Tuesday 13 Sep 2022
The death of Queen Elizabeth II last week will doubtless give rise to some difficult conversations about Britain’s colonial legacy in much of the global south, writes Nouran Sallam
I had finished covering the breaking news of the queen’s death live from the studio in London and yearned to be a part of the story. I took the scenic way home, the one that leads me past Buckingham Palace.
In the private capacity of a Londoner rather than as a journalist I took in the scene on that unseasonably warm September evening. Hundreds of cards, fragrant bouquets of flowers, and the odd Paddington bear – a children’s toy – lay at the palace’s gates. In the cards that I read one thing was common – an outpouring of love.
The area was busy with mourners, many of them tearful, all of them quiet, even the older children. Sombre is the word that comes to mind. I feel emotional myself. The queen reminds me a lot of my mother in her last few years.
I also feel tired, and my legs demand a rest. I make my way to the Victoria Memorial in front of the palace and sit down on the cool marble steps. Soon enough, two ladies take a seat next to me, and as often happens between strangers brought together by grief, a conversation starts.
They tell me they’re from Jamaica, a septuagenarian and her niece. The older lady is visibly sad, abundantly describing her love of the queen and her feeling of personal loss. “It’s like a death in the family,” she says.
The younger one is rather angry. Yet, her disapproval is obviously not strong enough to stop her helping her aunt come here today to pay her respects. She expresses the reason for her indignation in straightforward fashion: “She never apologised for the Empire days. She should have apologised.”
She is right. Technically, the queen never did apologise for her country’s atrocious colonial legacy. But it is more complicated than that. The conundrum arises from attempting to reconcile a seemingly benevolent monarch with the ugliness of the past. And particularly difficult is deciding this one ruler’s share of responsibility.
In her defence, soon after her reign began as a result of her father’s unexpected death in 1952, Queen Elizabeth II launched the idea of a Commonwealth that bore “no resemblance to the empires of the past”.
“It is an entirely new conception, built on the higher qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace,” she said at the time.
Anti-colonialists sometimes choose to ignore the historical fact that her reign actually coincided with decolonisation. Independence movements gathered momentum in the 1950s, and Egypt’s is a case in point. The question is, does Elizabeth II get credit for any of that? The answer has to be a resounding no. Queen Elizabeth hardly “liberated” anyone. The Empire was forced to pull back in the face of growing rebellions and an unprecedented economic drain.
Royalists will argue that throughout her long reign the queen was a symbol of decorum and stability. They will also make sure to tell you that as a constitutional, symbolic monarch, Queen Elizabeth was not a decision-maker. Agreed. She could not interfere politically. But could she perhaps have objected to wearing a crown adorned with jewels plundered from former colonies?
My young interlocutor’s anger is real and indeed common outside of the global north. I had stumbled on a tweet earlier that same day that had shocked me enough to save it. Juju Anya, a Nigerian professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, had tweeted in no uncertain terms. “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving, raping genocidal empire is dying. May her pain be excruciating.” Severe, bitter words about a 96-year-old granny, which nonetheless must be expected from someone whose family was subjected to the atrocities of the British.
Even before the queen’s death, demands for apology and retribution were being voiced in former colonies, the most recent instance being Sudan’s military ruler Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan calling on the UK to apologise for the 1898 massacre at Omdurman in which tens of thousands of Sudanese fighters were killed.
Expect more of that over the coming days and weeks. The death of Elizabeth II may indeed be a sad bereavement for millions, but it is at the same time a moment of reckoning and a chance to reignite the flame of anger and restart the conversation for millions of others.
The writer is an Egyptian TV presenter based in London
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.