with the royalty and everything, good or bad, the monarchy did. The world calls her the Queen or Queen Elizabeth. The monarchy is not just an institution in which the queen was the matriarch, but it was literally her family—a system that passed power/status based on blood—not merit. She proudly adorned jewels that her ancestors looted and was extremely delighted with her “royal” heritage.
One of her most famous quotes is “…my whole life…shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family.” Elizabeth Nolan Brown, a senior editor at Reason, astutely states “…She was also a monarch, not just some nice old lady living a private life. She had subjects. Many of those subjects, or their descendants, have experienced hardship and trauma under her reign or the reign of her family members before her. Even if not all of this is directly tied to her, the British royal family carries some serious baggage and she’s a representative of that.”
“Serious baggage” such as 1919’s Amritsar Massacre, one of the worst atrocities under British rule, which saw British troops open fire on unarmed Indians (including children), killing 379 (colonial estimates) to 1000 (Indian estimates). In 1997, the Queen laid a wreath on the site of the massacre, but there has never been an official apology from her or the government despite raucous demands for decades.
Instead of apologies, we have been incessantly told by royalists that we were fortunate to have been ruled by the magnanimous British Empire which gave us democracy, cricket, and ushered in an era of modernization. Tales of British benevolence are so misguided that a few commentators claim that colonizing India, for example, was of no economic benefit to the British and therefore sustaining the empire for decades was a gesture of Britain’s goodwill.
This kind of misrepresentation of British sins just to defend the Royal Family and the government is impudent. The truth is more frightening, however. Renowned economist Utsa Patnaik published research that estimated the British Empire stole $45 trillion (yes, with a T), from India alone from 1765-1938 and later lied about it. To give you some perspective, $45 trillion means around 17 times the GDP of the United Kingdom today.
Just imagine how much damage, economically and in terms of human lives, the empire caused in totality all over the world. While it is true that the queen cannot and should not be punished for something her ancestors did, if she did truly possess a modicum of the grace and integrity her admirers claim she did, she would have apologized for her family’s past actions in the very least and pave the pay for trillions in reparations at the very most.
Offering hardly any remorse, forgoing accountability, re-writing history, and staying silent have been the modus operandi of the Queen and the British government for years. Is this not acquiescence then? If she was such a morally correct individual and a character bound by the integrity of royal standards, did she not discern her institution/family’s past as an unprecedented evil in this world—one that still affects billions today.
Imagine for a second a world where the same royal crown of Elizabeth II with its dark colonial and genocidal legacy was on the head instead of a Russian or Chinese monarch—such a monarch’s demise today would have been met with tremendous jubilation spearheaded by the Western media.
Transgressions During the Queen’s Rule
When Elizabeth II became the Queen, it coincided with the British Empire’s gradual dissolution into some 50 independent nations and significantly abridged global political influence. However, unbeknownst to many around the world are the plethora of crimes the British Empire committed while she was the monarch. Therefore, the fantasy that the British Empire segued idyllically from Empire to a sovereign nation under her tutelage is extremely misplaced.
I will also answer critics who will undoubtedly cite that these crimes were committed when the British monarchy had virtually no political power so why pin any blame on her. Writing for the New York Times, Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff, states that “…her [Elizabeth II’s] presence as head of state.…put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such, the queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.”
In the Queen’s era, the British committed gross atrocities in Kenya, then a colony. From 1952 to 1963, British forces brutally crushed the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion spearheaded by the Kenya Land & Freedom Army (KLFA). British troops forced around 1.5 million Kenyans, specifically the Kikuyu, into either detention camps or “protected villages” where many atrocities materialized against them.
Caroline Elkins, a Harvard historian, wrote a groundbreaking exposé on the Mau Mau in which she asserts: “In camps, villages and other outposts, the Kikuyu suffered forced labor, disease, starvation, torture, rape and murder.” The British were sued in 2013 by Kenyan torture victims and agreed to a multi-million dollar compensation—however, not for a lack of trying to block the case for three years.
On 14 October 1963, an anti-colonial attack precipitated a state of emergency in Aden, Yemen, and its hinterland, the Aden protectorate. The violence that followed eventually led to British defeat, withdrawal, and the birth of South Yemen in 1967.
According to a 1996 Amnesty International report, the Empire was guilty of torturing Yemeni prisoners (including civilians) by “stripping detainees and making them stand naked during interrogation; keeping prisoners naked in supercooled cells; keeping them awake and forcing them to sit on poles…hitting and twisting genitals; and extinguishing cigarettes on prisoners’ skin”.
A more modern-day example is that of Iraq in 2004. The war was initiated under pretenses by the US when it lied to the world that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Bush and Blair were the stalwarts of the cataclysm that followed in Iraq— one whose tremors are still earth-shaking. The Chilcot Report in 2016 exposed Blair’s lust for the Iraq War and that he outrightly lied to the UK’s public and parliament.
In another 180-page report, the International Criminal Court (ICC) found that from 2003 to 2009, the British abused hundreds of Iraqi detainees. “This includes the war crimes of murder, torture, rape and/or other forms of sexual violence, and forms of mistreatment…” Her Majesty’s Government unsurprisingly had failed to conduct any serious investigations against senior officials, military and otherwise, who “oversaw, ordered or tolerated war crimes.”
The Queen later bestowed Blair with the highest of ranks, the Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (a knighthood), even though over one million people signed a petition for her to reconsider. While the aforementioned are only a few of the crimes comminuted under the queen, it gets worse. In Yemen, Kenya, Iraq, and other places, the British were involved in hiding and culling files that incriminated their unlawful behavior.
