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Queen Elizabeth II’s Violent Imperial Reign


“Queen Elizabeth was a life effectively lived; a promise with future stored and he or she is mourned most deeply in her passing. That promise of lifelong service I renew to you all immediately.” Charles III, delivering his first public address as king, framed his future whereas honoring the nation’s longest reigning monarch as solely a son and inheritor can. Utilizing time-worn pictures he gestured to the queen’s wellsprings of sentimental energy—Britain’s “treasured traditions,” “distinctive historical past,” and “household of countries”—which at the moment are his.

His speech pregnant with that means, the king was defining a legacy that he now inherits. This legacy, already fraught with controversy, is a deeply imperial one. No sooner had the queen drawn her closing breath, then fault traces cut up, exposing additional a world deeply divided over questions of whether or not the British Empire was a power of fine or certainly one of violent subjugation and exploitation.

For a lot of Britons, the Queen was a steadying force, revered by her topics for the virtues—responsibility, honor, and devoted service—she embodied and symbolized. Others, together with these from the previous empire, refuse to mourn, condemning Elizabeth II for alleged direct information of and complicity in British colonial crimes, together with homicide and torture. Some see her complicity as extra delicate, obscuring by way of many years of reassuring rituals and acts of omission the systemic racism and excessive violence upon which Britain’s imperial energy, and hers, depended.

How do we start to evaluate Queen Elizabeth II’s fraught imperial legacy? How will we separate self-professed consultants piling on with hagiographies or misinformed critiques from info as we presently know them? Lately, some historians, myself included, have provided revisionist accounts of the empire, describing intimately the centrality of violence to the nation’s colonial challenge throughout Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.

Right here’s a few of what we all know. When Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1952, she was constitutionally answerable for tons of of hundreds of thousands of colonial topics unfold throughout some 70 colonies, territories, and mandates. Britain’s financial system was in tatters and independence calls for had been exploding.


In 1952 Mau Mau suspects in a jail camp in Kenya.

Stroud/Specific/Getty Photographs

The nation’s postwar restoration, nonetheless, and Huge Three (with the U.S. and Soviet Union) standing hinged on the exploitation of colonized topics throughout the globe. Conservative and Labour governments alike wouldn’t concede to pressing requires freedom, as a substitute sacrificing wartime ensures of self-determination on the altar of nationwide self-interest.

Recurring, brutal end-of-empire conflicts thus marred the primary thirty years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. Starting in Malaya, then in Kenya, Cyprus, Nyasaland, Aden, and Northern Eire, British safety forces moved by way of the empire and acted within the Queen’s title, unleashing wide-scale detention with out trial and unlawful deportations. In Malaya and Kenya, they forcibly relocated tons of of 1000’s of topics into barbed-wire villages the place pressured labor and hunger had been types of colonial management. In every battle, kill squads had been deployed and populations terrorized. In Cyprus, journalists referred to as interrogators HMTs, Her Majesty’s Torturers.

On the time, successive governments denied allegations of systemic violence, claiming any occasion of brutality was remoted, the fault of particular person colonial officers, so-called unhealthy apples.

Learn Extra: Britain Can No Longer Hide Behind the Myth That It’s Empire Was Benign

What we all know now, nonetheless, reveals a a lot completely different actuality. Starting together with her first prime minister Winston Churchill, the queen’s ministers not solely knew of systematic British-directed violence within the empire, in addition they participated in its crafting, diffusion, and cover-up, which was as routinized because the violence itself. They repeatedly lied to Parliament and the media and, when decolonization was imminent, ordered the widespread elimination and burning of incriminating proof.

A basic query stays. How a lot did the Queen know on the time, and what did understanding imply? There is no such thing as a extant documentary proof immediately linking her to information of systematic violence and cover-up within the empire. Nor had been her weekly conferences with the prime minister recorded. The proof we do have means that she, like the general public, was instructed any occasion of brutality was an unlucky one-off, and minor colonial officers had been guilty.

Over three many years, critical and repeated accusations of systematic crimes dedicated in her title, nonetheless, abounded, with these from Cyprus and Northern Eire reaching the European Fee on Human Rights. To recommend a monarch who was famend for her deep information of overseas coverage and assiduous work ethic was fully at midnight appears implausible.

The truth is, the queen was the guardian of Britain’s imperial previous and curator of its current and future. Like her predecessors, she self-consciously wrapped herself within the empire, deploying pictures and symbols, in addition to the language of fictive kinship, to challenge claims to British benevolence and exceptionalism. In so doing, she detracted from all that was being carried out in her title whereas beckoning her colonial topics to revere her.

The queen finessed the empire’s dissolution by recasting the acquainted kinship motif. Beneath her obsessive path, the British Commonwealth, or “household of countries,” rose from the empire’s ashes to grow to be a automobile for perpetual world affect. Comprised virtually totally of former British colonies, the Commonwealth was a triumphant coda to British exceptionalism. The matriarch’s household had “grown up” whereas her energy endured.

One factor is for sure: Severe crimes occurred on the queen’s imperial watch. King Charles III appears well-aware of worldwide calls for for a British colonial reckoning primarily based on protests and appeals from former colonial peoples, in addition to the abundance of latest proof unearthed by historians. He might want to abandon his paternalistic methods, breaking from the custom his mom held so pricey and revising the “distinctive historical past” of imperial benevolence that she cultivated and affirmed for seventy years. The choice—to easily keep on—will solely hasten the monarchy’s demise.

God Save the King.

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