By Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan
It has long been said that “the sun never sets on the British Empire”, in reference to the colonies of the United Kingdom all over the world. Will the death of Queen Elizabeth II trigger a further shrinking of the empire, as former colonies currently 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 long or short, will be devoted to your service and at the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.
Elizabeth was in South Africa, a British Commonwealth country, a year before its white minority imposed the racist policy of apartheid on the black majority and other non-white populations. Over the next half-century, South Africa’s apartheid regime, backed by the United Kingdom and the United States, demonstrated that not all members of the Queen’s “imperial family” didn’t come out well.
“I would like to see the dismantling of this notion of the Commonwealth,” Mukoma Wa Ngugi, a professor at Cornell University, said on Democracy Now! news time. Mukoma was born in the United States but raised in Kenya, the son of famous Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
“‘Commonwealth?’ Whose wealth?” asked Professor Mukoma wa Ngugi. “The book I am currently working on on Africans and African Americans took me to Keta in Ghana, from where the slaves were taken. 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 booming… Most people know about 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 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 arose 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 held in detention camps, or emergency villages, barbed wire villages, as a means of suppressing the Mau Mau,” Elkins explained on Democracy Now! “It was a story of systematic violence, torture, murder and mass cover-up…serious crimes occurred under the Queen’s Imperial watch. His picture hung in every detention camp in Kenya as detainees were beaten in order to demand loyalty to the British crown.
Many countries are still struggling with the impacts of British colonialism. “Nations and peoples once enslaved and colonized, such as those in the Caribbean, including Barbados, have been inserted into this international order in a structurally subordinate and exploitative manner,” said David Comissiong, Barbados Ambassador to the United Nations. Caribbean Community, on Democracy Now! Last December, just after Barbados severed ties with the UK in the Commonwealth, dismissing Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and declaring itself sovereign. “Barbados was the first society in human history to be built entirely on the foundation of slavery – its economy, its social system, its ideology. This is our story. The Royal Family was deeply involved in the British slave trade and the system of enslaving Africans,” Comissiong said.
Prime Minister of the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, announced this week that the country would hold a referendum within three years to decide on full separation from the UK.
Dorbrene O’Marde, chair of the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Commission and Goodwill Ambassador for Antigua, said this week on Democracy Now! that Queen Elizabeth II “succeeded in disguising the historical brutality of the empire beneath this veneer of grandeur, pomp, pageantry and grace… We need to look at this story much more closely”.
Queen Elizabeth’s eldest son succeeded her and is now King Charles III. He will face growing demands for accountability and reparations for the generations of colonial exploitation that have enriched the UK and the royal family, including him. The estimated wealth of the Windsor family is in the billions of dollars.
“The CARICOM reparations plan is about development,” said Dorbrene O’Marde. “where the pain of slavery and genocide continues to exist and continues to impact Caribbean life today…You have committed crimes against humanity and there is a moral and ethical requirement that you recognize these crimes.”
King Charles III should answer the call of these former colonial subjects and answer for the countless wrongs inflicted around the world in the name of the British monarchy.