September 14, 2022 Wayne Northey

Long Live Imperialism?!–Thoughts On: Queen Elizabeth II and The End of Britain’s Imperial age

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By Ishaan Tharoor, with Sammy Westfall
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photo above: akdenizpazar.com

WN: While true that Queen Elizabeth “was perhaps not privy to all the sordid details of the operations carried out to preserve her empire after the end of World War II and through the 1960s,” she should have/could have known.

In my book review of No Future Without Forgiveness –Archbishop Desmond Tutu, I write:

Tutu likewise decries the repeated claim, “We did not know.” “If they ‘did not know’, as many claimed, how was it that there were those within the white community who not only knew of the baneful results of official policies but who condemned the vicious policy and worked to end it? (p. 217)”.  In particular, Tutu singles out the judiciary for censure, precisely because of its purported claim to uphold justice.  He also chastizes the media, even the “liberal” journalists, for perpetuating racism.  Further afield, he indicts the United States that “enthusiastically supported any government however shabby its human rights record as long as it declared itself to be anti-Communist (p. 237).”  The white churches likewise were reprehensible, though generally have since repented – unlike elements in the judiciary.  “The former apartheid cabinet member Leon Wessels was closer to the mark when he said that they had not wanted to know, for there were those who tried to alert them (p. 269).”  Still, Tutu graciously states: “ ‘There but for the grace of God go I (p. 253).’ ”

According to this article, The royal family can’t keep ignoring its colonialist past and racist present, Updated: November 29, 2021, by , Senior Lecturer in History, CQUniversity Australia,

The most explosive element of the Sussexes’ highly anticipated interview with Oprah Winfrey was the claim that someone within the royal household had “concerns” over how dark-skinned the couple’s son Archie might be.

While Winfrey later clarified neither the Queen nor the Duke of Edinburgh were behind the remark, Meghan also suggested their son was denied the title of prince because of his mixed race.

The interview points to a larger issue of racism in the British monarchy, both contemporary and historical.

When the couple began dating, some hoped it would usher in a period of royal renewal. Meghan, who has an African-American mother and a white father, was presented as a symbol of the modern, inclusive monarchy. These hopes were gradually dashed with consistently negative media coverage, including unfavourable comparisons with Meghan’s sister-in-law, Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.

Meghan revealed to Winfrey that the pressure to perform official duties in the face of mounting criticism led to depression and suicidal thoughts. The couple lamented the lack of support they received from the royal family.

It is a tragic story at an individual level but it also points to a history of structural racism within the monarchy. Harry noted that the press attacks on his wife had “colonial undertones”, which the royal family refused to address. These are part of a longer history of colonialism and racism in which the Windsors are entangled.

Furthermore, in noted sociologist/political scientist Charles Tilly’s article, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,”1 there is a compelling echo in this story by Saint Augustine:

The king asked the fellow, “What is your idea, in infesting the sea?” And the pirate answered, with uninhibited insolence, ”the same as yours, in infesting the earth! But because I do it with a tiny craft, I’m called a pirate: because you have a mighty navy, you’re called an emperor.” (Saint Augustine, Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans, trans. Henry Bettenson, New York: Penguin Books, 1984, IV, 4, p. 139).”

Please also read, by Brett Wilkins, : After Queen’s Death, Victims of British Imperialism Share Why ‘We Will Not Mourn’. The subtitle spells it out:

“This is Queen Elizabeth’s legacy. A legacy of colonial violence and plunder. A legacy of racial segregation and institutionalized racism.”

It’s important to look at the queen in her own right as opposed to the queen as this icon of the empire. It is also very hard to separate that, because what is the queen without being an icon of empire?Ishaan Tharoor on Does the world need a British monarchy anymore?

I once had a conversation with a Brit who would have none of it. It boiled down to his contention: if the Islamic jihadists randomly killed, it was ipso facto “terrorism”; if the “Good Guys” (historically the British Empire, currently the American Empire and the West) did it, it was in legitimate defence of Western “civilization.”2 A kind of just war theory on steroids, or a rigged ethical game, where no matter what, the Western players always come out on top!

At the height of Empire, it was said that you can tell an Englishman anywhere, but you can’t tell him anything . . . Perhaps that plagues too many citizens of (also former) imperial powers?

