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The queen’s death induces memories of past colonialism on the British Commonwealth

Following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II on Sep. 8, the British Commonwealth of Nations—an association of 15 independent states who view the British monarchy as their head of state—reflects on past British colonization during a time of remembrance and criticism.

When the late Queen Elizabeth II gained the title of British monarch in 1952, over a quarter of the world’s population was under Britain’s power. This empire grew to be called the Commonwealth of Nations.

The British Commonwealth currently consists of 56 states, 15 of which King Charles III is a head of, called Commonwealth realms. These realms include countries such as Canada, Jamaica and Australia. After the Queen’s death, many of the realms within the Commonwealth express their wishes to cut ties with the British monarchy and establish themselves as a republic.

However, Britain’s horribly brutal colonial past prompts many Commonwealth realms to rethink keeping King Charles III as their head of state. As the Queen has died, it feels right for those realms once colonized by Britain under her rule to seek independence.

Though many leaders of the Commonwealth realms are expressing grief over the loss of Queen Elizabeth II, there are a large number of people who refuse to mourn and instead choose to fight for recognition of the late Queen’s colonial past.

The culmination of the late Queen’s 70-year reign induces much reflection of her colonial past. Many remember the horrible impact Great Britain had on these colonized countries—now the Commonwealth of Nations. The shadow of enslavement and violence that Britain left on these realms has yet to be forgotten.

Moses Ochonu, a professor of African history at Vanderbilt University, believes that the Queen’s death reignites memories of Britain’s colonial rule.

Ochonu feels “residual anger” alongside nostalgia as he recalls the cruelty Britain showed Nigeria during their civil war.

Britain’s involvement in the Nigerian civil war, also called the Biafran War, left a stain on the country’s history. The war originated from the Republic of Biafra’s strike for independence from Nigeria. Britain had secretly conspired against the Republic of Biafra to stop their secession from Nigeria. Britain had secretly supplied Nigeria weapons and ammunition to use against Biafra. With these newly acquired items, they could fight brutally against the Biafran people, who consisted mainly of Igbo people. During this war, millions of Biafrans were mercilessly slaughtered by Nigeria and their British weapons.

However, the late Queen did try to make amends with Nigeria after she acknowledged the brutality of the British Empire. Ovation magazine publisher Dele Momodu has expressed much praise for the late Queen as he covered her visit to Nigeria in 2003.

“She came to Nigeria during our independence and some of the artifacts were returned under her reign,” Momodu said to CNN. “That is why the Commonwealth continues to thrive. I feel very sad that the world has lost a great human being.”

However, Britain was also involved in rebellions led by other colonies with no sign of an apology. The Empire was brutally involved in the Mau Mau uprising of Kenya. The Mau Mau was a secret Kenyan society using violence in order to evict British colonizers and end British rule in Kenya. In order to fight against them, British soldiers placed around 1.5 million Kenyans in concentration camps in order to battle against the anticolonial rebellion. In these camps, British soldiers tortured, raped and violated many people. 

Farooq Kperogi, a professor of communication at Kennesaw State University believes that the memory of the Queen and Britain’s colonial past are hard to be separated.

“The Queen’s legacy started in colonialism and is still wrapped in it,” Kperogi told CNN. “It used to be said that the sun did not set over the British empire. No amount of compassion or sympathy that her death has generated can wipe that away”

Furthermore, Mou Banerjee, a professor of South Asian history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes that many Indians wish that the late Queen would have expressed remorse towards India for her past actions before her death. 

According to NPR, the late Queen had told Indians that “history could not be rewritten” in response to Jallianwala Bagh, a 1919 massacre where British soldiers had shot and killed hundreds of Indians.

Subsequently after the Queen’s death, many are urging the return of their country’s crown jewels, once stolen by the British monarchy during the colonization of their countries.

One of these famous jewels is the Koh-i-Noor, a 109-carat diamond once owned by many South Asian royalty. Many South Asian colonies are requesting for the precious jewel to be returned to them. The diamond has been in the royal family for years, and is now being displayed in the Tower of London.

Shashi Tharoor, an Indian member of Parliament, claims that Britain is refusing to own up to their mistakes and returning items that do not rightfully belong to them.

“Britain owes its former colonies,” Tharoor wrote in Project Syndicate. “Yet, instead of returning plundered patrimony to its rightful owners, the British are clinging to stolen artifacts such as the Kohinoor diamond, which they embedded in the Queen Mother’s tiara and shamelessly flaunt in the Tower of London.”

Historians consider Britain’s colonial past to be filled with much abuse, racism, violence and other inhuman injustices. Despite the late Queen Elizabeth II was not born during these times, she has not once apologized. She has also been known to purposefully ignore many of Great Britain’s crimes against the colonies, such as the slave trade and the infamous Operation Legacy during the 1950s-70s.

Operation Legacy was a secret scheme in the British Colonial Office to burn and destroy crucial files that were once owned by British ex-colonies. This was done during the peak of British decolonization, in order to prevent the ex-colonies from inheriting the files. MI-5 agents—Britain’s security of state—were ordered to investigate all documents that belonged to the colonies for anything that could embarrass the British government. 8,000 files were found and were subsequently destroyed, either by dumping at sea or burning by fire.

Even though British colonialism has a dark side to their history, they have also had a positive impact on their colonies.

Due to British colonialism, colonies’ economies could grow due to common laws, contract enforcements and banking practices enforced by the British.

Despite a positive side to British colonialism, it does not fully cancel out all the pain and torture Britain had inflicted on past colonies. 

As Commonwealth states reflect on their past under British colonial rule, many are looking to remove the British colony as their head of state. Jamaica is currently one of the countries looking to establish themselves as a republic and detach themselves from the British monarchy.

Professor Rosalea Hamilton, coordinator of The Advocacy Network, argues that Jamaica is not worthy of a monarch who refuses to atone and show regret for the slave trade that was once run by the British in the past.

In addition, many countries in the Caribbean are also looking to remove themselves from the British colony as King Charles III takes the throne as the new British monarch and the head of state for Commonwealth realms.

There is still much in store for the British Commonwealth realms. The dreadful reminder of Britain’s colonialism plagues the memories of many. Due to this, it is expected that many of these realms will cut ties with the British monarchy in the upcoming years. They are planning to progress into independent republics and put their past filled with brutality behind them.

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