QEII and the Empire

How much blame did the 70-year constitutional monarch share?

WaPo’s Karen Attiah strikes a common chord in the days since Queen Elizabeth II’s death.

The death of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-serving monarch, is causing a global battle royale over a central question: How do we speak honestly about the loyal servants to Britain’s powerful and historically brutal empire?

My answer? You speak the truth loudly, firmly and without hesitation. Use a microphone if you need to say it louder for those in the back.

In the wake of the queen’s death, propaganda, fantasy and ignorance are being pitted against Britain’s historical record and the lived experience of Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners, the Irish and others.

In the global north’s imagination, the queen is a symbol of decorum and stability in the post-World War II world. But to people of places that Britain invaded, carved up and colonized over centuries, the 96-year-old grandmother — and the rest of the royal family — evoke complex feelings, to say the least.

The Queen was a world-historical figure and, certainly, the passage of a woman who reigned for 70 years should spark conversations over that history.

Uju Anya, a Carnegie Mellon professor who is Nigerian, came under intense attack after tweeting Thursday, “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is dying. May her pain be excruciating.” Those are harsh and hateful words toward the queen, but they shouldn’t be surprising — not to anyone who has truly grappled with the generational agony of families, such as Anya’s, that have suffered massacre and displacement at the hands of the British.

I have zero interest in telling the descendants of the colonized, much less an actual Nigerian-born Black woman, how they should think of the British empire or its longest-serving symbol. Anya’s tweet, while mean-spirited, had its desired effect of shifting the conversation from mourning over an old woman’s passing to the horrors committed by her country. While Carnegie-Mellon rightly distanced themselves from the intemperate tone, they also rightly defended her academic freedom.

Attiah quickly disposes of with the low-hanging fruit:

Defenders of the queen, of course, have their answer to that. They suggest she was something of a “liberator,” since decolonization occurred during her reign, and that the people thus “liberated” should be grateful. Again, the historical record is the crucial thing: When Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952, she inherited a Britain with a weakened grip on global power. Rebellions were gathering strength in its colonies. The economic drain from the conflicts, coupled with the growing independence movements in Africa and India, all but forced Britain to pull back.

Yet, even then, Britain under Elizabeth did not just let its prized colonies go. From 1952 to 1963, British forces crushed the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, forcing between 160,000 and 320,000 Kenyans into concentration camps. Kenyan tribes are suing the British government at the European Court of Human Rights for land theft and torture.

Yes, the UK was mostly post-colonial during Elizabeth’s reign. No, that was not by her choice.

Attiah’s counter to the better argument is weaker:

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. Her image is on the currencies of many former colonies; by stewarding the British Commonwealth, she willingly took on the symbolic, patronizing role of “white mother” to the darker peoples’ of the former empire. All while reportedly banning “coloured immigrants or foreigners” from serving in royal clerical roles until the 1960s.

Now, I would counter that she was simply doing the job she was born to do. The democratically-elected Governments of the UK made foreign policy decisions while QEII was the symbol of the people. Indeed, to the extent that she had an opinion of what those decisions ought be, she had no right to shape them and, indeed, a duty to keep them to herself. Still, if Attiah, Anya, and others want to believe that this silence implied consent or otherwise deserves scorn, that’s certainly their right.

And still others say we shouldn’t talk ill of Britain at this moment. That the past is long gone. That we should forget about it. The ugly reality is, Britain deliberately wanted to hide its crimes from newly independent countries; in 1961, it destroyed thousands of colonial-era documents so as not to “embarrass Her Majesty’s government.”

Honestly, I can’t blame them for that much, at least. The truth of the matter is that colonialism was an anachronism, at best, that continued long after its immorality was well understood. That the UK, France, and others (including, to a much lesser extent, the United States) continued to find excuses to continue holding onto their colonies is understandable; that doesn’t make it less worthy of condemnation.

Attiah makes a stronger point here:

I’m also living proof that the past is present.

