Sunday 3 December 2023

The Queen, her complex legacy and the commonwealth realms

By Abbey Makoe   

After occupying the throne for seventy years, Queen Elizabeth II passed on peacefully at her Balmoral Castle in Scotland on September 8th as Britain’s longest-serving monarch. The immediate outpouring of grief that followed bore testimony to the love and esteem with which she was held by the British public.

Born Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor on April 21, 1926, in Bruton Street, Mayfair, London she ascended to the throne at the young age of 25 following the sudden death of her father, King George VI in 1952, whilst on an official trip to the East-African nation of Kenya. From the time of her coronation at London’s Westminster Abbey in June 1953 until her passing, she was queen regnant of some 32 sovereign states. A “queen regnant” is a female monarch – equivalent in rank and title to a king – and she reigns in her own right over a “realm”, better known as a “kingdom”.

Five years before her father passed away, whilst in Cape Town on her 21st birthday, April 21, her speech in which she promised to dedicate her life to the service of the Commonwealth was broadcast on live radio. Since her passing, the legacy of Queen Elizabeth II has been put in the spotlight, and many asking whether she lived up to the promise she made 75 years ago.

By the time of her death, the number of countries to which she was queen regnant dwindled to 15. Together, the 15 realms are home to 150 million people. In addition, the UK currently holds some 14 overseas territories that are home to another 300,000 people. Among the realms that deserted the queen’s authority are South Africa (as far back as 1961), Sri Lanka, Barbados, Mauritius, Fiji, Malta, Trinidad and Tobago, and Sierra Leone. Their departure was not viewed as a “rebellion” but rather, as an inevitable eventually. In other instances, the process of democratization dawned, forcing some former Commonwealth realms to endorse elected leaders than remain under a monarchy that derives authority through hereditary. In Africa, particularly, dozens of countries gained independence from colonial subjugation and wasted no time rebuilding their societies to their own political utopia. 

Through it all, Queen Elizabeth II maintained a royal aura of respectability, particularly as she was seen as a ceremonial constitutional figurehead of the state that hardly interfered in government affairs. Anisha Kohli, writing in Time magazine shortly after the queen’s passing, noted: “Some critics of the royal family see the death of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch as an opportunity to re-envision the monarchy’s role and to finally acknowledge the struggles of all those who were affected by British imperialism around the world and in Britain itself.” Also quoted in the article is academic Anna Arabindan-Kesson, a professor of Black Diasporic Art at Princeton University. She said: “For many of us from the ‘colonies’, the death of Elizabeth II signifies in very particular ways that she was the symbol of an empire built on genocide, slavery, violence, extraction, and brutality, the legacies of which continue in our present day… she (Queen) was not only a symbol; she was complicit in this empire.” 

This is the history that scholars in the former colonies and in the Commonwealth realms, know too well to be a lived reality of their societies. It is a history that is often “conveniently hidden or ignored in Britain”, lamented Prof Arabindan-Kesson. She elaborated: “The current rhetoric, pageantry, and colonial nostalgia around her death reinforce this refusal to acknowledge and deal with this imperial history – a history that defines so much of our current moment, that defines what Britain is.”

Some observers believe that “the length of the Queen’s reign and her personal popularity may have prevented a full discussion about the impact of colonization.” Prof Priya Satia, a history lecturer at Stanford University in the US, who specialises in the British Empire, said: “I think Elizabeth II’s rule prevented a reckoning and allowed for a sense of continuity and continued denial about the extent of change in the last 70 years.” She concluded: “Decolonization was supposed to force the acknowledgment of wrong. That never came because it was always masked by the continuity of the Queen.”

Such is the complex legacy of Queen Elizabeth II. The following colloquial expression could not be more apt: “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Indeed, the current 15 member-states of the Commonwealth realms are its remaining pillars. But, for how long?    


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