(LONDON) — Thousands in London wait in line to pay their respects to Queen Elizabeth II, who is lying in state in Westminster Hall, and people across the world have joined to remember and honor the ruler as a strong female figure for her service and duty during her reign.
But some argue the celebrations of the queen’s life have obscured the lingering and debilitating consequences of Britain’s colonial past, as well as the monarchy’s failure to properly own up to this history.
Across the Commonwealth nations, her death has prompted the lowering of flags and mourning while also reigniting longstanding calls for a formal apology, reparations and even independence from the monarchy.
It has also raised questions over how to reconcile the contradiction inherent in the queen’s symbolism as a “moral leader of a corrupt regime,” according to Dr. Niambi Hall-Campbell Dean, who chairs the Bahamas National Reparations Committee.
“I think people recognize that she has died, and honor and give respect to that mourning,” Hall-Campbell Dean told ABC News. “But I think that her legacy is complicated because the legacy of colonization is complicated.”
The legacy of British colonial rule, which brought on centuries of slavery, continues to pervade daily life in its former colonies.
Bert Samuels, an attorney and member of Jamaica’s Reparations Council, said there is a direct line between slavery in the Caribbean and the intergenerational poverty and systemic underinvestment in health and education that still plague its populations.
After slavery ended in Jamaica, formerly enslaved people, including Samuels’ great, great, great-grandfather, left the plantations with no property to their name.
“We left the plantation on the first of August 1838, without any land, without education, and without any money,” he told ABC News. “That is how nation building began in this impoverished island of Jamaica.”
“Yes, slavery is 184 years in the past, but we are still feeling the effects,” he added.
Samuels also pointed to the royal family’s alleged treatment of Meghan Markle, the duchess of Sussex, who is biracial, as a modern instantiation of racism in the British monarchy.
The duchess accused The Firm, as the British Royal Family is known as, of ignoring her pleas for help when she suffered suicidal ideation and claimed an unnamed royal had concerns about her unborn baby’s skin color in a 2021 interview with Oprah Winfrey.
“How can I as a self-respecting African Jamaican, celebrate the life of someone who headed an institution which practiced racism not only in the past but in the present?” Samuels said.
In response to the allegations, Buckingham Palace said in a statement last March that the royal family was saddened to learn the “full extent” of Harry and Meghan’s experiences.
“The issues raised, particularly that of race, are concerning. While some recollections may vary, they are taken very seriously and will be addressed by the family privately,” the palace wrote.
The queen never formally apologized for British colonialism. At the ceremony in November marking the end of the queen’s status as Barbados’ head of state, Prince Charles, who is now king, acknowledged “the appalling atrocity of slavery” in the former British colony but stopped short of a formal apology.
With King Charles III now on the throne, however, historians say the monarchy has the opportunity to chart a new path by seeking atonement for past injustices.
“In the course of the last 70 years we have seen our society become one of many cultures and many faiths. The institutions of the State have changed in turn,” King Charles III said in his first speech as king.
Multiple Commonwealth nations, including Jamaica and the Bahamas, have demanded reparations from Britain and signaled their intentions to remove the British monarch as their head of state, which would require a referendum.
“We are no longer in a time where visiting school children and shaking hands is sufficient,” Hall-Campbell Dean said.
“[The queen’s] passing does not really serve to move the reparations movement forward or backward, because the movement is not necessarily about her as an individual, but about the monarchy and the regime that she was in charge of,” she said.
Millicent Barty — who lives in the Solomon Islands, a former British colony, and has spent years working to preserve Indigenous storytelling traditions — said the work of decolonization requires a “systemic lens” and not “personifying” the system.
While acknowledging Britain’s history of colonial violence towards Indigenous peoples, Barty said she deeply admired the queen as an individual and even met her as a Queen’s Young Leader in 2018.
“If you truly understand Indigenous perspectives around connection and relations, it’s not about individualizing things. It’s all about the collective. It’s all about the whole,” she said to ABC News.
“I think that helps in separating the individual, the queen, from the monarchy, which is the system,” she added. “I’m not a great fan of that system, but I am a great fan of Her Majesty, our late Queen, just because of the service that she embodies and the symbol that she represents for a lot of us.”
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