The Disturbing Nostalgia of the Empire

Very few occurrences left in this generation would command the kind of tractions that followed the demise of Queen Elizabeth II of England. For 70 years, Elizabeth Alexandra Mary Windsor ruled over the great British Empire, ensuring the sustenance of its legacy, bridging gaps, and giving many, especially the British, different reasons to continue connecting with their traditional roots and monarchical institution. Finally drawing her last breath on September 8, 2022, at the age of 96, the news of the demise of the longest serving monarch in the history of England immediately threw many people into a mourning state, the economy into some pauses and, expectedly, some were excited. 

For those who followed the events, the monarch’s demise was surrounded by nostalgia and condemnation for the Queen, the British Empire, and the legacy the institution has managed to craft into the sand of time. The side you fall on depends largely on your experience or the experience of your forebears. For many English people and a large part of the rest of the world, the Queen was the head of the crown of England and a personality to be envious of and celebrated, if not for anything but for what she represented and the reforms she had put in place. However, the story is entirely different for citizens of the Empire’s former colonies. The demise was not just met with indifference in some quarters; many took to the internet to celebrate the death of the Queen. They claimed they had no sympathy for the Empire and defended their actions by saying that the Queen had 70 years to apologize and make amends for the heinous crimes committed decades ago by the British Empire, but instead, she acted like all was well in Buckingham Palace and all parts of the British colonies. The British Empire, its head, and the legacy dangling on its neck are at the center of these complexities.

The area currently known as England was formerly under the control of the Roman Empire and ruled by an Empire. The British Empire is traced to the Anglo-Saxon and Mediaeval periods in England and Scotland when the two consolidated in the 10th century to become the Kingdom of England and Scotland. In 1066 when the Normans conquered England, Wales was also brought under their control.  In the 16th century, considered largely as the century of the expansion of Europe, which saw the rediscovery of intellectualism and economic expansion, Britain, to discover new lands and expand its commercial capacity through imperialism, stepped beyond its domiciled territories to build colonies in areas that expanded to Africa, Asia, North America, New Zealand, Australia and some parts of South and Central America. Britain believed these colonies would supply raw materials, which were commercially valuable, and they could exchange them with other countries.

However, what was supposed to be a territorial, commercial, and economic expansion of Britain soon turned out to be full-fledged exploitation of the resources and the people of the colonies. This largely was informed by Britain’s greed to keep up with the competition from other European countries who were in the same game of discovering new lands and expanding their commercial viabilities beyond their immediate territories.  Britain later gained larger territories and established what historians today refer to as the British First Empire, which consisted of North and South America, most of which included the Caribbean Islands. Britain’s existence and might in the Caribbean Islands resulted from the climatic and environmental factors that supported the cultivation of sugar and tobacco plantations. The first British Empire, however, came to its last days when colonies in North America fought for their independence. This not only cost the British empire lands and resources, but the war also shrunk its powers and birthed the United States of America.

However, this did not stop the British Empire from proceeding with its expansion movement; in fact, it grew stronger. In the 18th century, it expanded into parts of Australia, Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Singapore. This expansion also extended to Africa, especially from 1881 to 1902, when the “craze” for the scramble of Africa became a major preoccupation of European countries. By the early 1990s, the British Empire had gotten a large part of Africa as its colonies and thence under its control. For African countries under the British Empire, this meant that beyond their indigenous recognized governments, there was the head of the British Empire whose words became the rule and whose authority was final. At that time, Queen Victoria doubled as the Queen (Head) of the British Empire and the colonies under its control. The British Empire saw this expansion as an opportunity to build its might and wealth to rise above competitors. It succeeded, but this success came at a devastating price for its colonies. Africa, for example, suffered huge losses in its resources that Britain exploited. Ivory, gold, salt, and other valuables were lifted from Africa and transported to Britain. Slave trading was also thriving at this time, and the British were one of the major players. Many west Africans were taken to Britain through the Atlantic to work the farm under extremely harsh conditions. India, during the second world war, also suffered deliberate malnutrition and starvation because Britain took its food and resources to support the war.

These are some of the legacies that the British Empire symbolizes. For citizens of the colonies previously under the Empire, the British monarch symbolizes nothing but an institution that orchestrated a series of destructions to their homes, farmlands, culture and indigenous orientation, and the slavery of their people. No doubt, the Empire will get credit for the long-standing institution it has been all the while. Nonetheless, it does not erase the destabilizing effect its operations have had in its different colonies and how they continue to dictate a large part of the lives of the subjects of those colonies while the perpetrators enjoy some exclusive privilege and reputation to their names.

