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LONG-READ – It’s an imperial life: historian talks Queen’s legacy in thought-provoking essay

“We will not blame him for the crimes of his ancestors if he relinquishes the royal rights of his ancestors; but as long as he claims their rights, by virtue of descent, then, by virtue of descent, he must shoulder the responsibility for their crimes” – James Connolly, Visit of King George V (1910).


#Lizposting: An Autoethnographic History

Introduction

In his play Twelfth Night, the bard Will Shakespeare wrote “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” The latter could not be more fitting to describe the role the late Queen was dropped into at the age of twenty-five. Whether I agree the title is “great” is another matter; it’s about perception – as Alex Jennings’ David Windsor says in The Crown “Who wants transparency when you can have magic?” (S01E05 – ‘Smoke and Mirrors’). The rituals and traditions are part of the magic of state mythmaking curating an ideal that is unattainable for us “mere mortals”, where people apparently look to The Crown for a higher purpose.

Born Elizabeth Windsor, the late monarch was never expected to be the Queen as her father never expected to the King. As a younger brother, her father Albert Windsor AKA King George VI – I am sure – never expected to replace his elder brother. In 1936, his brother David abdicated the throne in name of something greater than love for country, marriage to the woman he loved – a divorcee (then, taboo) – American socialite Wallis Simpson. So, Albert took the reginal name George VI – he was the younger – and became king projecting his daughters Elizabeth and Margaret into a life they never expected.

As the late Queen Elizabeth assumed a role she was never expected to, and she carried it for seventy years – refined and statesperson-like, qualities the British believe make them who they are. In these years, she also lead the latest rendition of the British Empire. She lived longer than most and saw more than most. Ascending the throne at twenty-five, she was younger than I am now. In many ways it shows the ordinariness of my life, while I also expect she may have preferred a life free from the scrutiny of the public eye.

For many, she was the nation’s sweetheart and her passing acted as a personal loss tied to love for country. Yet for others, her passing was unsentimental and held no such love for a country that has never loved them back. Doomscrolling hashtags across social media, ‘mourning’ was more than a political choice for lots of people, but rather like a piece of Britain’s soul had been removed. This enchantment with the royal mythology is centuries in progress and really an admirable case study in marketing to the Nth degree.

As I wandered Northampton in the days after The Queen’s death, the place I have called home since I was five years old was enraptured by wall-to-wall propaganda, very much adjacent to what Dr Sara Ahmed calls the “non-performativity of anti-racism.” Meanwhile, those who wanted to talk about the the monarchy and colonialism, were met by state media perpetuating what author-theorist Guy DeBord called a “society of the spectacle.”

Earlier in the year, Nenequirer editor Steve Scoles kindly published my previous article responding to the conversation around colonialism and the Queen’s Jubilee. One thing we discussed prior to the publication of the first article was the potential Death of the Queen and likely backlash. The Queen has now died, and we saw the revived critiques of the monarchy and its role in colonial violence, no less than by academics in US academia including Prof Maya Jasanoff, Dr Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Prof Melissa Murray. And in Britain, there was challenge from Prof Kehinde Andrews as well as Prof Priyamvada Gopal. Yet instead of joining the immediacy – like my previous article I wanted to be meaningful rather than “first.”

“Social media has been instrumental in spreading messages and information … it was the first medium to break the news everywhere after the first announcement came from the Palace.”
Sanji, Film Graduate

Whilst terms like mass trauma were implied to describe the worldwide experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was challenging to see “collective grief” being peddled in response to the death of the “leader” of the British Empire. As in the case of people whose family history is one meshed with being on the receiving end of colonial oppression, peddling “collective grief” as universal, is state-imposed gaslighting. This occurred in partnership with the backlash to comments made by two Black academics (Prof Uju Anya and Dr Zoe Samudzi), and Uju Anya’s tweet was pulled by Twitter after being quote tweeted by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, which lead to her being mobbed by racists.

Staff at online zine Gal-Dem also tell us that “In modern Britain, ‘respect’ is only reserved for the wealthy – not for the most vulnerable in society” as apt critiques of the monarchy were tone-policed. While at the same time ushering a solidarity between peoples united in their trauma of the British Empire. We live in a Britain un-used to truthtelling, and for me this hits home in a hostile Northampton(shire) that celebrates King Charles II every year with Oak Apple Day, while overlooking his role as a coloniser. No less than his position as co-founder of the Royal African Company that trafficked Africans into miserable lives of enslavement.

Renée Landell is a PhD Researcher in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Royal Holloway University.

In parallel, on the day of the Queen’s funeral Britain was put on a semi-imposed lockdown to “remember” a wealthy white woman. Here, #MournHub was comically doing the rounds on Twitter no less than to describe BBC media coverage of proceedings. Additionally, The Funeral enforced the postponements of vital cancer treatments while societal lifelines like foodbanks closed and anti-oppression charities paid tribute to the Head of the British Empire.