He of course was seeing all this at a great theoretical remove. When I suggested that wanton mayhem committed is terrorism on the ground for no matter whom–just ask the Ukrainians right now!–he demurred. His ethical obtuseness became repeatedly a wonder to behold. Try as I might, I could not have him admit that the West commits “terrorism” no less than Islamist jihadists; that there was an ethical parallel à la one man’s insurgent is another’s freedom fighter. One can hope that by now, the penny has dropped for him? . . .

Such is the potency of ideology–no matter whose. It blinds us, and is the very inversion of Jesus’ call:

Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?–Mark 8:18

Political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain argues this at a more academic level in: Just War Against Terror: The Burden Of American Power In A Violent World. 3

America cannot not fight, she argues, catapulted onto that world stage responsibility ever since World War II.  “With our great power comes an even greater responsibility (p. 6),” she declares, evoking the “white man’s burden” that British poet Rudyard Kipling thought so imperative in an 1899 poem by that title, in response to the Spanish-American War.  (See my post:

Kipling, the ‘White Man’s Burden,’ and U.S. Imperialism

So I wonder: How could the Jesuit writer have failed:

  • to at least mention the mass abuse and slaughter; the destruction of countless generations of traditional family lines; the consequent enduring impoverishment of their descendants around the world; the rank terrorism of centuries-long colonial rule over multiple millions of black and brown bodies etc., etc., etc?
  • How could he so naïvely claim that she “inspired respect and affection among all her peoples”?–given even the little of historical reality sketched above? One must thunderously declare au contraire: “Not so! Not so!!!” As with the Queen: if the writer really doesn’t know the true reality for centuries on the ground, or if he does, but whitewashed it away, where is there imitation of Jesus The Truth in such manifestly prevaricating attestation?
  • Does not great privilege also evoke at least a mention of any of that–by the author, no less than by the Queen, and the newly-minted King?!
  • Does longstanding “Christian” observance and service by a Mafia godfather simply erase all other sins and crimes? Would the Jesuit Father advise looking the other way, in such an instance (as in fact has at times been the case with some Catholic mobsters and their complicit priests)?
  • Might instead not such “good Christians” hear Jesus’ words in personal context (Matthew 23):

29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. 30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!

Please consider too this article, by  Priya Satia, September 12, 2022. Satia is the Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History at Stanford University and the author of Time’s Monster: How History Makes History. We read:

Pakistan is under water, England faces an energy crisis, and the Queen has died. But the frantic analysis of the monarchy remains blind to its role in the existential climate crisis we face: the surrogate sacred object it offered to a society that ceased to find meaning in the earth and fellow beings.

Belief in the sacredness of our world at one time empowered Britons to shake monarchy. The seventeenth-century radicals who rebelled against their king in the name of the “common liberties” that we take as the essence of secular democracy, dreamt up their novel political and social arrangements partly out of faith that Christ’s kingdom was about to come, striving to perfect human governance in line with the perfection of God’s will. The turmoil of that time, however, produced a new Protestant, constitutional monarchy that gradually became the only hallowed entity to which many Britons could turn.

In the eighteenth century, the new state was defended and strengthened by constant wars that expanded Britain’s empire and the slave trade and drove the industrial revolution. Fossil fuels and industrial metals were relentlessly extracted from the earth in Britain and its colonies, quietly unleashing a process of climate change, and transforming human relations to the natural world, work, and fellow human beings. In Britain, industrialism accompanied the passage of thousands of enclosure acts that turned common lands into private property, while colonial settlers and administrators also conquered and privatized land all over the world. The monarchy helped drive these revolutionary changes. As the most important among the corporate partners that made up the eighteenth-century British state, along with formidable aristocrats, financiers, contractors, charter companies, and the Bank of England, it established, invested in, and protected slave trading and colonialism.

The two queens (Victoria and Elizabeth II) who reigned longest in this era of often traumatic change enveloped it in maternal protectiveness and absolution as other forms of belonging withered away; hence the torrent of grief this week. For Britons, explained a British journalist this week, “the Queen is their spiritual grandmother.” William Dalrymple, the popular historian descended from a lineage tied to colonial India, called the Queen “the foundation for the life of any of us who were born and brought up in Britain over the last seventy years.” The monarchy, in short, became the bond in a culture in which other bonds have been alienated by the dynamics of class, race, and destruction of place on which colonial industrial capitalism has depended.

In the eighteenth century, the new state was defended and strengthened by constant wars that expanded Britain’s empire and the slave trade and drove the industrial revolution.

