Queen Elizabeth II and the Myths of Empire
Representations of empire—no less than those of nations—are highly selective accounts that involve remembering certain features of history and forgetting or censuring other features. This is certainly what viewers have been treated to in the recent ‘memorialization’ of Queen Elizabeth II, Europe’s longest reigning monarch. Charles Anson, the Queen’s former press secretary from 1990 to 1997, commenting on the outpouring of affection for the Queen as she lay in state, sought to encapsulate the meaning of monarchy in this way:
It is an expression of affection and a show of appreciation for all she has done and what she stands for—the values of fairness, tolerance and open-mindedness and embracing the Commonwealth and other nations…and moving forward in perhaps a slightly better way. That’s the purpose of a constitutional monarchy. It’s to make the world a slightly better place. It’s for the politicians to do all the hard spadework. The Monarchy is there to try to encourage the people. (CNN September 17, 2022)
On the face of it, none of this sounds unreasonable—at least to the majority of white Euro-Americans. But the British Monarchy is nearly a thousand years old; and with its global reach from the 17th through the mid-20th century, the Crown boasted that “the sun would never set on the British Empire.” By any rational reading, one would hardly imagine that the Monarchy, at the height of its powers, was “making the world a slightly better place” for more than a very small selection of privileged souls. Enslavement, violence, wars (often disguised as ‘police actions’ or ‘special military actions’—much as currently in Ukraine), colonial domination, imperial rule and a pervasive edifice of racial hierarchy were the orders of the day. But the recent publicity and honors lavished upon Elizabeth II have little to do with an even-handed attempt at recounting history; they represent nothing more than 21st century myth making designed conceal the grotesque underbelly of empire and prop up an increasingly threatened national brand.
From the moment of her passing on September 8, 2022, the myth-making machine in Britain kicked into high gear. British journalists and representatives of the Royal Family began to disgorge prodigious amounts of hagiography devoted to accounts of the “love, loyalty and service” that Queen Elizabeth II rendered to her subjects over a period of seven decades. Arguably more than any other people, Americans—perhaps based on our so-called ‘special relationship’ with Britain, have joined in this ‘love fest’ of honoring the Queen. The fact that we staged a revolution to liberate ourselves from the British Monarchy and rejected the notion that certain individuals were “born to rule” didn’t seem to have the slightest effect on anchors and reporters representing CNN, MSMBC or the three major networks. So much for critical thinking, these mouthpieces of media seemed to have suddenly lost all perspective and to have been worth of the title of ‘fake news’ so often pinned on them by the political right. They might as well have been press secretaries for the Crown. Nor did it deter the Washington Post from publishing a similar homage following Elizabeth’s death. A large photo of the Queen at her coronation in 1952 was front page under the headline “A Pillar of Duty and Devotion.”
Discordant voices, of course, would break through in brief moments, but only to be quickly buried under the ongoing avalanche of press honoring the Queen’s life and ‘service.’ Most of these were deemed insensitive, but they did manage, however briefly, to pierce the saccharine construction of reality coming out of ‘Mother England.’ I’m talking here about the view from subjects of the former colonial outposts in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean ruled by the Queen. Here in the U.S., the first salvo came from Dr. Uju Anya, a Nigerian-born professor presently teaching at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Uju Anya is of mixed heritage—born to a Nigerian father and Trinidadian mother, both countries colonized by the British. Following reports that the Queen was in her final hours at Balmoral, Dr. Anya condemned the role Britain played in the genocidal Biafran War that massacred and displaced half of her family. During the conflict some one million Ibo people were killed or starved to death. She referred to the Queen as “the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire,” wishing her an “excruciating death” with hopes that she died “in agony.” In less florid language, similar condemnations came from descendants of those placed in camps during the Boer War in South Africa and likewise from Kenya among the families of the nearly 1,100 who were hung and the nearly 300,000 souls who were tortured in concentration camps set up by the British during the Mau Mau Rebellion that coincided with the infancy of Elizabeth’s reign. The Kenyan author and activist, Shailja Patel has aptly stated that “What the British did in Kenya, they did all over the world…” and that scholars like her were “…just beginning to chip away at the history and lies and the mythmaking of empire.” (On the legacy of violence perpetuated by the British Empire, see Caroline Elkin 2022. Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. Knopf.)