In Yemen, secret files revealed that the British suppressed allegations of torture and purposefully did not court-martial officers involved in criminal behavior. The misfortune is that the British repeated the same decades-old transgressions later in Iraq where they broke international humanitarian law. From the 1950s until the 1970s, a very surreptitious undertaking to conceal the British Empire’s crimes and re-write history was undertaken, simply called Operation Legacy.
Iain Macleod, colonial secretary from 1959-1961, wrote that ex-colonies should not get their hands on documents that could “embarrass Her Majesty’s Government”. This included anti-religion, racist, and unlawful atrocities (such as torture and murder) that the British committed in Yemen, Palestine, Malaysia, Kenya, Zambia, India, and so on. These documents were deemed too sensitive and were either burned or transferred to Britain so that the newly independent states would remain in the dark vis-à-vis British misconduct.
She Did Have Power
Coming to the question that royalists will certainly ask i.e. while the pre-mentioned atrocities occurred when Elizabeth II was the Queen, she had no real power, so one should direct blame towards the British governments of the time and not the queen herself. The fact is the queen did have power. She was a symbol of the British monarchy—symbols have power.
Her funeral was one of the most watched in the world; it was larger than Churchill’s and in recent memory, no British PM or influential national personality, save perhaps Diana, could draw the numbers she had. When she talked, people listened; when she wished everyone a Merry Christmas, people rejoiced; where she went, people followed. Millions adored her. She did have power.
The Washington Post rightfully extends this narrative: “Royalists will argue, too, that as a constitutional, symbolic monarch, Queen Elizabeth bore little responsibility for the ills that occurred during her long reign. But symbols matter. Elizabeth willingly took on the role of representing British power and wealth. She willingly adorned herself with jewels plundered from former colonies…she willingly took on the symbolic, patronizing role of “white mother” to the darker peoples of the former empire.”
She could have helped heal the colonial wounds of billions by apologizing and/or pressurizing the government to initiate a process of paying reparations. She could have renounced the stolen jewels she so proudly adorned on herself. Jewels such as the legendary Kohinoor, which the British looted from India, as well as the contentious Great star of Africa, looted from its namesake continent, which is the world’s largest clear-cut diamond.
The Queen also had political power and was not just a “mere figurehead” as many claim. Documents unearthed by the Guardian signify how the queen used an arcane parliamentary process known as the Queen’s consent to influence ministers to amend legislation primarily to benefit her and the royals. The Queen’s consent was sought before a bill became law especially when legislators were worried that it might affect her.
For example, she and her lawyers appallingly used this process to amend proposed legislation in order to keep her wealth concealed from the public. Until this day, the true scale of her wealth is unknown—sounds like something from a dictatorial third-world country. She was also exempt from prosecution under civil or criminal investigation. The Queen was also immune to sex and race laws.
Questions about the royal family and race surfaced when documents revealed that the queen via her courtiers barred “colored immigrants or foreigners” from her household staff until the late 1960s. She was head of state of 15 nations; her picture has appeared on the currencies of at least 33 different countries. She was a world citizen with a global voice.
According to renounced political scientist Joseph S. Nye, the importance of soft power or power of attraction as a foreign policy tool is paramount. The queen was therefore the UK’s soft power monolith. In fact, the Global Soft Power Index 2022 rates UK’s soft power at the 2nd position (behind only the US). One of the UK’s main reasons for a continued high ranking, according to the authors of the annual reports, has been due to the Queen’s soft power.
The queen traveled to 117 countries, including almost every commonwealth nation, making her one of the most well-traveled leaders in history. The Washington Post signifies how integral the Queen’s visits to a country were—when she visited Russia, for example, in 1994 (post-Cold War), it was a historic success for British foreign policy due to the queen’s endeavors to develop amicable relations with Russian President Boris Yeltsin.
“Anecdotes like these provide ample evidence that the queen’s role as Britain’s head of state was by no means merely symbolic.” Therefore, if a visit of hers was so significant, imagine how many wounds she could have ameliorated by acknowledging the UK’s brutal colonial past and making amends. If that truly had happened instead of veiled sympathies, the vocal anti-royal segment today would be shedding tears just like the queen’s loyalists.
By not acknowledging and forgoing accountability, the queen, the monarchy, and the British government are a part of perhaps the largest crusade in history to whitewash sins on a global scale.
Author and the Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, mirrors similar sentiments regarding the Empire: “The story of benign imperialism, whose overriding purpose was not to seize land, labor and commodities but to teach the natives English, table manners and double-entry book-keeping, is a myth. But it draws its power from a remarkable national ability to airbrush and disregard our [Britain’s] past.”
Perhaps if the queen had trodden on the path of nobleness, Barbados would not have removed her as head of state in late 2021 and six other Caribbean nations might not be currently contemplating removing her as well. These nations cite the monarchy’s lack of acknowledgement/reparations for the enslavement and brutalization of Africans as their reason to step out of the royal shadow.
For the citizens of former colonies that are shedding tears for the queen, forgive me but perhaps you are suffering from a sort of Stockholm syndrome. Ask yourself this. Why has Germany paid billions of dollars in reparations to Jews and still does to this day? Are the British simply superior to the Germans and therefore do not have to pay? Or was the Jewish experience of the Holocaust superior to the global suffering of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Asians, Arabs, Hindus, and countless others? Were the latter not tortured, raped, killed, and placed in Nazi-esque concentration camps? Was their land not pillaged, looted, and then showcased in the UK as a reminder of colonialism constantly?
The Royal family is an anachronistic institution that is reveled today due to the brainwashing of the masses by the likes of Operation Legacy and the Western media, with the queen playing her part impeccably—so impeccably that the chief representative of colonial miseries convinced us that she was truly compassionate.
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