In this way, it enabled the instrumental attitude toward the earth and other people that has led to our present crisis. According to a 2020 study, nations of the global north are responsible for 92% of all “excess global carbon dioxide emissions.” They have “effectively colonized the global atmospheric commons.” Victorian Britons knew that “[t]he white man robs [Native Americans’] woods and waters of the stores with which nature had replenished them” and that white men had been “the bearers of unspeakable calamities or utter ruin” for Indigenous Paraguayans. But they defended such devastation as necessary to historical progress. Likewise, after Indians rebelled against the rule of the British East India Company in 1857, British officials defended Britain’s “wholesale confiscation” of land and “reign of terror” in India as the result of “over-eager pursuit of Humanity and Civilisation.” British elites martyred their consciences in the present as they promoted ecologically and humanly devastating practices aimed at transforming the land, with an eye toward future vindication—and the solace of monarchical ceremony.

The monarchy’s romance, ritualism, and materialistic allure substituted for the loss of meaning in human relations to one another and the earth that was unleashed by capitalist colonialism. As the Earth was disenchanted, the bodies and homes of the ordinary humans who served as monarchs were enchanted instead. Petrifying an entire subcontinent into “the jewel in the Crown” gave the monarchy an unearthly grandeur, while diminishing the majesty of the South Asian climate systems—the monsoon and glaciers—on which the world’s security depends (and effacing the reality that the actual Crown jewels, proudly worn by the late Queen, are looted stones from India and Africa).

We now know that land-use practices such as clearing and enclosing ever more expanses actually mortgaged our collective future, and environmental experts today advocate policies based on Indigenous people’s careful husbandry of the earth’s land, forests, and water towards perpetual mutual preservation of land and life.

In Britain, industrialism accompanied the passage of thousands of enclosure acts that turned common lands into private property, while colonial settlers and administrators also conquered and privatized land all over the world.

Despite all this, Dalrymple, the historian Maya Jasanoff, and others insist on the importance of the Queen’s personal virtues of duty, decency, and stability. But what is the measure of decency for an individual who consecrated her very existence to public service, for whom we can maintain no distinction between personal and institutional decency? Surely it is higher than merely dutifully meeting people of all ranks with grace? Would it not have been more substantively decent for the Crown to make reparation for the colonies it violently held and profited from (many of which Elizabeth II herself proudly presided over), especially as they bear the brunt of the climate crisis unleashed by that exploitation?

If the Queen was not privy to the gory details of British counterinsurgency in Kenya during the first decade of her reign, she has been for the last decade at least, yet has never expressed regret over them, or over British violence in Yemen, Malaysia, Cyprus, and elsewhere, up to Britain’s eager participation in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Such silence had the very real political effect of extending the harms of slavery and colonialism. Far from taking a stand for decency, the Queen imported the racial dynamics of empire into her household—with the clauses in the Equality and Diversity Act that allowed her to ban “coloured immigrants or foreigners” from her household staff, her tolerance for Prince Philip’s infamous racism, and the family’s toxic treatment of Meghan Markle.

..

The monarchy’s romance, ritualism, and materialistic allure substituted for the loss of meaning in human relations to one another and the earth that was unleashed by capitalist colonialism.

It is worth imagining what the monarchy and Britain would be today had the Queen gone further and apologized for the violence, loot, and racism of empire at any point in her reign. What if she had publicly acknowledged that her family’s wealth derived from it? What sort of moral capital might the institution have accrued?

Hollow moral leadership upheld by a spectacle of extravagant, ill-gotten wealth has enabled Britons to remain proud of rather than reflective about empire and its destructive impact today. It has forestalled the end of empire and continues to distract from the existential crisis the imperial era has led to.

King Charles acknowledged the harm and legacies of slavery in speeches in Ghana (2018), Barbados (2021), and Rwanda (2022); Prince William made a similar admission in Jamaica last year. Both stopped short of an apology, perhaps out of fear of opening a door to restitution. But this is precisely what is needed for a monarchy whose function has been distraction from and consolation for destruction pursued in the dubious name of progress.

The queen was deeply invested in the Commonwealth, what she termed an “imperial family” in 1947; it was the global stage that justified the pomp and scale of the Crown. The advent of a new king is an opportunity for the Crown to find legitimacy in moral rather than imperial capital by doing the decent thing: returning loot, delivering reparative words and actions, and affirming the greater majesty of the natural world.

