Over the last week, many American and British people plunged into despair at the news of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Politicians and celebrities wrote statements fawning over her historic reign and hailing her as a pillar of morality and virtue. The mourners’ sadness quickly transformed into outrage as they witnessed an entirely different reaction to the queen’s death on Black Twitter and Irish Twitter. Many British people were too consumed with their collective amnesia about the British empire to understand that colonized people across the globe do not share their Downton Abbey and The Crown-inspired worship of the monarchy.
Members of the former or current colonized nations – places like Ireland, Barbados, India, Gambia, and Ghana – quickly crafted memes and tweets about the death of Britain’s longest reigning monarch. The vibe of the tweets ranged from snarky anti-colonial sentiment to humorous expressions of joy. Irish people sang “Lizzie is in a Box” and shared “Ding Dong! The Witch Is Dead,” while Uju Anya referred to Queen Elizabeth II as “chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire.” Anglophone outage caused Twitter to suspend Uju Anya for their comments. The sentiments of the colonial diaspora may seem crude and untimely, but we should not ignore the collective trauma that British imperialism inflicted upon people.
The British monarchy is the chief beneficiary of an empire that invaded around 180 countries. The British Empire – and Queen Elizabeth’s role in perpetuating and upholding it – caused colonial trauma to generations across the globe. Britain conquered nations and extracted their resources and artifacts. The English drained nearly $45 trillion from India between 1765 and 1938, and the British Museum consistently profits from Britain’s pillaging of African nations’ artifacts, such as the Benin bronze. The British Museum may not be able to erase past wrongs, but they should not continue to profit from stolen goods. Colonized people are expressing legitimate frustration about the exploitation of their culture when they joke on Twitter about reclaiming their artifacts while England is busy mourning the death of Elizabeth II.
Queen Elizabeth II was not a powerless remnant of colonial times; she actively halted independence movements and promoted destructive wars. She was the commander of a military force that cracked down on colonial dissent in Yemenand Northern Ireland. As an Irish Catholic growing up in Northern Ireland, I witnessed British troops with assault rifles walking through my neighborhood to monitor our community. It was the mighty colonial arm of British Army soldiers and Royal Ulster Constabulary that enforced curfews on our families, strip searched residents, and imprisoned people without trial. Queen Elizabeth II’s government and military forces lost multiple cases at the European Court of Human Rights for the unjust murder of Irish Catholics. The British military abuses of human rights are well documented. In 2017, courts found that British soldiers engaged in “cruel and inhuman treatment” of prisoners during the Iraq war. The British military was also accused of cutting the ears off people in the Falklands as trophies in the 1980s.
If we generously granted that Queen Elizabeth II’s control over the military is largely symbolic, it would not absolve her of the fact that she bestowed honors and awards on war criminals. For example, in January 1972, the British Army shot 26 unarmed civilian protestors in Derry during a march had been organized by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Queen Elizabeth II responded to the massacre in Derry by awarding Lt Col Derek Wilford, the commander of the 1stBattalion that murdered 14 protesters, the status of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE). She also honored Colin Powell, who actively advocated for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Ronald Reagan, a vocal supporter of Apartheidin South Africa.
Queen Elizabeth II held political sway and veto power that she could have utilized to help marginalized communities, impoverished families, and colonial subjects. The Queen has two veto powers built into her role as monarch of the United Kingdom. She holds the power of royal assent, which acts as a public veto over legislation that parliament passed. Royal assent is considered largely symbolic final step in the legislative process, and defenders of the monarchy argue it would not stop legislation from passing. Outside of royal assent the Queen also has a procedural power known as “Queen’s consent.” Queen’s consent gives the Queen a possible veto over proposed laws that she can exercise in secret without fear of political repercussions. She could have vetoed Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988, which stated, “A local authority shall not…intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality.” Queen Elizabeth II stood silent as Margaret Thatcher (the Milk Snatcher) gutted the social safety nets and political power of working-class people. Under Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Thatcher removed free milk from children in schools, crippled the miners’ strikes, and passed the Employment Act 1980, which restricted the rights of labor unions and workers.
On top of all of these issues, the monarchy continues to prioritize self-preservation above social justice and equity. Queen Elizabeth protected Prince Andrew despite him being allegedly involved in trafficking minors. This is unsurprising considering Queen Elizabeth II’s uncle, an alleged Nazi supporter during World War II, faced the harsh punishment of being exiled to a tropical country as the royals made him Governor of the Bahamas. The British monarchy’s racist and classist past carries over into the present. After Prince Harry married Meghan Markle, the corridors of power in Buckingham Palace reportedly went into high alert as a African-American joined the family. Markle reportedly received an icy reception from the royals and she suggested members of the royal family made racist comments about her son.
In the end, British people have the right to mourn the death of their longest reigning monarch. People dying is tragic and nations tend to idolize public figures. However, British people should not act with self-righteous indignation that people are making jokes about an “old woman dying.” The current royal family cannot enjoy the benefits of monarchy without inheriting the colonial legacy of it. As a beloved monarch, she had plenty of opportunity to speak out against human rights abuses, unjust laws, the oppression of minority communities, and the rising threat of right-wing nationalism. As James Connolly stated regarding King George V in 1910, “we will not blame him for the crimes of his ancestors if he relinquishes the royal rights of his ancestors; but as long as he claims their rights, by virtue of descent, then, by virtue of descent, he must shoulder the responsibility for their crimes.”
Conor Joseph Donnan is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also on the board of several non-profits including, a compassionate listening organization named Someone To Tell It To.