Op-ed: The death of a monarch and the long shadow of empire

Queen Elizabeth II is pictured. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Tathagata Dutta is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and a dissertation fellow at the Center for Humanities at Tufts for 2022–23.  

In his condolence message to mark the death of Queen Elizabeth II, President Joe Biden defined her legacy with the words, “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was more than a monarch. She defined an era.” The question remains, what era indeed did she define? While tributes have poured in from around the globe about her grace, dignity and steadfast commitment to duty, her legacy and that of the institution she represented is somewhat more complicated — particularly from the perspective of the Global South. Years of careful public relations management sought to portray the Queen and the British monarchy as benign, primarily engaged in the philanthropy and pageantry that provide the UK with a sense of unity and purpose. 

At the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s birth in 1926, her grandfather King George V reigned over the largest colonial empire in history. This was the high noon of British imperialism. Even though World War I (1914–18) had brought about the demise of four great empires — the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman — the British Empire added millions of square kilometers of territory as spoils of war. 

Through the post-war Mandate System and under the aegis of the newly established League of Nations, German colonies in Africa and Ottoman territories in the Middle East were redistributed among the victors. More importantly, most of the fighting which won these territories on behalf of the British Empire in Africa and the Middle East was done by the over 1 million-strong British Indian Army. The sacrifices of these mercenaries have rarely been acknowledged. 

In 1936, with the abdication of her uncle King Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth became heir presumptive when her father ascended the throne as King-Emperor George VI. Like Queen Elizabeth II, her father has been eulogized — even as recently as 2010 through movies such as “The King’s Speech” — as a role model of duty and fortitude who only reluctantly took the mantle of kingship. He also became a symbol of resistance to Nazi Germany during the Second World War. However, he is equally tainted from the perspective of the Third World. 

Winston Churchill, who served his first term as prime minister under George VI, is hailed as a hero for defeating Hitler. Yet he was responsible for the death of over 3 million Bengalis in 1943–44 through a deliberate policy of resource extortion, creating conditions for a man-made famine. The very same Winston Churchill would go on to become Queen Elizabeth II’s first prime minister when she acceded to the throne in 1952. 

Furthermore, the death and displacement of millions of Hindus and Muslims during the Partition of India in 1947 must be acknowleged, owing to decades of British policy of fomenting Hindu-Muslim tensions through its policy of ‘divide and rule.’ The Partition remains one the greatest human tragedies of the 20th century — a process overseen and mismanaged by Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India and a second cousin to King George VI. 

Whilst some may accuse me of holding Queen Elizabeth II responsible for the sins of her father (and grandfather), her direct legacy, too, is marred by the long shadow of British imperialism. In fact, at the time of her accession in 1952, then-Princess Elizabeth and her husband Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, were on a royal tour in colonial Kenya. 

The independence of India in 1947 meant that Britain had lost its ‘jewel in the crown.’ Nonetheless, Queen Elizabeth II inherited the title of Queen of Pakistan at the time of her accession. The country emerging out of the carnage of the Partition struggled to formulate a republican constitution and chose to remain a dominion within the Commonwealth of Nations — an organization dedicated to managing the dissolution of the empire and slowing the tide of decolonization. It was the very same organization to which Queen Elizabeth II remained committed throughout her life, ever since she made her historic pledge on April 21, 1947. On her 21st birthday, in Cape Town, South Africa during her first overseas tour, she stated, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.”           

The Commonwealth of Nations was originally designed to make the white self-ruling dominions of South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand equal partners within the Empire, and was conceived by archimperialists like Jan Smuts (longtime Prime Minister of South Africa) to perpetuate white minority rule in much of Africa and slow the tide of nationalism emanating from former colonies.  

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s under Queen Elizabeth II, the British Empire took rear-guard actions across the fast-vanishing empire to contain decolonization under the guise of fighting Communism. The suppression of the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya (1952–1960) and the Malayan Emergency (1948–1960) saw thousands dead and generations affected. In 1956, Britain, in tandem with France and Israel, invaded Egypt to preserve Anglo-French control over the Suez Canal when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser sought to nationalize the canal. The misadventure failed only because of reluctance by the United States to back the plan. Even though this marked the empire’s retreat from east of the Suez, it continued to fight rear-guard actions in the Crown colony of Aden until 1967 and withdrew from Hong Kong only in 1997.   

In 1965, in opposition to majority rule, Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith declared independence from the British Parliament to perpetuate white minority rule, but had Queen Elizabeth II declared as Queen of Rhodesia, even though she never formally accepted the position. Additionally, while Queen Elizabeth II privately favored imposing sanctions on apartheid South Africa, the government of Margaret Thatcher remained steadfast in its support of the pariah regime. While Queen Elizabeth sometimes opposed colonialism, she never apologized for the roles her family and her government played in the generations of pain and suffering these policies have caused.  

The death of Queen Elizabeth II marks the end of the long 20th century for Britain — an era tarnished by the legacy of British imperialism despite its experiments with multiculturalism at home. In the event the former chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, had been appointed Queen Elizabeth II’s last Prime Minister instead of Liz Truss, the orphans of empire might have been redeemed — Sunak’s parents of Indian descent, like many others, were evicted from East Africa in the aftermath of decolonization. 

Unfortunately, Liz Truss’ traditional Conservative values, especially the promise of tax cuts even amid inflation and cost of living crises in the UK, won the day. Queen Elizabeth II and the British monarchy have long been the strongest symbols of these Conservative values. If Queen Elizabeth indeed defined an era, it was one in which, through careful public relations management, an anachronistic institution was made more palatable at home, while her connections to the last vestiges of the British Empire were carefully leveraged to cope with Britain’s loss of power and prestige abroad.  

It is perhaps providential that Queen Elizabeth II passed away in a year when India and Pakistan celebrate their 75th anniversary of independence and the Center for the Humanities at Tufts has adopted “Reframing Empire” as its annual theme, for indeed her reign reminds us that empire and colonialism have the ability to metamorphose and cast very long shadows. 


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