If the Queen was not privy to the gory details of British counterinsurgency in Kenya during the first decade of her reign, she has been for the last decade at least, yet has never expressed regret over them, or over British violence in Yemen, Malaysia, Cyprus, and elsewhere, up to Britain’s eager participation in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The heir apparent, and to this day, since World War II, is the American Empire, about which there is much of that kind of horror on this website. It too claims a towering righteousness as did the British Empire. It too claims for itself a moral standing that is instead in direct inversion of any notion of all-inclusive biblical justice. It and the British Empire are arguably equal in criminal standing to that Great Beast–the Roman Empire–seen in the book of Revelation.

It is worth imagining what the monarchy and Britain would be today had the Queen gone further and apologized for the violence, loot, and racism of empire at any point in her reign.

I do not say, in that light:

Long live the Queen! Long live the King!

I join rather in this cry (Revelation 6:10):

“How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our[/their] blood?”

excerpts:

“If you have more sympathy for colonizers and oppressors than the people they oppress, you may need to evaluate your priorities.”Assal Rad, research director at the National Iranian American Council

As the heir apparent and then queen, Elizabeth was perhaps not privy to all the sordid details of the operations carried out to preserve her empire after the end of World War II and through the 1960s. Those included brutal counterinsurgencies in what’s now Malaysia, Yemen, Cyprus and Kenya — where tens of thousands of people were detained and tortured by colonial authorities as they tried to crack down on the anti-colonial Mau Mau movement. Those misdeeds have only belatedly led to a reckoning in Britain, with the government paying compensation to some victims of its colonial policies, while activists push for the removal of statues and the revision of school curriculums glorifying Britain’s empire.

Does not great privilege also evoke at least a mention of any of that–by the author, no less than by the Queen, and the newly-minted King?!

Elizabeth cast herself as the happy steward of the Commonwealth, now a bloc of 56 independent countries that all, at some point, were ruled by the British crown. But its history was hardly benign. “The Commonwealth had its origins in a racist and paternalistic conception of British rule as a form of tutelage, educating colonies into the mature responsibilities of self-government,” noted Harvard University historian Maya Jasanoff. “Reconfigured in 1949 to accommodate newly independent Asian republics, the Commonwealth was the empire’s sequel and a vehicle for preserving Britain’s international influence.”

The most notable phenomenon of the last years of Elizabeth’s reign was a movement among Caribbean nations to remove her as the titular head of their states and press demands for reparations for the abuses and exploitation of the colonial era. Barbados led the way, officially becoming a republic last November. To its credit, the British monarchy acknowledged the occasion with poise and humility.

Leslie Mac said that she saw parallels between the blowback and the ongoing fight in the United States over what, and whose, history is passed down.

“From the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history, the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude,” said then-Prince Charles at a ceremony where he celebrated Barbadian independence. “Freedom, justice and self-determination have been your guides.”

It’s too early to tell what sort of role the new king may want to play. Jasanoff called for the British monarchy to do away with the “myths of imperial benevolence” that still suffuse its ceremonies and activities. “While we celebrate the mightiness of Elizabeth II’s allegiance to a life of service,” wrote journalist Tina Brown in her 2022 book, “The Palace Papers,” “we should also acknowledge that an antiquated version of monarchy must now pass into history.”

Please click on: Queen Elizabeth II and the end of Britain’s imperial age

Footnotes
  1. Highlighted in my post,
    “A FIRE STRONG ENOUGH TO CONSUME THE HOUSE”, March 7, 2020, the rise of the power of the Windsors, as in the case of all nation states, was attended by brutal violence which the House of Windsor eventually violently vanquished all other contenders.

    Of the rise such nation states, Tilly writes:

    If protection rackets represent organised crime at its smoothest, then war risking and state making – quintessential protection rackets with the advantage of legitimacy – qualify as our largest examples of organised crime.

    One takeaway from that article is: any adherence to a doctrine of “Just War” was rendered utterly beside the point against the events of European history throughout this era of state-making. It no more pertained then than in any other kind of “gang” warfare. There has in this respect never been honour among thieves–never will be. It is even less apt in developing nations worldwide. In short: it is, pace Saint Augustine (and a long line of ethicists in intellectually casuistic lockstep), for all intents a kind of grand ethical hoax.

    In short: Queen Elizabeth was heir to all this: if knowingly, her longstanding reign without ever reflecting this, was reprehensible; if unknowingly, one is compelled to ask why not, along the lines of the Archbishop Tutu quote above.[]

  2. The story goes that when Mahatma Gandhi once was asked by Winston Churchill what he thought of Western civilization, there came the response: “I think it would be a good idea!” Please also see more on Gandhi’s ideas here: Mahatma Gandhi’s Views on Western Civilization![]
  3. My long book review is here: Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World.[]
  4. In Luke 9:55, Jesus’ disciples wanted to rain fire down upon a Samaritan village, and Jesus “rebuked them.”  So ever is the Way of Jesus.