This is further contrasted with the sacrifices the wider public made during the COVID-19 lockdowns (like physical distancing) for the good of our friends and neighbours, including loved ones left alone in hospital where in some cases families watched their relatives die via iPad. Moreover, these sacrifices move adjacent to how the Queen’s funeral enforced postponements on the funerals of us regularly folks “untouched by divinity” – mere months after elected politicians were attending wine and cheese soirées #PartyGate.

During those ten days – in what some twitters named as #MournHub – we further saw that the right to life and grief is dictated by the state. The same week the Queen died also showed Black civilian Chris Kaba killed by London Met Police, hundreds still being killed and displaced by the floods wrought by climate change in Pakistan, and a mass killing on the James Smith Cree Nation in Canada otherwise known as The Saskatchewan Murders.

The state-imposed mourning further moved alongside the many preventable COVID-19 deaths, high mortalities largely necessitated by violent government policymaking, in contrast to the Downing Street Parties as our loved ones died alone. In this article, I’ll look at a legacy of The Queen, colonialism and the monarchy, and the colonial present. Sky News further misrepresented the Justice for Chris Kaba BLM Protests, as mourners of the Queen. And while four million children live in poverty in the UK and food banks outnumber McDonald’s restaurants, people queued for hours to not only to see an icon, but mourn the end of an era contrasted in their ‘love for country’.

“Under her reign, many latched on to the stabilising sense of cultural continuity. To lose that is to feel disrupted and uncertain.”
Afua Hirsch, The Guardian (2022)

For many Black and Brown people looking at the grief of many white people, this was a teachable case of white privilege. These tears depict the mourning of a time when my grandparents and many other “citizens” of the British Empire were “recruited” to build back Britain after the war, the story of this my parents and now my generation are still getting to grips with. Tao Leigh Goffe tell us that “family history is colonial history“, and that fragmented national continuity is something Britain (and those who are seen as British no question asked … i.e many white British people) have experienced at the expense of Black and Brown people, both those of us that were born here and who came here.

This article will be more autoethnographic – using personal experience to understand cultural experience – rather than explicitly a “history piece.” More than two years after we marched on Abington Street in the cries of “no justice, no peace”, local organisations then mourned a coloniser whose legacy in Kenya is also one of violence wrought by her government. Then from the late 1960s genocide occured in Nigeria with the complicity of Her Majesty’s government lead by Harold Wilson’s Labour. Nonetheless, it is clear how some lives are viewed as worthier than others. This is white supremacy and class warfare spectacularised raised at half-mast, people cannot afford to survive, and winter is coming.

The Discussion

For seventy years, the Queen was leader of the British Empire, but to make such a statement has been considered controversial by some and it really shouldn’t be. She carried on the legacy of her father King George VI and many previous monarchs going back to the days of Queen Elizabeth I who in 1562 gave ‘adventurer’ (Sir) John Hawkins ships to traffick Black people from the West African coast to the Spanish Americas.

James Vernon is a Professor of Modern British History at Berkley.

My grandparents who come from Jamaica and Grenada are people of the 1940s and 1950s, and thus were born as colonial subjects under the British Crown. Jamaica and Grenada did not gain independence until 1962 and 1974, respectively, and the ruling British monarch is still Head of State, so one must ask is the British Empire over? In many ways The Commonwealth is simply a euphemism for empire, its member-nations largely united in their trauma of one of the most infamous acts of human terror medieval in its punishment.

“This is imperial amnesia: our history has been taken out of context for the celebration of the Empire in textbooks, in classrooms and now on the news. From a young age, we have been told to fight for someone who will only kill us with their white supremacy whenever given the chance. South Asians in the UK need to start fighting for each other. Otherwise, we will continue to become our own oppressors.”
Shadia Haq, activist

Nonetheless, what we must understand is that it is not always useful to see the late monarch as separate from the institution. In a 1947 address in South Africa just as apartheid was taking effect (1948), as Princess Elizabeth she stated “I declare before you all that my whole life … shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong” really showing commitment to pushing the empire project even before she was coronated as Queen.

Following her appointment, her reign has been punctuated by royal colonial tours, the longest of which took place from November 1953 to May 1954. At a base minimum, these tours show the Queen was an imperial monarch, and a coloniser through benefiting, (socioculturally) investing in and upholding the system her predecessors made. In my last article, I wrote “The British Crown … is a constitutional monarchy, so, the Queen holds little power as an individual …” and I would like to redress this. What I said needs nuance.

Author-journalist Joe Glenton describes the monarchy as a “quiet tyranny … that we can tolerate because it’s wrapped in pageantry and this shroud of democracy.” Furthermore, author Peter Oborne’s Not the Chilcot Report, talks about this country as “… an unresolved contradiction between an essentially medieval system of government and Britain’s democratic tradition over the last two hundred years.” When you start thinking about things like the Privy Council, honours committees, and the existence of unelected bureaucrats in the House of Lords, you begin to see how the term ‘constitutional’ is quite open-ended.

