With the Queen gone, the old colonies find a moment to rethink lasting ties


“It is time for dialogue. It’s time to have a conversation.

Queen Elizabeth II in Tuvalu during a 1982 tour of the South Pacific, which also included a stopover in the Solomon Islands. Tim Graham/Getty Images

HONIARA, Solomon Islands — Millicent Barty has spent years trying to decolonize her country, recording oral histories across the Solomon Islands and promoting Melanesian culture. Its objective: to give priority to local knowledge, not only to what happened with the British Empire.

But on Friday morning, when asked about the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Barty sighed and frowned. Her eyes seemed to hold a cold wellspring of complicated emotion as she recalled meeting the Queen in 2018 with a Commonwealth Young Leaders Programme.

“I love Her Majesty,” she said, sipping coffee on the Solomon Island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific, 9,300 miles from Buckingham Palace. “It’s truly sad.”

Reconciling a seemingly benevolent Queen with the often cruel legacy of the British Empire is the conundrum at the heart of Britain’s post-imperial influence. Britain’s royal family has ruled over more land and people than any other monarchy in history, and among countries that have never quite given up the crown, Elizabeth’s death is accelerating a push to address the past more completely and eliminate the vestiges of colonialism.

“Does the monarchy die with the queen? said Michele Lemonius, who grew up in Jamaica and recently completed a doctorate in Canada with a focus on youth violence in former slave colonies. “It is time for dialogue. It’s time to have a conversation.

Many former British colonies remain linked within the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 56 countries. The vast majority of them are linked by their common histories, with similar legal and political systems, and the organization promotes exchanges in areas such as sport, culture and education. Especially for smaller and newer members, including a few African countries that were not British colonies and joined more recently, the group can confer prestige, and although the Commonwealth does not have a formal trade agreement , its members trade with each other at higher than usual prices.

Most members of the Commonwealth are independent republics, with no formal ties to the British royal family. But 14 are constitutional monarchies which have retained the British sovereign as head of state, an essentially symbolic role.

In these countries, the monarch is represented by a governor-general who has ceremonial duties like swearing in new members of parliament, although there have been times when their actions proved controversial – a governor-general sacked the Prime Australian Minister, Gough Whitlam, in 1975. , to end a political conflict. And even though Prince Charles has now been proclaimed the new king for all of these “kingdoms and territories”, in many of them the queen’s death has been met with bolder calls for full independence.

On Saturday, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda announced his intention to hold a referendum on the creation of a republic within three years. In Australia, the Bahamas, Belize, Canada and Jamaica, debates that had simmered for years about their democracies’ ties to a distant kingdom have begun to heat up again. From the Caribbean to the Pacific, people ask: why do we swear allegiance to a monarch in London?

Colonization historians describe it as a belated judgment after the seven-decade reign of a queen who was as small as she commanded in her duty and smiled to soften the image of an empire that often committed acts of violence. decreases.

“The Queen, in a way, allowed the whole puzzle to stick together while she was there,” said Mark McKenna, a historian at the University of Sydney. “But I’m not sure it’s going to keep hanging on.”

Her son, King Charles III, at 73, is unlikely to match the Queen’s power as a shaper of world opinion – a task she undertook at a younger age, at another era.

Her reign began overseas when her father died in 1952. She was 25, traveling in Kenya, and made it her mission to ease the transition away from colonial rule. On Christmas Day 1953, in a speech from Auckland, New Zealand, she stressed that her idea of ​​a Commonwealth bore “no resemblance to the empires of the past”.

“It is an entirely new conception, based on the higher qualities of the human spirit: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace,” she said.

Elizabeth then visited nearly 120 countries. She met more leaders than any pope and often embarked on 40,000-mile jaunts around the world, while bidding farewell to colony after colony of old post-WWII Brittania. India and Pakistan became independent nations in 1947 and declared themselves republics in the 1950s. Nigeria did the same the following decade. Sri Lanka became a republic in 1972, while the last country to cut ties with the crown was Barbados last year.

