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  • Writer's pictureMelody Waterworth and Charlotte Salmon

Queen Elizabeth II's death and funeral: Sadness and Scepticism

Updated: Feb 14, 2023

Yesterday was the funeral of one of the longest reigning heads of state in British history. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II passed away on September 8, following 70 years as the head of state of the Commonwealth and the United Kingdom. Since then, a palpable sadness among a sizable portion of the British population has been prescribed as the nation's mood. Equally, I have seen and heard hundreds of stories from outside the United Kingdom, from France, Kuwait, Jordan, and the Philippines, of people who join the British in their mourning.

However, this does not fully reflect the feelings of millions of other people, mostly from countries that the United Kingdom colonised, who are indifferent or angry at the celebration of the life of a woman who actively (or at least passively) allowed hundreds of thousands around the world to die in the name of British colonialism.

Thus, I must note that the Queen has left a mixed legacy behind her. Some recall a golden past and express condolences for the royal family, choosing to see through rose-tinted glasses at the glory of the British commonwealth or the personality of the Queen herself; others are voicing their complex thoughts for a Queen who stood for the contentious British colonial empire. On social media, the sentiment of love and support for a cherished leader changed considerably as the debate reached former colonies, who discussed their lack of sorrow and emphasised the bloody nature of British rule and the Queen's position in it. Interestingly, not all citizens of former colonies expressed distaste; I was shocked to find some who still saw the United Kingdom and their monarchy as a kind of ‘parental’ support – something that continues to perplex me, knowing all that I do about the brutality of colonialism.

However, it is useful to note that, like all monarchs, Queen Elizabeth II was both an individual and an institution. However, interestingly it appears that Queen Elizabeth II symbolised and embodied different things to different people. To some, she was a necessary symbol of strength, stability, and humility. One recent video noted that the British monarchy (King George III) was one of the first to abolish slavery in 1807. On the other hand, others identify her as the poster image of the Crown's responsibility for colonisation, enslavement, indenture, extraction, dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and violence committed by the royal institution. As a result, the collective imagination of many victims' descendants sees the Queen as the number one symbol of white supremacy. While officials from countries such as India, Ghana, Barbados, and Jamaica have expressed their condolences, not all their citizens or diaspora agree with it. Noting the complicated and unimaginable history between the United Kingdom and former colonies, it is easy to identify many valid reasons some people do not grieve the Queen.

Even though the Queen may not have given the go-ahead, many people contend that she nonetheless shares some of the blame for the atrocities that took place under British rules, such as those in Kenya, India, and Ireland, when the United Kingdom pulled in trillions of dollars from its colonies to support its own economy. Moreover, the Queen had the power to atone for Britain's colonial misdeeds, but she chose not to. For instance, the 530-carat "Great Star of Africa," which was taken from South Africa in 1905 and is worth $400 million, has never been returned, although there have been many requests from its origin country. And South Africa is not an isolated case; India is also claiming back its heritage.

Today, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the third-largest party in the South African parliament, said, "We do not mourn the death of Elizabeth because to us, her death is a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and Africa's history,". These reactions to the Queen's death are the justified expression of residual bitterness left by the colonial legacy. Today, responses against the British failure to recognise and deal with its imperial past—a history that shapes our contemporary world and what Britain is— are reinforced by the rhetoric, ceremonies, and colonial nostalgia surrounding her passing.

Something that I note as particularly important to discuss right now is nuance and recognition. No institution as old as the British monarchy is faultless. Things that were acceptable in the 1700s are unthinkably cruel and inhumane in the 21st century. However, with the changing times, the monarchy has changed too. Under the rule of Queen Elizabeth II, the royal institution developed extensively to include significant charity work and a duty to citizens rather than power over them. At least since Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, the crown has not exercised power in any significant way. However, that is not to say they bare no responsibility for the mistakes and human rights violations that occurred. Something that I believe requires a nuanced perspective is that while the royal family holds the role of head of state, this role is largely ceremonial – and thus, the atrocities of the United Kingdom internationally do not solely fall on the head of one individual. It is fairer to blame the institutions, the systems that allow for power imbalance and the malicious intentions of exercising power, rather than to blame one individual. I absolutely agree that historically it is the institution of the British crown that created and fostered these institutions, but during Queen Elizabeth II’s rule, at least, the shift of power to government and thus the shared responsibility of elected officials appears more important in holding people accountable. The royal family may bare the historical ties, and, for certain, the family benefitted beyond comparison in terms of material wealth. While incredibly privileged, if you judge Queen Elizabeth II by her actions alone and the heirs to the throne, they are the most liberal monarchy the U.K. has ever had. King Charles is passionate about helping underprivileged kids in the U.K. through the Prince's Trust, a major charity in the U.K. he is also a fierce climate advocate. Personally, (as a British citizen), I would likely prefer the monarchy to rule in the current era than the government; I know my family and friends are hoping King Charles will break the strict separation of power and the non-meddling protocols of the royal family to push stricter climate change policies. Thus, while the Queen represents the institution from which serious and long-lasting atrocities occurred, the royal family in their current state are closer to descendants than active antagonists.

Thousands of people lined the streets of Scotland to see the Queen's hearse transporting her corpse as it crossed the whole nation, eliciting condolences, flowers, and anti-monarchy protest placards such as "screw imperialism." While the Queen had little decision-making authority since she was the head of state rather than the government, some argue she still had the option to speak out as a political figure. However, in reality, there are tight etiquettes and rules which the royal family instils in the head of state; for example, while King Charles was a fairly vocal activist when he was Prince, he has already noted that the role of the king is very different and does not allow for such positions. The royal institution has evolved considerably to be neutral and unpolitical, not to challenge the government’s authority.

One argument I do believe warrants discontent is the role taxpayers play in upholding the institution. While the family are largely ceremonial and a cultural institution in the 21st century, the British taxpayers still have to contribute heavily to uphold the royal family, which is a spectacular symbol of modern Britain's enormous social and economic inequalities. Ultimately, the end of Elizabeth's reign is considered the end of an era, representing an opportunity to abolish the monarchy for the anti-monarchy movements and a state of confusion and instability for monarchists, who have only ever known Elizabeth’s reign. For many anti-monarchy activists, the Queen is upheld by the horrors of her forebears, even though the Queen is only the symbolic head of a dysfunctional institution, not its founder.

What I hope can be agreed upon is that Queen Elizabeth II was a pillar of stability, and her passing during these tumultuous times will be felt throughout the world. To many, she exemplified a deep, honest dedication to her duties. Without ever having met her, she was a part of everyone's lives. She had become the nation's grandma, especially in her final years. As a result, British people might experience a genuine loss of a crucial aspect of their identity. Indeed, for some individuals, the monarchy plays a vital role in defining their sense of nationality and country. Although the fallout from the royal scandals has damaged the family's reputation, studies show that two-thirds of the British love the Queen and support the monarchy's survival. This primarily concerns the intense love that people feel for their lengthy ruler. It's uncertain whether King Charles and his wife will continue to receive support.

What this article seeks to communicate is that each person, regardless of location, has a different response to her death. One that reflects our own identities and our lived experiences. It is important not to romanticise her to any extreme, and we should understand that everyone will feel differently. I encourage all to discuss the nuance in events, now more than ever, in an increasingly antagonistic world where a neutral position is getting rarer. We must actively seek to understand other people's positions, how histories shape identity and the role of generational trauma. We cannot discount the tremendous comfort and solidarity that the Queen brought to so many people. But we also can't dismiss the trauma that occupation and conquest have left on colonised and marginalised voices.

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