Other notable voices that cut against the grain following the Queen’s death included that of Karen Attiah, a Washington Post writer of Nigerian parentage who offered the editorial “We Must Speak the Ugly Truths about the Queen” (9.17.2022 WP). Amidst all of the effusive gushing about her commitment to duty and service, Attiah remined us of the willing role Elizabeth has played for many decades as the preeminent symbol of British authority, wealth and power. Her responsibilities may have been primarily ceremonial, but she willingly adorned herself in jewels plundered from the colonies, took on the patronizing role of “White Mother” to the colored peoples of the Empire, and banned “colored immigrants” from serving in royal clerical roles until the 1960s.
Attiah didn’t touch on more recent ‘embarrassments’, but she could have asked where the Queen’s maternal love and service was during the more recent “Windrush Scandal” that made headlines in 2018? This involves some 57,000 subjects of Empire largely from the Caribbean who were encouraged to immigrate to Britain following WWII to assist in rebuilding the nation. In the last ten to fifteen years, Britain has decided that many of these immigrants (and their offspring) are now without “official papers” and should be subject to deportation. What of the promise Elizabeth made to her future subjects in Cape Town, South Africa on the occasion of her twenty-first birthday when she declared that she would be “…devoted to the service of the great imperial family to which we all belong”? Apparently, the word “all” has different meanings to royals and commoners—especially if the latter happen to be people of color. But that’s been true since the fifteenth century.
In America—where it was once common to preach values of ‘fairness’, these kinds of criticisms of a ninety-six-year-old monarch might seem mean-spirited to some. But are they, really? Let me suggest that with a modicum of attunement to history as something that is more than simply “the dead past,” they are indeed not. Certainly not so in so many places in Africa, Asia and the Pacific colonized and exploited by the British Monarchy. In many post-colonial nations that once served Britain, the traumas of the current generation remain rooted in neocolonialism and are amplified by conditions of impoverishment and under-development that continue to resonate powerfully with past episodes of brutalization, dehumanization and exploitation. Such circumstances make the past very much alive in the present. Today, in our own society—as our ‘culture wars’ make clear—contending interpretations and experiences of history are very much at the root of our own ideological struggles over the values of inclusivity, diversity and justice. Many of those in my own generation—the baby-boomer generation—are ill-equipped us to understand how the past lives in and through the present. This remains true even as movements like Black Lives Matter challenge us to recognize our own legacy of enslavement, settler colonialism and xenophobia.
As a cultural anthropologist who has worked extensively in the Caribbean and traveled in Africa, I recognize that national independence can never be reduced to a date—it’s a process; one of exorcizing colonial history that continues to live in the structures of society as much as in the minds of the colonized many decades after the date ‘Independence.’ This is especially true in Caribbean territories—a region that subject to Western European influences longer than any other part of the world outside Europe itself. In Jamaica—whose future in the Commonwealth now hangs in the balance—the ‘process of independence’ continues to be carried forward by the Garveyite, Pan-African and Rastafari communities that emerged there in the early 20th century.
I touch on the latter—particularly the Rastafari—because it is arguably the case that no other community of African descent has been more consistently vocal in their criticism and condemnation of the Queen and the vestiges of the racist colonial empire to which she was devoted. From the origins of their movement in the early 1930s, the Rastafari—as the descendants of enslaved Africans forcibly removed from the continent—have repeatedly demanded reparations and repatriation from King George V and his son, George VI—and later Elizabeth II. British colonial authorities initially dismissed the Rastas as seditious lunatics—raiding and harassing their communities and imprisoning them for at least the first five decades of the movement’s existence. The first social scientists who came into contact with the Rastafari categorized their philosophy as a millenarian response to material deprivations and social indignities. This analysis, however, undercuts the political significance of the Rastafari critique of Eurocentric empire.