My mother, born in pre-independence Nigeria, recalls having to celebrate “Empire Day,” marching in stadiums and singing “God Save the Queen.” Several years after Nigeria’s independence in 1960, Britain sided with the Nigerian forces to crush the Biafran secession efforts. Some 1 million people of the Ibo ethnic tribe were killed or starved to death. My grandfather, who was one of the chief financial officers of Biafra, was forced to flee the country with my mother and siblings.

Which, of course, means her ancestors were both victims of and collaborators with the colonizers. They fled because they weren’t safe from their own people.

Regardless, even though “Nine in 10 living humans were born after Elizabeth became queen,” the fact remains that these events are far from ancient history. Not only did some of the worst atrocities take place during living memory, their effects are very much still with us. It’s perfectly reasonable to talk about that even while people are mourning the loss of a grandmotherly figure.

It shouldn’t take the death of a monarch to bring this colonial history to light, but this is where we are. The public relations imagery of a dedicated, elderly grandmother devoted to her corgis, and the Hollywood-ification of the royal family, serves all too well to blunt questions about empire. When the opportunity comes to surface truth, it must be seized.

Because there’s one more way the royalists have it wrong — this conversation is about the future, too. Hagiography of Queen Elizabeth and the fading British Empire obscures the truth not only about Britain but also about our current world order, which is built on that history. We can speak the truth about that history even as we pause to wish her spirit and her family well during this transition. And then we must get back to work — to dismantle the present-day vestiges of the racist, colonial empire she so dutifully represented.

I’d argue that hateful proclamations of wishing her a painful death are both needlessly hurtful and detract from fruitful conversation. Still, more thoughtful expressions, including Attiah’s, have indeed leveraged global news coverage of a 96-year-old’s passing to bring focus on an issue that’s hardly front and center for most of us.

I’m four-square in favor of speaking the truth and certainly wish her family, dysfunctional as it often appears,* well in their time of loss. As to “dismantl[ing] the present-day vestiges of the racist, colonial empire,” I’m happy to have that conversation.

The United States is both a vestige and perpetrator of that system, after all and compounded it by perpetuating the slave trade. We’re more than four centuries in, though, and I’m not interested in returning the continent to the aboriginal peoples and calling the whole thing off. So, I’m not sure what the end state looks like.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    If your goal is to preach to the choir and vent your moral outrage, then have it. If your goal is to cause actual, meaningful change, then this is an own-goal.

  2. Flat Earth Luddite says:

    So, I’m not sure what the end state looks like.

    That’s why we have the conversation, right? Hopefully we can do better in the future. Unfortunately, given our demonstrated skills at navigating post slavery society, my hope supply is low.

  3. Chip Daniels says:

    Viewing the past as an act upon which we sit as moral judges isn’t right or wrong, just pointless moral masturbation.

    History is valuable most when it can give us guidance on current affairs and offer lessons for our own behavior.
    All heads of state in all nations were morally complex and compromised figures. Thomas Jefferson wrote “All men are created equal” at the very moment his slave was bringing him a glass of tea.

    Today is 9/11.
    The lessons of the various European colonial record should have cautioned us against thinking we could remake the Arab world in our image, should have shown us the folly of charging into places we know nothing about and treating other peoples like pawns in our own schemes.

  4. Andy says:

    Recent history can definitely make wounds fresh.

    But at some point, history becomes history. My distant paternal ancestor was a Scot who opposed Oliver Cromwell, was captured, tried and sent to the US colonies on a prison ship to serve as an indentured servant. Other ancestors, mainly on my maternal side, were killed in various other wars with the crown in Ireland. This was all long enough ago that it carries no emotional baggage.

    I do have friends, though, who lost people during the “troubles” in the 1970’s and 80’s, and for them, it is not so distant, and the wounds are still relatively fresh.

  5. steve says:

    I think that in general people who come out on top due to bad behaviors are prone to overlook them unless it occurred very recently. It just doesnt count unless it happened last year or last week. “I tortured you, took all of your money and raped your women? But that was 30 years ago. Who cares?” For those who suffered its not so easy to forget. I think it is also made worse when people deny or ignore what happened in the past and even worse find ways to glorify it.