“The British monarchy has shown its ability to evolve over the ages, from colonial monarchy to post-colonial monarchy, and the Queen has undertaken this recreation very well,” said Robert Aldrich, a historian at the University of Sydney.

Unlike many English politicians, she quickly accepted the independence of the former colonies. She often signaled her approval with awards and a personal touch.

After the Solomon Islands gained independence in the 1970s, she knighted the country’s first prime minister, Peter Kenilorea. His son, Peter Kenilorea Jr., a current congressman, was 10 at the time.

“I remember how nervous I was – and how comfortable his smile made me feel,” he said.

Even in some countries with deep colonial wounds, the Queen often seemed to benefit from the belief that she could be separated from the sometimes ruthless British rule. Elizabeth received little rebuke when British authorities in Kenya tortured suspected Mau Mau rebels in the 1950s, or after British forces fighting anti-colonial unrest used similar tactics against civilians in Cyprus in 1955 and in Aden, in Yemen in 1963.

“She was simply seen as a female monarch,” said Sucheta Mahajan, a historian in India, where the queen was also welcomed after decades of abusive British rule. “No more no less.”

Decades later, Elizabeth was still seen by many as a unifying symbol of august values. Even in countries where the push for a republic grew, people found themselves emotional about the queen.

“She’s not just a constitutional monarch for the country I was born in,” said Sarah Kirby, 53, public relations officer in the Bahamas. “She was also, to me, just an incredible representation of what a woman can do and how to serve your country with honor and also be the backbone of the country.”

But as the Queen grew older and further out of sight, and the world grappled with a broader examination of the sins of colonialism, it became harder to keep the monarchy at a benign distance from racism and acts of the empire. In former colonies around the world, demands for a full account of the pain, suffering and plundered riches that contributed to the royal family’s enormous wealth have grown.

At the November ceremony marking the end of the Queen’s status as head of state of Barbados, Charles acknowledged “the appalling atrocity of slavery” in the former British colony.

In Jamaica in March, Prince William and his wife, Kate, were met with protests demanding an apology and reparations. And in August, President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana – which gained independence from Britain in 1957 – urged European nations to pay reparations to Africa for a slave trade that stifled ” economic, cultural and psychological progress” of the continent.

Now that the queen is gone, even her regal accoutrements are facing more critical scrutiny. Twitter users started loud caller for the Great Star of Africa – the largest uncut diamond in the world, which forms part of the Sovereign’s Scepter – to be returned to South Africa.

In India, newspapers have also raised questions about the future of the Kohinoor diamond, which is in the queen’s crown and believed to have been taken to India.

And yet, attempting to decolonize – to liberate a country from the dominant grip of a colonizing power – is an empire of labor in its own right. The Queen watches coins from many countries, and her name adorns hospitals and roads. Institutions like the Boy Scouts created generations who swore allegiance to the Queen, and education systems in many countries still prioritize the British colonial model.

“Post-colonial doesn’t mean decolonized,” said Lemonius, who runs community projects in Jamaica, including one focused on sports for young girls. “The eye always looks towards the monarchy, towards the master. Once you’ve looked away from it long enough, there’s time to start looking at yourself and moving towards rebuilding.

Some Commonwealth countries find it hard to get upset about the monarchy anyway. Only a slight majority of Australians are in favor of making their country a republic, and in a poll of New Zealanders last year, only a third expressed that preference.

“It’s just not a big part of our lives,” said Jock Phillips, a New Zealand historian.

Yet inevitably royal succession is a turning point, and not just for the new ruler.

Barty, 31, who studied in England and at Columbia University in New York, said the queen’s former kingdoms would continue to evolve. Western and indigenous ways of thinking, she said, can complement each other – the kauri tree that Elizabeth planted on her first visit to the Solomon Islands almost 50 years ago has become a tower of shadow .

“To get to the idea of ​​me decolonizing the system, I had to go through the Western system,” Barty said. “It’s about reconciling.”

And perhaps, she added, the process begins with what the queen tried to embody.

“For me personally, what she stands for — and what I feel should be a lasting legacy that we continue to instill in our young people — is service,” Barty said. “She has fulfilled her services; she lived a life of duty, until the day she died.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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