    Outstanding Mennonite theologian Willard Swartley comments:

    Rather than eradicating the enemy, as was the goal of Joshua’s conquest narrative in the earlier story – in a similar location [Samaria] – the new strategy eradicates the enmity…  Instead of killing people to get rid of idolatry, the attack through the gospel is upon Satan directly (Luke 10).  Instead of razing high places, Satan is toppled from his throne! [Note 48 reads: “Hence the root of idolatry is plucked from its source…] (Covenant of Peace: The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006, p. 144.) []

  5. Of interest: Political scientist Mahmood Mamdani however, in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, 9/11, and the Roots of Terror, New York: Pantheon Books 2004, says international terrorist organizations are America’s creation.

    Not only does he argue that terrorism does not necessarily have anything to do with Islamic culture; he also insists that the spread of terror as a tactic is largely an outgrowth of American cold war foreign policy. After Vietnam, he argues, the American government shifted from a strategy of direct intervention in the fight against global Communism to one of supporting new forms of low-level insurgency by private armed groups…  ‘In practice,’ Mr. Mamdani has written, ‘it translated into a United States decision to harness, or even to cultivate, terrorism in the struggle against regimes it considered pro-Soviet.’… ‘The real damage the C.I.A. did was not the providing of arms and money,’ he writes, ‘but the privatization of information about how to produce and spread violence — the formation of private militias — capable of creating terror.’ ”

    The best-known C.I.A.-trained terrorist, he notes dryly, is Osama bin Laden…  Drawing on the same strategy used in Africa, the United States supported the Contras in Nicaragua and then created, on a grand scale, a pan-Islamic front to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Whereas other Islamic movements, like the Iranian revolution, had clear nationalist aims, the Afghan jihad, Mr. Mamdani suggests, was created by the United States as a privatized and ideologically stateless resistance force.  A result, he writes, was ‘the formation of an international cadre of uprooted individuals who broke ties with family and country of origin to join clandestine networks with a clearly defined enemy.’ by Hugh Eakin: “When U.S. Aided Insurgents, Did It Breed Future Terrorists?”, The New York Times, April 10, 2004.)”  Elshtain counters this idea somewhat in a section, “DID AMERICA CREATE OSAMA BIN LADEN?, (pp. 80 – 82)”, but knows nothing of Mamdani’s thesis.

    And of course, the West were master terrorists for centuries against all manner of black and brown bodies. And even Winston Churchill called British carpet bombing of civilians (extensively) acts of terror, in memos to Bomber Harris. Please see on this, by Justus George Lawler, August 28, 2006: Terror Bombing: Shattering the immunity of civilians has become the very definition of terrorism. We read:

    Winston Churchill launched Operation Gomorrah, ordering high-explosive and incendiary bombs to be dropped on the city of Hamburg on July 24, 1943. Five days later more than 50,000 civilians were dead. Two-and-a-half years later, the city of Dresden, crowded with refugees and of little strategic importance, was devastated by Allied bombers in February, just three months before the war’s end, making it a symbol to the world of the ruthlessness of modern warfare. In March of that year, the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo killed some 80,000 citizens. After the raid, U.S. Army General Curtis LeMay declared, “There are no innocent civilians.” Yet noncombatant immunity was the bedrock of the just war doctrine enshrined in the Geneva Conventions.

    From the beginning of World War II, however, with the bombing of Warsaw, Pope Pius XII had repeatedly condemned the bombing of civilian centers. In this he was joined by George Bell, the Anglican bishop of Chichester, who would join him again in condemning weapons of indiscriminate destruction during the oncoming nuclear era.

    Their opposition to the use of indiscriminate weaponry was, and still is, significant. During the cold war, it undercut the argument of some moralists that since the Soviet Union was a totalitarian society all of its citizens were, in effect, combatants. A similar argument is being used today by terrorists fighting in Iraq, Israel and Lebanon in an attempt to justify morally the killing of civilians to achieve war aims. The church’s teaching on indiscriminate bombing and its just war principles continue to offer moral guidance in these conflicts as they did in World War II.[]

  6. But Britain did so, and brutally sometimes, as we read above–in Africa and several other countries! Please see: Decolonisation of Africa; and Decolonization.[]

Comments (2)

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