While there is envious nostalgia for the Empire, especially among Europeans, for those on the other side of the equation, like Africans and Asians, the Empire is everything but the glorified and highly respected institution it is presented to be in the media. Over the years, it has upheld unequal treatment and class hierarchy. Even after decades, they still consider the institution not entirely different from the one that actively enabled and expanded slavery and the slave trade.

At this point, we cannot afford to whitewash the British Empire and the complicity of its head in its actions in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia. Consider the case of the Kenya Mau Mau uprising and its forceful suppression that led to the torture and killings of Kenyans. The covert bias of the Empire in favor of the Nigerian Army during the 1967 civil war is another example of how the Igbo accused the British Empire of being complicit in genocidal activities. The imperial legacy of the Empire in South Punjab, Pakistan, is also another pointer to how the Empire has, all along, been complicit in different parts of the world.

In an attempt to direct emotions towards the death of the Queen, many have tried to separate the head of the Empire from the Empire, but doing this has not turned out easy. While the personality of the head is not our concern here, the legacy of the British Empire is. And for someone like Queen Elizabeth, who devoted 70 years of her life to the service of the British Empire, it is difficult to imagine that there could be a distinct difference between British imperialism and the Queen. It was not a different story when the Queen ascended the throne at 27, especially for Africans and Asians. For instance, the ascension of Queen Elizabeth II did not end the British monarchy’s systemic torture and killings in detention camps in Kenya.

One might want to argue that the conflicting publicity that the Empire has drawn to itself is not the making of Queen Elizabeth. Accepted, the Queen had limited decision power indeed, but for what she stood for and the institution she represented, she could have actively spoken out against the practice of the past. Hence, while we can confirm that this institution and its acts did not start with the Queen or the newly crowned king, it is impossible to look away from the fact that for 70 years, the Queen headed the same institution that saw to the brutality and dehumanization of people across the globe. So, when she passed, her death did everything but grant solace to the citizens of the colonized states. Her death reminded them of their loss and how they have come to be in despicable positions of economic want and diseases.

All through the years of the unfortunate treatment of the subjects of the colonies, there has not been a direct action by the British Empire to take responsibility for these atrocious acts. History is clear; we cannot sweep these acts under the carpet or continue to act like they did not happen. The Empire and Great Britain are what they are today because of the resources and forced contributions of their colonies. The failure to take responsibility for these heinous acts will continue to tear apart the relationship between the commonwealth countries and the Empire.

The continuous effects of colonial administrations puncture the reality of the average African. Even though many may argue that colonialism has long ended and that Africans ought to have moved on, we can always draw attention to the distinction between the rule that ended and the system and institutions that were built and left in Africa and which have continued to marinate the everyday life of the average African. The question then is why there should be a need for victims of imperial treatment to show pity for the Empire that orchestrated such. It might be the case that the Queen, as a symbol of the Empire, wanted to right the wrongs committed over the years, but there were no such overt actions to show that there was any form of repentance or genuine willingness to take responsibility and ensure justice.

The Queen’s death has removed the scars on the wound inflicted by imperialism, and it is time these issues are addressed rather than swept under the carpet as if nothing inhumane has ever happened. The continuity of the Empire has only obscured the fact that there is supposed to be some acknowledgment and reckoning of the crime committed. Africans want the Empire to own up and be open about its history, especially in colony states. The Queen acted through her government and the institution, so it is natural for her to be ultimately held responsible. This is more about colonialism and the imperial treatment suffered by African forbears and its effects on the present generation than the optics that the British Empire might want to project.

In 1995, New Zealand demanded an apology for the theft and inhumane act committed by the Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria, and the Empire, through Queen Elizabeth, did not hesitate to sign it. So, why is the case of African countries different? Why has the Empire refused to apologize for the grievous acts and theft of valuables that now litter British museums and Buckingham Palace? 

Professor Toyin Falola is Jacob and Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin. A leading historian of Africa, he has authored and edited dozens of books. His most recent study, African Refugees, which is co-authored with Olajumoke Yacob-Haliso, is forthcoming from Indiana University Press.


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