For example, how the Queen reportedly gave Scottish ministers the tap on the shoulder, the wink, the nod – so The Crown could gain exemption from climate laws. Further, King Charles III’s infamous black spider memos allegedly showing political lobbying. Meanwhile, the Epstein Scandal revealing links to Prince Andrew who was then reportedly wanted for questioning by the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI], also paying off accuser Virginia Giuffre. The Queen reportedly helped pay his £12m ($16m) sum, whether that was with taxpayers’ money has not been confirmed but the question remains open! And earlier, the monarchy’s private estate reportedly invested in offshore tax havens for the super-rich as named in the 2017 Scandal otherwise known as the Paradise Papers.

“Even though Prince Andrew has demonstrated a lack of morality, the biggest discussion that surrounds this entity is whether he should step down from his royal duties. It seems everyone forgets that he has shown a lack of compassion, he has been pictured with young girls who have accused him and Epstein of violating them. But being a prince trumps all these facts, as he is let off lightly.”
Stephanie Richards, historical criminologist

Adjacently, they continue to commit to royal tours to countries where they are unwanted by the locals – shown through anti-colonial rebellions in Jamaica and Belize. Royal investment in politics is not just about party politics but people politics, so that term ‘constitutional’ is really up for interpretation. It becomes more challenging when their actions are supported by many people – as we saw with The Queue, and those silencing Black and Brown people for talking about the monarchy’s role in colonialism. There is the first problem of conscious investment, whilst more insidiously, when people remain silent the oppressor always wins.

In parallel, wall-to-wall media was not impartial and those of us talking about colonialism and empire were told “this is not the time.” The days following the Queen’s death, mainstream media – both local and national, as well as many institutions such as universities and schools – became free royal PR. As Penelope Anthias tweeted, “It has been said before but UK universities’ uncritical participation in royalist propaganda and tone policing this past week really shows the superficiality of their statements around decolonisation.”

Though there are Black and Brown royalists, the breadth of violence I saw and experienced was from white people, no less white “progressives.” Seeing the many white liberals centering their grief, I was brought back to academic Shannon Sullivan’s book Good White People. Here, she talks about how white liberalism and white supremacism “grow from the same tree of domination” where white liberal anti-racist practices, beliefs, and behaviours “are also rooted in and help nourish white racism.”

During the Jubilee and the days following the Queen’s death, it was these same people who saw themselves reflected in the goodness of The Queen as a cultural icon. So, the uncritical worshipping of The Crown has been a slick operation for decades, but to do so following the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests makes me uneasy – from the numbers that accepted empire medals during the resurgence of Black Lives Matter to the celebrations of the Queen’s Jubilee, and the continued acceptance of the Commonwealth Games.

“Militaristic connections have a great deal to do with it as well. My white great-grandfather Robert Coates died whilst fighting for the British in World War II. That whole side of my family have always been devoted to the Queen. My great great-grandfather also Robert Coates died in World War I. There were other family members too. We did not come from privilege, that much is true but when you look at the families of privilege in the UK also attached to the military, it becomes clear that the monarchy is very much for the rich as for the poor.”
Sascha Akhtar, poet and political activist

In mainstream media coverage, the enforced remembrance of a national figure was manifestly apparent, and that is how many journalists in local (see from 2hrs 10mins) and national media presented themselves in articles and programmes. However, social media platforms like Twitter, Tumblr, and TikTok became an educational space irrespective of lots of vitriol sprouting from the minds of her loyal followers. Royalists, not death eaters!

Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu is a lawyer, author and political activist

Simultaneously, organisations that had previously made anti-racist commitments while also socially and culturally investing in the Jubilee, took part in mourning. And despite people have every right to grieve how they like, imposed mourning is not democratic. No less than in schools where many children in my family and wider circles were subject to it without any choice. As schools place emphasis on safeguarding, they undermined their own messaging when they rolled out enforced remembrance without safeguarding the emotions of children whose rights have long been curtailed. Or as the late scholar-feminist Prof bell hooks writes in All About Love, “When we love children, we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights – that we respect and uphold their rights.”

As an older sibling and as someone who works with schools and universities, my head hurt to see their virtue signalling par excellence! Further to the liberal-presenting organisations (including in the arts) tying themselves in knots trying to be anti-racist whilst respecting the monarchy. As I said in my last article, you can only choose one – pro-monarchy and anti-racism are stuck in a toxic relationship and you will have to make a choice. Education has long been a tool of political silencing and in the two years since the Black Lives Matter protests, I have been reminded me of the virtue signalling done by many. Further, the Queue – an exhibition of performed ‘Britishness’ – David Beckham queued while Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield pushed in, and people got angry – thus ignoring the wider debates about structural / institutional violence, (in)equalities, and privilege.

What I saw in the ten days of hero worship was a rewriting of the British mythology: a mythmaking that sought to tear the monarchy away – psychologically, socially, and culturally – from histories and contemporaries of colonialism, white supremacy, and genocide. The monarchy is not only an institution of violence, and was built through such mechanisms, but they also see themselves in God’s image … so only view themselves as answerable to divinity – God.

