After seven decades on the throne, Queen Elizabeth II is widely seen in the UK as a rock in turbulent times. But in the former British colonies, many see it as the anchor of an imperial past whose damage persists.
So, as the UK celebrates the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee – 70 years on the throne – with pageantry and parties, some members of the Commonwealth are using the occasion to push for a formal break with the monarchy and the colonial history it represents.
“When I think of the Queen, I think of a sweet old lady,” said Jamaican academic Rosalea Hamilton, who is campaigning for her country to become a republic. “It’s not about her. It is about the wealth of his family, built on the backs of our ancestors. We are grappling with the legacy of a past that has been very painful.
The empire Elizabeth was born into is long gone, but she still rules far beyond British shores. She is head of state in 14 other countries, including Canada, Australia, Papua New Guinea and the Bahamas. Until recently, it was 15 — Barbados severed ties with the monarchy in Novemberand several other Caribbean countries, including Jamaica, say they plan to do the same.
The British Jubilee celebrations, which culminate over a four-day holiday weekend from Thursday, aim to recognize the diversity of the UK and the Commonwealth. On Sunday, a huge Jubilee show in central London will feature Caribbean carnival performers and Bollywood dancers.
But Britain’s image of itself as a welcoming and diverse society has been tarnished by the revelation that hundreds, if not thousands, of people from the Caribbean who have been living legally in the UK for decades have been denied housing, employment or medical treatment – and in some cases deported – because they lacked the paperwork to prove their status.
The British government has apologized and agreed to pay compensation, but the Windrush scandal has caused deep anger, both in the UK and in the Caribbean.
A Jubilee Year trip to Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas in March by the Queen’s grandson, Prince William, and his wife, Kate, which aimed to strengthen ties, appears to have had the opposite effect . Images of the couple shaking hands with children through a chain-link fence and riding in an open-top Land Rover during a military parade sparked echoes of colonialism for many.
Cynthia Barrow-Giles, professor of political science at the University of the West Indies, said Britons “seem to be very blind to the kind of visceral reactions” royal visits are getting in the Caribbean.
Protesters in Jamaica have demanded Britain pay reparations for slavery, and Prime Minister Andrew Holness politely told William the country is ‘moving on’ in a sign he plans to become a republic . The following month, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told the Queen’s son, Prince Edward, that his country too would one day remove the Queen as head of state.
William acknowledged the strength of feelings and said the future “is up to the people to decide”.
“We proudly support and respect your decisions regarding your future,” he said in the Bahamas. “Relationships evolve. Friendship lasts.
When Princess Elizabeth became queen on the death of her father, King George VI, in 1952, she was in Kenya. The East African country became independent in 1963 after years of violent struggle between a liberation movement and colonial troops. In 2013, the British government apologized for the torture of thousands of Kenyans during the “Mau Mau” uprising of the 1950s and paid millions in an out-of-court settlement.
Memories of the empire are still raw for many Kenyans.
“From the start, her reign will be indelibly marked by the brutality of the empire she presided over and which accompanied her demise,” said Patrick Gathara, Kenyan cartoonist, writer and commentator.
“To this day, she has never publicly acknowledged, let alone apologized, for the oppression, torture, dehumanization and dispossession suffered by the inhabitants of the Kenya colony before and after her accession to the throne.”
British officials hope countries that become republics will remain in the Commonwealth, the 54-nation organization made up largely of former British colonies, which has the Queen as its ceremonial leader.
The Queen’s strong personal commitment to the Commonwealth has played a big role in uniting a diverse group whose members range from vast India to tiny Tuvalu. But the organization, which aims to defend democracy, good governance and human rights, faces an uncertain future.
As Commonwealth heads of government prepare to meet in Kigali, Rwanda this month for a summit delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, some wonder if the organization will be able to continue once the eldest son of the Queen, Prince Charles, will succeed him.
“Many of the most uncomfortable stories of the British Empire and the British Commonwealth are sort of waiting in the wings as soon as Elizabeth II is gone,” said royal historian Ed Owens. “So it’s a tough legacy that she’s passing on to the next generation.”
The crisis in the Commonwealth reflects the decline of Britain’s global influence.
Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth under its late President Robert Mugabe and is currently seeking readmission. But many in her capital, Harare, have expressed indifference to the Queen’s jubilee, as Britain’s once-strong influence fades and countries like China and Russia nurture relations. closer to the former British colony.
“She’s becoming useless here,” said social activist Peter Nyapedwa. “We know (Chinese President) Xi (Jinping) or (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, not the Queen.”
Sue Onslow, director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, said the Queen was the “invisible glue” that holds the Commonwealth together.
But she says the organization has proven remarkably resilient and should not be delisted. The Commonwealth played a major role in galvanizing opposition to apartheid in the 1980s and could do the same in the face of climate change, which poses an existential threat to its low-lying island members.
“The Commonwealth has shown a remarkable ability to reinvent itself and find solutions in times of crisis, almost as if it were jumping into a phone booth and coming out in another form,” she said. “Whether that is the case now is an open question.”