There is another way in which the Rastafari should be understood as Africans making their way in the modern world. This can be gleaned from the events that brought the movement into being during the early 1930s. All of those who preached the early doctrines of Rastafari in that decade were African Jamaicans caught up in the far-flung circuits of labor migration to North America, Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba during the first decades of the 20th century. In Panama, tens of thousands of Jamaicans and other Afro-West Indies labored on the Canal where were subject to American overseers (mostly from the American South) and to Jim Crow laws that discriminated against Black people. As British subjects abroad, however, they had traveled with the expectation that they would be granted protection by the British Crown based on their loyalty to the King—loyalty that had been stimulated by the virtual ceremonial ‘cult of Empire’ that that British had initiated in Jamaica following the Morant Bay Revolt—an event that returned the Jamaican Assembly to the control of the Crown up to the time of Independence. No such protections for Black subjects in Panama or elsewhere in the Caribbean Basin. All would be subject to discriminatory labor practices, racial insult and a pay scale that remunerated whites over blacks doing the same work. Many died under dangerous circumstances attempting to better themselves. (See Olive Senior’s book Dying to Better Themselves: West Indians and the Building of the Panama Canal. UWI Press 2014.) When most were deported after the completion of the Panama Canal, they did so harboring feelings of abandonment and betrayal by the Crown.
It was this collective experience, in part, that made them receptive to the Black nationalist preaching of Marcus Garvey and to his exhortation that they should “Look to Africa where a Black King shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.” In this light, the subsequent Rastafari deification of Ras Tafari Makonnen (crowned as Emperor Haile Selassie I in Ethiopia, November 2, 1930) needs to be appreciated not simply as prophetic fulfilment of a millenarian vision, but as recognition that the survival of a people in the modern world depends on their relationship to a nation state prepared to protect and look after their welfare. Ethiopia would be projected as their protective state and Emperor Haile Selassie as their God-and-King. While the Rastafari have become well-known for their prophetic discourse and pronouncements, they should be equally known for their condemnation of white colonial paternalism and their strident and ongoing refusal to accept Black subservience.
This ideological framework has remained remarkably consistent over the years. During the early 1950s in Jamaica, the Rastafari organized street marches to assert their solidarity with the Kikuyu peoples during the Mau Mau Rebellion (1952-1960) and protested the inhumane treatment and hanging of their African brothers and sisters. Many Rastafari proudly point out that behind the scenes, Emperor Selassie I was quietly providing material assistance to the Mau Mau freedom fighters. And it was during this period that members of the movement embraced a practice that has become emblematic of their identity—the growing dreadlocks. This practice was, in fact, inspired by the fact that Mau Mau leaders like Dedan Kimathi and General China wore locks. All of this occurred during the infancy of Queen Elizabeth’s reign which began while she was traveling in Kenya. Similar protests would be leveled at the Sharpesville Massacre and the treatment generally of Africans in South Africa as well as the hanging of freedom fighters in Rhodesia, another British colony. And let us not forget that it was a Rastafari voice—that of Bob Marley—that punctuated the final moments of British colonial rule on the African continent in April of 1980. It was Marley, at the very height of his global influence, who was invited to participate in the Independence Day ceremonies (April 17, 1980) of Zimbabwe (formerly Northern Rhodesia) and who opened his performance with “Zimbabwe,” a song that had by then become the new nation’s unofficial anthem.
Up to the present, the Rastafari continue to press for reparations and repatriation to Africa—focusing on the obligations owned by the British Crown. Lest this seems strange, we should recall that when the British ended slavery in the Caribbean they compensated the slave owners to the tune of 20 million pounds (hugely more in today’s currency)—but not a penny for those who had been enslaved. “Crown land”—land owned by the monarch—remains common across the Commonwealth Caribbean but off-limits for use by the descendants of those once enslaved. In 2015, the British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jamaica and was pressed on the issue of reparations. Cameron—whose is descended from a British plantation owner who enslaved Africans in Jamaica–declared it was “Time to move on” and dismissed the issue. Not long after that Queen Elizabeth II also rejected demands for reparations. In the past decade this has become an issue far beyond the Rastafari community. Due to their consistent and unrelenting demands on the issue, CARICOM (the Caribbean Community) which includes most states in the region as members, has placed reparations and repatriation on their formal agenda.