In an article for Time Magazine, historian Prof Priya Satia tells us seventeenth century dissenters who “rebelled against the king in the name of ‘common liberties’” that we now assume as ‘reasonable’ democracy, constructed these ideas “partly out of faith that Christ’s kingdom was about to come, striving to perfect human governance in line with the perfection of God’s will.”

“I think the monarchy plays a very important role in the ideology of maintaining a status quo … perpetuating the myth of class (and genetic) superiority of the aristocracy that is “ordained by God” and also defines the place of people on a class/racial hierarchy …”
Paul Crofts, local activist

Satia goes on to discuss that in the chaos of the time, a new Protestant constitutional monarch became “the only hallowed entity to which many Britons could turn.” Moving into the eighteenth century, this was defended by continuous wars, she says, “that expanded Britain’s empire and the slave trade and drove the industrial revolution.” In Netflix’s The Crown – a dramatisation of the Queen’s reign – royal family members seeing themselves as only answerable to a higher power (God) is alluded to in many ways. Most aptly put by Winston Churchill (John Lithgow), he says “What is the purpose of The Crown? What is the purpose of the Monarchy? Does the Crown bend to the will of the people to be audited and accountable? Or should it remain above temporal matters?”

Later in this episode (Smoke & Mirrors), David Windsor AKA the former-king, Edward VIII, who abdicated (played by Alex Jennings) reminds us of state mythmaking. He claims that the reason why the public did not get to see the anointing of the Queen at her coronation is because “we are mortals.” Talking to race and education academic Shabnam Anam, she further commented on the contrast between monarchy and republicanism stating “monarchy is about inherited governance / ruling, and republicanism is about being voted in. And while both are privileged / entitled, one is certainly the better.”

“I wouldn’t say there is an aspect of white British cultural identity that isn’t somewhat colonial in nature. While a significant aspect of Irish culture is fighting for control of our futures and our land, the inverse of that in British culture is the fight to continue controlling others and profiting from theft.”
Morgan Matthews, Irish Marxist

At its bones, the British monarchy claims the divine right to rule, and in many ways, this sits at the nucleus of racist colonial ideology. As academic Priyamvada Gopal further tweeted, “The Royal Family are not an anachronism. They’ve always been about rendering sacrosanct, the right of the wealthy to rule. And enshrining the belief that to have enormous wealth is to somehow be doing ‘work’ by merely existing. And cutting a ribbon or two.” In short, the epitome of entitlement where whiteness and ownership meet.

Despite the breadth of conversation surrounding Black and Brown nations, we must further consider the histories of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales (Scotland and Wales were not colonised and their involvement as oppressors in the BRITISH Empire project is another conversation to the fact these places also suffered under The Crown; and Ireland was colonised, while also taking part in enslavement). Whilst that is not to say these nations do not have Black and Brown populations, simply these countries would be considered white nations home to a dominant white culture framed within ‘fortress white Europe.’

Panashe Chigumadzi is a Zimbabwean-born South African-raised cultural historian

One only need see why #IrishTwitter came out in support of the criticisms against the monarchy when you also consider the way history has been written to gaslight Irish people as the authors of the 1845 Potato Famine. It was the British monarchy’s genocide of the Irish – where Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne reportedly dubbed Queen Victoria as the “Famine Queen.” The Irish Potato Famine also known as ‘The Great Hunger’ and Gorta Mór is one of the darkest parts of Irish history which saw over million killed, further to another million migrate into the United States as what today we would term as asylum seekers or refugees – fleeing violence, in this case that of the British Empire.

In her book What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition, academic and author Emma Dabiri talks about how despite Ireland’s history as a British colony, it is also a country that “came to be racialized as “white” in the Americas, quite unlike the peoples of other subjugated territories.”

“Geographical location is important once again. In order to access the privileges of white supremacy, the millions of Irish who flooded into the US from the 1840s onward distinguished themselves from the black people who had already been there for centuries.”
Emma Dabiri, What White People Can Do Next

While at one time white Irish people may not have been seen as culturally white in ‘dominant white culture’, they did “become white” as discussed in Noel Ignatiev’s 1995 book How the Irish Became White. The people who have been viewed as white changes across geography and history as we further saw recently with Ukraine debated earlier in the year – as discussed by political scientist Olena Lyubchenko. The acceptance of Ukraine into ‘fortress Europe’ reminds us that who is seen as white can change.

In the ten days following the Queen’s death, #IrishTwitter stood in solidarity with other peoples of the world, who too had cause to criticise and critique the monarchy, including #BlackTwitter and #IndianTwitter. Figures like JEDWARD positively used their platform, whilst Black scholars as mentioned above were mobbed and abused for the same. There was a stark difference in the reactions to white Irish people educating others while Black and Brown people suffered incessant tone-policing. The largely accepted #IrishTwitter (kinda) showed how white privilege is in play.

