Queen Elizabeth’s II Death and the Legacy of Colonialism She Leaves Behind

Ariana Magafas

Queen Elizabeth II died on September 8, 2022 at 96 years old. She served 70 years, making her the United Kingdom’s longest reigning monarch. Her son Charles, now King Charles III, said of her passing, “We mourn profoundly the passing of a cherished sovereign and a much-loved mother. I know her loss will be deeply felt throughout the country, the realms and the Commonwealth, and by countless people around the world” (BBC 2022).

People around the world have extended their sympathy and displayed their grief. A sea of flowers littered the ground in front of the palace gates as people waited for hours in line at Westminster Hall to pay their respects before her burial. On Monday, September 19, Queen Elizabeth was buried. And yet, not everyone mourns her death. 

Conversations about Britain’s continued colonial presence in Commonwealth countries during her reign have arisen in the wake of the Queen’s passing. Some people say it is not the appropriate time to discuss her role in that colonial legacy, while others maintain that you cannot expect people who have felt the ongoing effects of violence in their families and countries as a result of British colonialism to mourn her death. 

Uju Anya, associate professor of second language acquisition at Carnegie Mellon University, tweeted, “If anyone expects me to express anything but disdain for the monarch who supervised a government that sponsored the genocide that massacred and displaced half my family and the consequences of which those alive today are still trying to overcome, you can keep wishing upon a star” (NBC 2022). 

George Nedge, associate professor of history at Saint Louis University, elaborates on Britain’s impact on the countries it colonized. 

“The empire is really controversial. Whether you look at India, whether you look at Africa, wherever you go, there was an element of exploitation, there was an element of dehumanization of the local populations. The empire has never been looked at in some sort of positive light because of those atrocities,” Nedge said. 

He offers Kenya as an example. In 1952, the year Queen Elizabeth took the throne, Kenyan civilians rebelled against the colonial government, seeking independence in an uprising the British called the “Mau Mau” rebellion. The British government retaliated with violence, constructing concentration camps where Kenyan men, women and children were imprisoned. They utilized torture, including beatings, castration and rape to supress resistance (NY Times 2022). 

Recently, the British government paid reparations to survivors and their families. However, neither Queen Elizabeth nor the monarchy acknowledged the actions behind the call for reparations. Up until her death, the Queen continued her reign over Commonwealth countries that she took an oath to serve; the intention and execution of this service are largely what has ignited the present argument that she continued to uphold Britain’s legacy of colonialism during her reign. 

Reflecting on the legacy of the British empire, Nedge explains that the British government’s  history of abuse remains present in countries belonging to the Commonwealth, whether it be the generational trauma present in families who experienced British colonial rule or the influence of British cultural institutions on former colonies. 

“One can have that view that the empire did extort and harm indigenous societies. You can say that it can still be seen,” Nedge said. “The empire has been able to engineer itself to the extent that the Commonwealth is a fissure of what used to be the empire. As evil as it was, you can’t run from it because some of those cultural legacies are deeply entrenched in society.” 

Emmanuel Uwalaka, an associate professor of political science at Saint Louis University with a focus in African politics, says British colonial history can be seen “from one country to another.” He points to the decolonization of Nigeria, a former British colony, in the 1960s and the contemporary impact of that societal reformation.

“It took years for the former colonial government to bring Nigerians to the political process.” Noting Nigeria’s political reformation he says, “We adopted the parliamentary system of government. It did not work. With the failure of the parliamentary system, we have now a presidential system. Is it working? I would say no.” 

Uwalaka elaborates on the cultural pluralism (the practice of separate ethnic groups participating fully in the dominant society, yet maintaining their cultural differences) present in Nigeria and the impact colonialism had on separate ethnic groups living in proximity to one another. He speaks to the difficulty of including each major ethnic group in political decision-making in a post-colonial area without “marginalizing one group or the other.” 

“The one we see a lot is the dumping together of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria: the Igbo, the Hausa-Fulani and the Yoruba. Each is not less than 60 million people,” Uwalaka said.

The challenges of constructing a government in a post-colonial society are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. 

“They say the Queen was apolitical,” Uwalaka said. “Nobody tells us what the Queen says, but she came to power in 1952, so she was the [symbolic] leader of the colonial empire.” 

Nedge adds that Queen Elizabeth was instrumental in Britain’s colonial agenda when countries decolonized during her reign, stating “she was at the center of this transition.”

Queen Elizabeth was a powerful monarch and undeniably a symbol of structure and power. She will be mourned by those who saw her as a steadfast leader. Others will lament the violence that destroyed life and liberty from their countries under her rule. 

The idea of the defender of the British empire is going to change because people are now raising eyebrows over that concept. That is modern monarchy, after the Queen. People are going to conceptualize different meanings to the modernization of the monarchy, especially its relationship with former colonies,” concludes Uwalaka.