What now happens to the British Commonwealth—over half of whose nations are in the Caribbean? Will the Monarchy—which is reputedly worth over seventeen (17) trillion dollars—finally come to terms with reparations for slavery as a way to persuade nations like Jamaica to remain within the fold. Or will King Charles III rule over a much-diminished Commonwealth in which the sun has finally set on the remnants of Empire? Whatever the case, we hope for a more balanced view of the Monarchy that involves more than simply praise for “ancient traditions” and royal pomp-and-circumstance, but which also recognizes the vestiges of colonialism and imperialism the real-world consequences that continue to burden the millions who were once subjects of Empire.
Sometimes events cascade in ways that add insult to injury. From the Queen’s passing in the first week of September to the end of November 2022 is a short span of time, but certainly of sufficient duration for the Monarchy to find itself embroiled in another embarrassment involving race and former subjects of Empire.
I note here the recent case of Ngozi Fulani, a British-born Black woman of Bajan parentage who is the founder and chief executive of Sistah Space, a local British organization celebrated for its work with victims of domestic abuse. It is of note that Ms. Fulani is a Dreadlocks woman who wears Rastafari colors and adornments. On November 29th, she was invited to and attended a reception at Buckingham Palace. Hosted by Queen Consort Camilla, the event was held to raise awareness of the issues surrounding violence against women and girls. During the event, Ms. Fulani was approached by Lady Susan Hussey, a royal courtier of long-standing who served Queen Elizabeth for over fifty years and godmother to Prince William. Hussey took the liberty of moving Ms. Fulani’s dreadlocks aside so she could read her name tag and then proceeded to ask her where she was from. Unsatisfied with her response that she was “born in Britain,” she proceeded to pepper her with questions including “Where do you really come from,” “What part of Africa are you from,” “Where are your parents from,” until she finally told Hussey that her parents were from the Caribbean—adding that she was “…of African heritage, Caribbean descent and British nationality.” Ngozi Fulani later posted on the racially insensitive encounter she had with Lady Hussey.
Could anyone actually imagine this happening had Ngozi Fulani been white? Absolutely not! It is quite clear that Lady Hussey’s questioning was just a face card for a much broader set of assertions about British society. Remember that the context of the encounter was a gathering at Buckingham Palace presided over by the Queen Consort, Camilla. So the real subtext is who properly belongs in such a context and who doesn’t. The royal courtier, Susan Hussey, initially approached Ngozi Fulani—a Dreadlocks woman with unencumbered locks cascading around her head and shoulders—as if she was a specimen in a ‘cabinet of curiosities.’ Hussey took the liberty of moving her locks aside to read the “name tag”—as if she was moving some foreign matter that had been blocking the label on a museum specimen. Then the inquisition began—and the questions were really about claims to belonging by the Black sistah and assignments of identity by the white ‘royal’ courtier. The only things lacking were the Kipling-esque inferences to savagery and barbarism. Perhaps Hussey would have been better off if she just cut to the case and demanded to know “Who let you in here?”
What it revealed is that for many royals (if not for members of British society more broadly), the Empire’s anachronistic hierarchy of race is a resistance feature of British society which still calls out for former subjects to be slotted into an assigned rung on that hierarchy. The media coverage of this ‘incident’ immediately re-surfaced charges made in recent years that the Royal Family is racist. These quickly reverberated “across the pond” to the U.S. where the ensuring media storm threatened to upstage the visit of Prince William and Princess Kate who were preparing to announce the first annual awards for William’s global initiative, the “Earth Climate Shot.” Again, history is far from merely “the dead past.” At the end of the day, I think it’s quite clear which one of the women in this encounter actually turned out to be the museum specimen.
Jakes Homiak/Ras Kaimoh II
International Rastafari Archives Project (IRAP)
September 17, 2022