Additionally, I saw posts talking about the 1916 Easter Risings. Further to The Troubles otherwise known as the Northern Ireland Conflict. Irish academic Dermot O’Hara’s book The Troubles is a worthy entry point. And, Only the Rivers Run Free: Northern Ireland – The Women’s War by Eileen Fairweather, Roisin McDonough and Melanie McFadyean tells this story from the perspectives of women who lived it. Meanwhile, the 2021 film Belfast starring Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe is a soft conscience-pricker. On top of the Channel 4 programme Derry Girls which just aired its final season, they may be good introductions into provoking further study of British settler colonialism in Ireland.

The television programme begins with a shot of an armoured vehicle containing British soldiers moving passed two children spray-painting the city sign covering out the ‘London’ of the city ‘Londonderry’. Full of footnotes to settler colonialism, the Channel 4 series created by Lisa McGee is set in 1990s Derry enmeshed in political violence really as a thought-provoker to do our own reading and research.

My own entry into Irish history as far as nonfiction was Only the Rivers Run Free by Eileen Fairweather and colleagues, but Irish poetry as well has been useful for my own emotional connections. No less than ‘Easter, 1916’ by William Butler ‘WB’ Yeats. As a white nation, the history of Ireland shows that recent critiques of colonialism at the monarchy are not just about Black and Brown people, so there is space for solidarity and kinship.

In 2017, actor Michael Sheen gave up his OBE so he could openly criticise the Royal Family without being labelled a hypocrite. He gave it up after doing research for his Raymond Williams lecture. Learning about his native Welsh history, he saw he could not both do this lecture and have the medal. In conversation with journalist Owen Jones, Sheen talks about how in 2018 there was push to rename the Second Severn Crossing – the ‘Prince of Wales Bridge’ – later receiving a petition against it garnering over 30,000 signatures.

Prior to the twelfth century, the Prince of Wales title was held by native Welsh princes until it was stolen by the English state – one of the last native princes was reportedly Llewyn ap Gruffydd (the Last) killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in 1282, while his brother Dafydd was executed in 1283. This ended an independent Wales, and in the vacuum Edward I installed his son the future Edward II as the first Prince of Wales in 1301. So for centuries, that title has been held by the heir-apparent to the throne of the United Kingdom. And following the end of Welsh independence, King Edward I introduced the Statute of Rhuddan in 1284 bringing English common law to Wales annexing the country under the English crown, further written about by Francis Jones and Colin Pilkington.

History holds power, we are connected to our ancestors and the past, and that has an enduring legacy. So, when we consider the violence of the monarchy, the histories of England’s bordering neighbours are part of that story. Black and Brown nations have eclipsed the discussion, but we must remember, how for example, England put in efforts to destroy the Welsh language thus identity and culture … and the poor people of this country were victims of the Crown long before those of us whose heritage is in the Global South.

By the by, if we thought about ‘colonisation’ (specifically) as a social practice rather than a period locked to history, we may begin to see that colonialism is an ongoing action. In a TikTok video, social media influencer and anti-racism trainer Joris Lechene continues to say:

“[…] Colonisation isn’t just the act of ‘colonising nations’ … [it] is a system – so contributing to the maintenance of that system is also colonisation; waging wars to uphold that system is also colonisation; and even doing nothing to dismantle that system while passively benefiting from it – that is also sharing the responsibility for colonisation.”
Joris Lechene

Endless wars – including ‘conflicts’ in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan – could be considered colonisation in ‘upholding’ that system as Britain has invaded nearly every country on the planet. All of these were sanctioned by a government acting in the name of the The Crown. Large portions of media coverage still do not dissent against war but uphold it. Those who challenged the status quo have met silencing in various ways, including Julian Assange and Katharine Gun.

In 2011, the public were reportedly told that Britain invaded Libya to install stability (democracy) thus revisiting ideas of empire and what author Rudyard Kipling called “the white man’s burden.” And as poet-educator Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan writes, “I wonder if when you buy bombs there’s a clear difference between the deadly ones that kill and the heroic ones that scatter democracy?” Yet, a few years later people are fleeing these countries, drowning in the seas only for a British journalist to compare asylum seekers to cockroaches. When you compare humans to cockroaches, this is comparing humans to subhuman levels of existence. This is all underpinned by dehumanisation and colonial ideology, no less than how Black and Brown asylum seekers are discussed in the media.

“The British establishment sees the rest of the world as its own property, therefore it can enter and exit these places at will. It decides what it is ‘right and proper’ without any regard for sovereign states insisting that “British values” are the only way of being. Countries which have the temerity to object are problematised as rogue states terrorising their inhabitants. This completely ignores the British establishment’s role in terrorising their own citizens on a regular basis.”
Dr Paula Bowles, Criminologist

Histories and contemporaries of the British Empire intersects with monarchy and political establishments. And even considering the present Honours System, the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George is represented by insignia of Saint Michael (depicted as a white angelic figure) standing on the neck of the devil, and the devil is drawn as Black – no less similar to images of how police treat Black citizens, including Chris Kaba who was recently killed by London Met.

