It seems to have taken sexual assault allegations and a civil trial against Queen Elizabeth II’s son Prince Andrew, for people to finally question the integrity and reputation of the British monarchy. Apparently, the 400 years or so of violent empire, rape of people and land, genocide, and brutal state-induced famines were not quite enough to make people question the dubious morals of the monarchy.
The royals cling to the defense that “they are not their ancestors.” This reinforces the public’s ignorance and quells their contemptuous feelings towards “Great” British history. All the while, the British monarchy continues to indulge in the spoils of destruction the British Empire wrought across the globe.
While it may have been Queen Elizabeth I who supported and financially sponsored John Hawkin’s first slaving expedition, and King Charles II and his brother, the Duke of York, who chartered the Royal African Company, a company responsible for the trafficking of more enslaved Africans to the Americas than any other company in the history of the transatlantic slave trade. It is Queen Elizabeth II who benefits just as much from the systems of racial capital that her predecessors created. The Sovereign Grant, funded by taxpayers, has increased year after year for the past decade; in 2016-17 it was worth £42.8 million compared to 2019-20 which saw it rocket to £82.4 million (and £85.9m in 2020-2021). This money finances Queen Elizabeth II and her household, including the upkeep of the palaces, various million-pound renovations on mansions, royal weddings, and travel.
While a large portion of the population has been financially devastated by the pandemic and the NHS is close to breaking point, it is reassuring to know that the British royal family has not had to suffer any financial hardship. Rather, the same people who are the direct descendants of those enslaved by the British Monarchy are the same people who have been making tax contributions to ensure that that same monarchy can maintain their opulent lifestyle. This is certainly not a new precedent for the British. We need only look back to 2015 when the Treasury tweeted its “#fridayfact” that living British citizens helped to repay the money borrowed for the Slavery Abolition Act that compensated enslavers (and not the enslaved) for their loss of human “property.”
Following the news that the former Prince Andrew had been stripped of his military affiliations and royal patronages and is now a private citizen, the question “how does the news today affect the monarchy?” appeared on a recent episode of the BBC’s Question Time. A panel member Danny Sriskandarajah, the former head of the Royal Commonwealth Society, responded quickly, defending the selfless queen who “should be proudly celebrating her platinum jubilee.” However, it is unclear what he meant she should be proud of. Was it that for the last half a century Queen Elizabeth II and her press team have managed to convince the former colonies of enslaved and brutalized people that they should be grateful that the benevolent arm of the monarchy is still extending to them?
The Commonwealth is merely an extension of the British Empire that violently decimated entire countries and cultures in the name of “the White Man’s burden.” There is no debate regarding where Britain’s wealth has come from. Scholars have spent decades detailing it (see Rodney, Cope, Hall). As Aimé Césaire makes clear in his Discourse on Colonialism, new roads, railroads, cures for diseases, and acreages of planted crops to be exported may have catalyzed production and progress of metropolitan countries. But for the colonized these things resulted in societies violently drained of culture, land, crops, gods, and wisdom. Natural economies and communal societies that worked for the benefit of the many, not the few, were replaced with economies that halted Indigenous development for the sole benefit of the colonizers. Yet we can see that colonial nostalgia is rife.
There is no pride to be found in belonging to a nation that plundered your country for resources or dehumanized and reduced human beings to mere vessels of labor. Barbados, one of the British Empire’s oldest and most valuable colonies, recently removed Elizabeth II as head of state to become a parliamentary republic. Governor General Sandra Mason proclaimed, “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind.” While this seems to be a step in the right direction, the island will have to work towards addressing the legacy of that colonial past. In exchange for labor from the enslaved and expensive goods, Britain left the island with colorism, homophobia, and a White colonial take on Christianity.
The fact that for the last two years, we have been shouting in the streets “Black Lives Matter” is a testament to how far we have not come and just how little Black lives really do matter in this system governed by Whiteness. Let us never forget the violent atrocities committed by the empire nor rejoice in tokenistic symbols of belonging. Now is by far the time to engage in the painful remembering of the role and present legacy of the British Empire and work towards dismantling anything that upholds the systems it created. The British monarchy is not a harmless symbol of British values. Rather it is a startling reminder of the power of whitewashing history, collective ignorance, and misinformation.