By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
It has long been said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” referring to the United Kingdom’s colonies around the globe. Will the death of Queen Elizabeth II trigger further shrinking of the empire, as former colonies now in the British Commonwealth debate whether to permanently sever ties? With its history of slavery, concentration camps, executions and torture, what would reparations and accountability look like?
On her 21st birthday in 1947, Elizabeth, five years before her coronation as Queen, said, “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.”
Elizabeth was in South Africa, a British Commonwealth nation, one year before its white minority imposed the racist policies of apartheid over the majority Black and other non-white populations. Over the next half-century, South Africa’s apartheid regime, shored up by the United Kingdom and the United States, demonstrated that not all in the Queen’s “imperial family” fared well.
“I would like to see the dismantling of this notion of the Commonwealth,” Cornell University Professor Mukoma Wa Ngugi said on the Democracy Now! news hour. Mukoma was born in the U.S. but raised in Kenya, the son of renowned Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
“‘Commonwealth?’ Whose wealth?” Professor Mukoma wa Ngugi asked. “The book I’m working on now on Africans and African Americans took me to Keta in Ghana, where slaves were taken from. It’s very depressed [by] the aftershocks…or the trauma of slavery. Maya Angelou called it melancholic.”
“I left Keta. Then I went to Bristol in England. Bristol was a slave-trading port. It’s thriving…Most people know it now because of the dismantling of the statue of [Edward] Colston [during the George Floyd protests in 2020], who was one of the slave traders. We can see the effects of slavery, of colonialism. We can see how the wealth of England was built.”
In 1952, Elizabeth was in Kenya when she learned of the death of her father, King George VI, and became Queen. Kenya suffered for decades under British colonial rule. An organized armed resistance rose up in the 1950s, called the Mau Mau. Harvard historian Caroline Elkins documented Britain’s violence against Kenyans in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.”
“Nearly 1.5 million Kikuyu, or Africans, were detained in detention camps, or emergency villages, barbed-wire villages, as a way of suppressing Mau Mau,” Elkins explained on Democracy Now! “This was a story about systematic violence, torture, murder and massive cover-up…serious crimes happened on the queen’s imperial watch. Her picture hung in every detention camp in Kenya as detainees were beaten in order to exact their loyalty to the British crown.”
Many nations still struggle with the impacts of British colonialism. “Formerly enslaved and colonized nations and people, like those of the Caribbean, including Barbados, have been inserted in that international order in a structurally subordinate and exploitative manner,” David Comissiong, Barbados’s ambassador to the Caribbean Community, said on Democracy Now! last December, just after Barbados severed its Commonwealth relationship with the UK, removing Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and declaring itself sovereign. “Barbados was the first society in human history that was built totally on the basis of slavery — its economy, its social system, its ideology. That’s our history. The royal family was deeply involved in the British slave trade and the system of African enslavement,” Comissiong said.
The Prime Minister of the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, announced this week that the country will hold a referendum within three years to decide on complete separation from the UK.
Dorbrene O’Marde, the chairperson of the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Commission and an ambassador-at-large of Antigua, said this week on Democracy Now! that Queen Elizabeth II “managed to cloak the historical brutality of empire in this veneer of grandeur and pomp and pageantry and graciousness…We need to examine that history a lot more closely.”
Queen Elizabeth’s eldest son has succeeded her, and is now King Charles III. He will be confronted with rising demands for accountability and reparations for the generations of colonial exploitation that enriched the United Kingdom and the royal family, himself included. The Windsor family’s estimated wealth is in the billions of dollars.
“The CARICOM reparations plan talks of development,” Dorbrene O’Marde said. “where the hurt of enslavement and genocide continues to exist and continues to impact the lives of Caribbean people today…You have committed crimes against humanity and there is a moral and an ethical demand that you acknowledge these crimes.”
King Charles III should heed the call of these former colonial subjects, and answer for the innumerable harms inflicted worldwide in the name of the British monarchy.