Dr Adam Vasco is Director of D&I at the University of Wolverhampton

Seeing large portions of the media only showed one view – the graciousness of the Queen and monarchy – it was refreshing to see comradery and solidarity between peoples united in their trauma of the British Empire, a kinship I did not even see amid the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Meandering the landscape of my community, this moved alongside the local proclamation of King Charles III, verily under the statue of his ancestor Charles II atop All Saint’s Church – an enslaver and co-founder of the Royal African Company.

As historian William Pettigrew writes in Freedom’s Debt:

“The English monarchy’s desire to expand and control the shipments of enslaved Africans to its colonies … was founded on political concerns and methods as much as economic ones.
From the Restoration … in 1660, Charles II wished to use a monopoly company to supplant the Dutch competition in the Atlantic trades, develop trade with the cash-rich Spanish Americas, and secure and expand English interests in Africa by establishing plantations there, thus supplying gold for the mother country as well as enslaved Africans for England’s Caribbean plantations. […]
In 1660, Charles founded the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading to Africa. This company was itself the latest in a long line of slave-trading initiatives supported by the English monarchy that began with Elizabeth I’s endorsement of the slave-trading voyage of John Hawkins in 1562.”
William Pettigrew is Professor of History at Lancaster University

Living and growing up in Northamptonshire, I have found local knowledge to be quite scarce on our connections to colonialism and enslavement, overshadowed by discourses to the First World War and the shoe and boot industry. Further eclipsed, by major enslaving cities like London, Bristol, Glasgow, and Liverpool. But author Jane Austen wrote about enslavement and Northamptonshire in Mansfield Park showing how absentee enslavers disassociated the violence on plantations, from the wealth that sustained them here in Britain. As Reni Eddo-Lodge further writes, “Although enslaved African people moved through British shores regularly, the plantations they toiled on were not in Britain but rather in Britain’s colonies. The majority were in the Caribbean, so, unlike the situation in America, most British people saw the money without the blood.”

In parts of the Caribbean, like the island of Barbados in the seventeenth century when early enslavers arrived in 1627, the life expectancy of an enslaved person could be less than ten years. For example, as historian and popular broadcaster Prof David Olusoga states in Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners: “Africans arriving here [Barbados] had a life expectancy of seven years.” So, while on the plantation there is story about trauma and racism, the lifestyles of enslavers in the colonies – and absentee enslavers in Britain – was one of decadence and partying acting as a violent juxtaposition to today’s street parties, the Jubilee celebrations, and the ten days of mourning.

As thousands lined up to see the coffin of a billionaire, I was thinking about this historic moment in the context of a staple of British culture – queueing foregrounded by modern and longer histories / contemporaries of colonialism and white supremacy. To the people saying the monarchy have no power, I think those ten days showed they have lots of power – cultural power – with numbers buying into those ideas of whiteness through state-manufactured mythmaking. They also hold economic power, including land.

Critical race scholar Prof Cheryl Harris’ article ‘Whiteness as Property’ reminds us how ownership and whiteness come joined under the capitalist project: “Whiteness and property share a common premise – a conceptual nucleus – of a right to exclude” – including access to land and the “claiming” of ancestral jewels like the Koh-i-Noor. Within the lifetimes of many of our grand/parents, the reign of Queen Elizabeth II was punctuated by rebellion and dissent in many British colonies – from the Mau Mau Uprisings in Kenya (1952-1960) to Caribbean Black Power and pushes for independence across many Caribbean islands throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and even as late as 1983 with St Kitts and Nevis – but … the ruling monarch stayed as Head of State represented locally by a Governor-General.

The Queen oversaw the latest part of the British Empire and royal entitlements have been used to enforce colonial violence, no less than against the Chagos Islands where the Supreme Court ruled the islanders could not return to their homeland. In congruence, Britain continues to invest in the “quiet tyranny” of British coloniality through street names, statues, and stately homes – and as many as twenty-nine National Trust sites were sustained by money generated through colonialism. Just as tourists to Auschwitz are challenged when they use these monuments to genocide as photo opportunities, I question why British heritage sites are not treated with the same condolence. As they were sustained by some of the most violent acts of terrorism ever recorded in British history.

There is a British culture of manufactured ignorance. If those ten days showed us anything, it’s the importance of social media as a public history platform – instrumentalising counter-storytelling to the state’s coup de brainwashing. In my own experiences of those ten days, I was not surprised at how whiteness recentred itself through conscious ignorance. As academic Dr Jairo Fúnez tweeted “Coloniality depends on … a ‘cult of forgetfulness’ … depends on systematic evasion [and] self-deception. It negates others of personhood in order to justify, i.e., make more reasonable their exploitation, domination, [and] annihilation.”

BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan has traced her family tree back to enslavers on the Caribbean island of Grenada. There’s no reason why my ancestors and her ancestors could not have crossed paths.

