I’m sure you’ve heard the Queen of England recently passed. Pretty sure you’ve also heard from folks worldwide expressing a mix of mourning, bittersweetness and outright rage.
Grief is hard.
If you’ve ever lost a single human being, you understand the tenderness of that loss, no matter how old a person was. I know nothing about Elizabeth, the person. I do know something about what her position, royal rank and institution represent to me and my people. None of it is very pretty. Or filled with the kind of ceremonial pomp and circumstance we’re constantly fed, often to mask unspeakable violence.
There’s easily 359 years of racist carnage and history to unpack.
That’s dating all the way back to 1663, when Charles II and his brother the Duke of York, who later became King James II, established what would become the Royal African Company (RAC). Sounds fancy, right?
Thing is, the RAC traded in humans – by full sanction and charter of the British crown.
Many enslaved folks got hot-ironed with the initials DoY, branding them property of the Duke of York. Some historians believe the Royal African Company shipped more Africans to the Americas than any other single institution, ever. Hard numbers are unreliable, but one estimate is over a 59 year period, from 1672-1731, the RAC sold 187,697 Africans into slavery. Of this group, 20% or 38,497 died enroute.
By the time Elizabeth sat on the throne, institutional slavery and the RAC was long in the rearview. More pertinent to her rule was the end of colonialism. But as a person still living with the violent aftershocks and step-child of colonialism (hello apartheid), I have to tell you a dirty secret.
Colonialism was a prettier and more palatable form of chattel slavery.
The word itself sounds innocuous and anglified. Rarified. That’s by design. A lot like the effect of calling a slave labour camp a “plantation.” Beneath colonialism’s boot is a raw and shocking wasteland of forced labour, state-sanctioned theft and hundreds of years of British invasion, genocide and brutal rule.
What am I talking about?
Read Harvard historian Caroline Elkin’s take on the British Empire. Her first book, Imperial Reckoning, documents the mass imprisonment and torture of Mau Mau resistance fighters.
Over a million Kikuyu men, women and children were forced into British camps.
A British attorney general of the time likened these camps as “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia.” That was in 1957—a short 4 years after Elizabeth assumed the crown in 1953.
Elkin’s second book, Legacy of Violence asks how the total score of British rule over a quarter of the earth for hundreds of years stacks up—in terms of long term pillage and human waste—against our imagination and factual narratives of Nazi empire.
The British monarch was built on the wealth of exploitation and grand theft.
You cannot divorce the current pageantry from the irreplaceable wealth stolen—first through the slave trade—and continuing well into the twentieth century through the state-sanctioned looting system known as colonialism. Between 1765-1938, Britain drained nearly $45 trillion from India alone.
And in 1897, Queen Victoria opened a special exhibit of rare objects and shiny things brought back after ransacking kings from Ghana to India, Sudan, Nigeria and beyond. The display was shown at Windsor Castle, where Victoria received international guests.
To say nothing of all the stolen goods you can enjoy on your next trip to Britain’s famed museums.
What’s all this to do with Elizabeth? Grief is funny. Brings buried shit to the surface.
For many Brits, Elizabeth represented a living cultural treasure. For many more beyond England, there’s a sense of loss tied to the fuzzy-history making of Hollywood styled dramas about the English royal family.
But I want to ask you a simple question.
What does our consumption of British wealth and pageantry without accountability for British theft and violence help us uphold?
Death is sad business. You’ll never hear me celebrating the death of a human being. I was put off by how some met Osama bin Laden’s death with cheerful high-fives. I’m just as repelled with the idea that Elizabeth—a human being—deserved violence.
And yet. This doesn’t let British leaders and institutions especially off the hook for violence “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany.” What would it have meant, for example, to hear Elizabeth offer the start of an apology for that violence? Or if she’d returned her stolen jewels and crowns?
I’ll leave you with what I wish many more talking heads were asking of us right now:
- How do you square the pageantry and propagandic myth-making of British royal institutions with the carnage, theft and violence that made the British Empire?
- How can you make room for real and justified Lordean rage without asking African descendants to speak gently of the (white) dead when our own dead are almost always forgotten? When our own living and dead remain violated and without apology?
Next week—notes on what I learned about creativity while off grid at one of the oldest writing residencies for women, Hedgebrook.
p.s.s. On Victoria’s war chest, see this Guardian bit.