  6. MarkedMan says:

    It is worth understanding history, and worth seeing the roots of current injustices. But “apologize”? I’m an American, but my parents were both Irish. The Irish had their land stolen by the British. They were hung for speaking their native languages, and similarly put to death when they took a hare from the stolen lands to feed their starving families, because game was reserved for the sport of the rulers. When a quarter of the population starved to death the British blockaded against relief ships sending grain to feed them as it might encourage “dependency” in the genetically inferior Irish. This is no more ancient history than slavery in the US. And only part of the country achieved independence, so the remainder went through a civil rights struggle just as deadly as the one in the US and, despite significant progress, continues to this day. Should I get an apology from the great great great grandchildren of all the world’s protestants alive at the time?

  7. Gustopher says:

    She didn’t personally colonize anyone, and she wasn’t involved in the decisions, but she was a symbol for the country that did them. Willingly so.

    How much do you blame the spokesman of a cigarette company? Or the guy who wears the Joe Camel mascot suit?

    That said, a lot of the vitriol coming out with her passing isn’t really directed at her as a person, but at the empire that she was a symbol of during her life. That seems fair.

  8. CSK says:

    My paternal ancestors were part Irish. My ggggggggrandfather was hanged, drawn, and quartered in Dublin for participating in the 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie rebellion. Very shortly after that, the rest of the family decided to beat feet to America. I don’t remember anyone on my father’s side ever speaking ill of the English. Maybe time does heal some wounds.

  9. MarkedMan says:

    @CSK: Oh, my father hated the British with a passion until he died at the age of 95. Was convinced that the Queen had real power and done everything she could to torment the Irish Catholics in the North, during the Troubles. But he had suffered personally while I grew up in the US post-Kennedy administration. A score of Irish generations were kept in poverty before him, and the British did as much damage as they could to the economy on the way out. Independence was only four years old when my father was born and he had every right to assume he would have had a better life but for the Brits. In contrast, I don’t recall anyone every having made fun of me for being Irish, or Catholic, but of course I lived in the Midwest and Northeast. My father, on the other hand, was raised on British films where the Irish were comic relief, the Stepin Fetchit’s of their time. So it’s easy for me to say that while I am owed justice and fairness in a civil society, I don’t feel I am owed anything for the life I might have had if Ireland had always been free. My father, I think, could and did grow angry over what had been take from him. But the redress should be about current injustice affecting the living, not an impossible attempt to give justice to the dead.

    And the puzzle of historical culpability is more complicated and dangerous than we commonly think. Out of hatred of the English, some Irish aided the Nazis (although Ireland itself was neutral, albeit more out of poverty than out of any political philosophy). Do I owe my Jewish friends an apology on their behalf? Or is that offset by the tens of thousands of Irish who joined foreign armies and fought against the Nazis? Perhaps my Jewish friends owe me thanks? If we are going to go down this path, who gets to decide which way the balance tips?

  10. Slugger says:

    She was not a autocrat in the old sense; she couldn’t have your head cut off for not doffing your hat fast enough. She was a performer who had a role to play. We can analyze whether she did that job well. I find it inappropriate to have much reverence for her or much disdain. Carrie Fisher died, but Princess Leia lives on, and we can discuss Carrie’s performance. Many of my relatives fought to separate Palestine from the British, but I don’t recall any animus against the House of Windsor. I notice that the Prime Minister of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta (what a great name), ordered three days of official mourning. His understanding of the situation is probably better than mine.

  11. grumpy realist says:

    Karen Attiah really is coming across as a “Karen”, methinks. She should have kept her mouth shut. There are times to raise political issues associated with individuals, and there are times to allow people to mourn. As it is, Attiah comes off as a whiny narcissist totally occupied with how SHE feels and isn’t at all interested in the large number of people who are, indeed, mourning the death of the queen.. Better had Attiah waited six months, then published her column.

  12. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @grumpy realist: I see your point. Six months from now, she could publish the article and everybody reading it could say “Okay, but history yada, yada, yada. Now, who wants a ‘spro?”