Moving through social justice spaces, it can feel we are preaching to the converted. And, in those ten days I came head-to-head with not only willfull ignorance but the proud ignorance, who cared more for their adoration of a wealthy white woman than they did for the exploitation of their neighbours. But, Britain is far from monolithic on this issue (even amid us Black people), yet it was challenging to see numbers of pro-monarchy white ‘progressives.’ People do not like history upsetting good vibes. Or as the late philosopher Prof Charles Mills writes “White ignorance has been able to flourish … because a white epistemology of ignorance has safeguarded it against the dangers of an illuminating blackness … protecting those who … have needed not to know.”

Through those ten days, the public were reminded that The Queen “did her duty” and even during the Second World War ‘had a job’ … as a mechanic driving an ambulance. Yet, don’t many people work? We even have job roles called paramedics. It appears we have this culture of celebrating the wealthy for doing things that working-class people have done and continue to do all the time. And this is wrapped up in the royal myth where the things that us “mere mortals” do are framed as extraordinary if a wealthy person does it.

Simultaneously, media responded to the Death of The Queen as a life of duty and grace, rather than the overseeing of the empire project and acting out Englishness as a symbol of white supremacy – those of us challenging the whitewashing were criticised in an air of respectability. But colonialism is a fact existing within the lifetimes of many people.

From 1937, Aden (later part of South Yemen) was also ‘owned’ by the British Crown. When in 1958, its Trade Union Congress called for industrial action, The Crown brought punitive measures against the Aden Colony (including deporting Yemenis to the desert heartland) to suppress resistance. It wasn’t until 1967 that the last British solider left, and Britain is still waging war in Yemen today, in coalition with the United States, and Saudi Arabia.

“When British schools are still positioning colonisation as a positive thing without teaching the past physical violence, and current structural violence and multitude of social harms resulting from colonialism, how can we change society if our children cannot connect the dots? How can we understand racism in the UK today, if we don’t understand the underlying causes?”
Amy Cortvriend, Lecturer in Criminology and Activist

Increasingly, the cognitive dissonance between public memory of the monarchy and colonialism is frightening. Spread across seventy years, The Queen lived through and oversaw many conflicts that people either do not know about or do not associate with empire. In my last article I discussed the Mau Mau Uprisings (1952-1960) but did not expand on independence-era rebellions. This was followed by the invasions of many countries between 1952 and the present-day including Oman, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and more – where ‘historical’ conflicts are not that historical when Britain is consistently engaged in maintaining its footholds in the Global South.

Queen Elizabeth’s funeral was also big and expensive in a Cost of Capitalism Crisis, whilst those challenging monarchy were silenced – and this January, more willing participants will become knights and MBEs. Imperial warts and all. This functions in parallel to huge sums recently invested in the Commonwealth Games and how it was estimated Britons would spend nearly £1bn celebrating the Jubilee. But where did the British monarchy get their wealth? Violence, imperialism, colonialism and being a bit more evil than other evil people.

In 2019, the United Kingdom agreed to pay damages of £1m to over thirty victims of rape and torture that occurred during the Greek Cypriot War of Independence (1955-1959) by British colonial forces. White supremacy is appealing in more and more naked terms to the public, where union jack bunting has not left the Northampton since June. This moves with the ongoing culture war that denies the imperial past and seeks to keep Britain white, all while constructing climate activists as nonsensical. Pakistan is experiencing the worst floods in its history whilst the industrial revolution changed the way Britain related to the world around it. Climate, empire, and capitalism are inextricably linked.

In Time Magazine article ‘The British Monarchy Helped Mortgage Our Collective Future’, historian Prof Priya Satia discusses how “fossil fuels and industrial metals were relentlessly extracted from the earth in Britain and its colonies” insidiously thrusting us into a process of climate change transforming how humans relate to the natural world and other people.

“Industrialism accompanied the passage of thousands of enclosure acts that turned common lands into private property, while colonial settlers and administrators also conquered and privatized land all over the world.”
Professor Priya Satia, Time Magazine

So, our current debates about ecological breakdown and climate are rooted in empire, where amid other corporate partnerships “that made up the eighteenth-century British state” – with others like influential aristocrats, large corporations (i.e the East India Company and the Royal African Company), and the Bank of England – the Crown “established, invested in, and protected slave trading and colonialism.” And despite it being easy to lay exclusive critique at Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and Sandringham Estate, we must also consider the role of successive governments (we elected).

In a TikTok video, anti-racism practitioner Joris Lechene talks about how it’s easy for British people to lay criticism at the monarchy without also criticising governments because monarchs aren’t elected by the public.

“As French man from a colony, I’m a here to remind you that France has been merrily colonising for centuries … as a republic. Even if you take out the monarchy, you are still left with a colonising power to hold accountable and maybe you want to do both.”
Jorish Lechene

So, whilst The Crown is low-hanging fruit, it would be as beneficial to point at Downing Street and Westminster “and all of the oppressive policies that have been enacted for seventy years by successive parliaments and governments” elected by the UK public.

Conclusions

We are taught colonialism ended decades ago with the ‘independence’ of many countries that are now part of The Commonwealth (neo-empire), but we still see colonisation reproduced through both systemic and cultural practices. And in some cases, industry is still clinging on to the past through colonial nostalgia and neo-empire designs bought by enslavement. The way we think about colonialism must change. It is not specific to a ‘time period’ but a practice – maintained in education, politics, law, aid, and so on. Meanwhile, it also survives through bystanding to systems that govern our lives while doing nothing to challenge those systems. No less than families who have inherited colonial wealth.

At a street level, the local establishment continues to buy into royal honourifics like High Sheriffs appointed as local representatives of The Crown. This is institutional work of the monarchy at a local level! In 2020, Northamptonshire Rights & Equality Council delivered a a Nine Point Plan to further race equality in Northamptonshire, including the interrogation of colonial statues. Help us. We can start by posing challenge to the statue of King Charles II as one of the founding members of the human trafficking Royal African Company.

Whilst Elizabeth I signed the Royal Charter for the East India Company in 1600, it was Charles II who granted permission for its expansion. Further to the 1672 inception of the Royal African Company which marked England’s human trafficking monopoly trafficking enslaved Africans, he also gave the city Bombay (modern-day Mumbai) to the East India Company in 1668 after ‘acquiring’ it as part of a dowry on marrying Catherine Braganza.

Northamptonshire’s history – largely told through shoes, war, and monarchy – has been told over and over but there are stories … of colonialism that make my voice shake as the violence that happened “over there” impacts the life chances of those who now live “over here.” All the questions that meander through social justice – i.e patriarchy, white supremacy, cis-heteronormativity culture, colonialism, capitalism – at some point permeate the British Crown. And until we start asking critical questions of the institutions around us, deference will be the disease that maintains the rot.

While the Ventours were simply bit players in colonial enslavement, they still walk away with a sizeable sum in compensation in the 1830s payout. However, the fact I can find my maternal family name in online databases is scary, no less than the same parish my grandfather’s family reside (and where he was born). This breaks down barriers, dispelling the myth that enslavement was “them” and not us (Source: Legacies of British Slavery, University College London).

The Queen’s reign was one of acting in the role she was allocated and did so for seventy years, including chief coloniser. We must always critique the monarchy in context – literal embodiments of inequality who have long invited challenge, as history is accentuated by monarchies deposed by rebellions. There have been numbers of fake apologies including the “profound sorrow” expressed by Prince William. But until there is a conversation about reparations from Britain to many Global South nations, anything less is virtue signaling.

“Her life was one under scrutiny and I think there is sympathy to be had for such a life lived under the microscope. Yet she also upheld a militarised violent terror-based system for seventy years.”
Tré Ventour-Griffiths

Juxtaposed to that image of her alone mourning Prince Philip, no such empathy from The Crown has ever gone to those harmed by colonialism – not the victims of genocide in Kenya or Nigeria; not the descendants of enslaved people; nor the many people of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh divided and harmed by conflicts and partitions; nor Indigenous Australia forced to tolerate Britain as a colonising power. Recently, Indigenous senator Lidia Thorpe was also pressured to redo her oath of allegiance after calling the late Queen a coloniser. This is not an exhaustive list, but this is to say anti-colonial sentiment has legs.

As Black people, we can experience trauma from racism we did not personally experience such as historical, vicarious, and intergenerational trauma. For those us at the recieving end of colonial violence which Black and Brown people live in at all times (i.e in the UK) – to travel this country and meet colonial statues; nationalist/patriotic symbols; police terrorism; racism at work and school; explicit and implicit racial assaults; pub cultures of (white) Britishness; racist friends and family members; hostile environment policies … and more – this impacts how we move, act and be in our day-to-day lives.

And while sections of the local and national public continue to support this institution whilst claiming to be anti-racist and allies, this is racial gaslighting causing more harm to your Black and Brown friends and colleagues. The trauma is real, and cultural investiment in the monarchy does not help anybody. Britain’s monarchy has been considered, critiqued and criticised going back many decades, but they’re like Teflon – everything just rolls off them!

What could Britain look like without this mafia institution? I don’t know and I do not see it leaving any time soon. There are large amounts of capital in play as well as a colonial legacy and present to maintain. To challenge – no less than here in Little England – is a lonley road. Growing up in Northampton(shire), the paradox lies in my examination of the institutions that have punctuated my life – while critique is viewed as criticism and help is interpreted as panic. We are not London or Birmingham; this is Northamptonshire, a place full of contradictions and the county of shoe and boot must tread its own path.


The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which [one] is being educated.” – James Baldwin (16th October, 1963)

Further Reading – https://padlet.com/treventour1995/4ntutm52qx7tkcda

Tré Ventour-Griffiths
Tré Ventour-Griffiths
Tré Ventour-Griffiths is a neurodivergent practitioner-academic as both a Public Historian of Black British History and a creative writer. His work has been published in zines, edited books, and journalism, while he has also worked with organisations in the arts, education, third sector, and others on various projects linked to race and disability. https://linktr.ee/treventoured

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