Photo courtesy of The Court Jeweller
It was the queen’s diamond jubilee in 2012 and I shuffled past the crowds lining Fore Street in Exeter securing a front row vantage point to watch the burgundy Rolls Royce Phantom float past chauffeuring Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip through the crowds who were deliriously waving union jacks. Every shop in town was poised for the day serving tea and scones and British themed memorabilia. There was also the frenzy of the royal wedding of William and Kate. Britain and in fact the world was enveloped in royal fever.
At this point ten years ago, I had lived in southern England for a year, coming from Sri Lanka, a Commonwealth nation in which the generations above me applauded the British. Having also lived in Australia I saw her face on the currency daily, she was familiar, she was the queen and I was a fan.
To us the monarchy was a symbol of class, sophistication, manners and best practice. As little girls (partly due to Disney) we aspired to be princesses. We were taught to speak “proper” English; we were taught that to be cultured you had to emulate the British and underplay your own attire and culture. We only see other cultures on display as spectacles for the queen – drums beating, face painting, dancers, masks – our cultures are here for their amusement.
Watching The Crown gives one an idea about the immense mental damage that is done to keep up this stiff upper lip monarchy. In an era when mental health is so important, one only needs to look at the damage that has been done to Diana, Charles, the Princes and most recently Megan. Is what the royal family portrays how we truly want to be as a nation? Certainly, the monarchy serves an economic purpose with an estimated brand value of £65 billion and costing the taxpayer £87 million to upkeep, contributing to the UK’s uniqueness on the global stage for tourism, charity and culture. But do we look up to them for morality and leadership and are they truly exercising their powers and voice as leaders?
Maybe they are necessary for the English who see them as symbols of a bygone era that gives them a sense of pride but I needed to find the meaning of the Queen to us the colonial, commonwealth immigrant British.
Fast forward a few years after the diamond jubilee. I became British on the day of the Brexit vote, I pledged allegiance to the queen and her successors. I took my duty seriously and started researching the monarchy further than my O’Level history book written from a white perspective. Indeed I was hopeful that the “awesome foursome” younger royals reflected contemporary Britain and symbolised a fresher narrative. However, regardless of what one may think of Megan, the one opportunity the greatest PR machines on earth was presented with to embrace diversity was a failure while Kate seems to have disappeared into thin air, resulting in the future meaning and purpose of the monarchy needing a re-set.
Even as I waved flag and took my oath, I realised that the monarchy is inherently based on racist ideals.
Given that imperialism at its core looked to conquer new lands and then brandished the locals and their culture as uncouth subjects and savages, white washing culture by religious conversion, creating separation between “coloureds” and whites, I couldn’t ignore that the true damage done to colonial nations was not purely economic; it was to the cultural psyche and our self-worth. We are bred to think that British is somehow better, and the queen is the pinnacle of this symbolism. However we try to frame it we cannot escape a clear superiority of a distant king/queen and country that we are expected to serve.
Of course, the current Queen may not be responsible for this entirely but she benefits from it. The sapphire jewels festooned on her crown are from a village 10 miles from mine. So we cannot help but direct our frustrations at her for what she represents – profiting from our culture by deeming it.
My disenchantment with the monarchy was cemented after meeting my West African husband and working in speciality marine insurance, which prompted me to research the monarchy’s connections with slavery. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth I approved John Hawkins to enslave Africans in his cargo and trade them for sugar and ginger. While the contemporary slavery narrative focuses on America being the key protagonists for slavery, the real culprits were the Portuguese, Spanish and British. Under King James II, 187,000 Africans were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean. Over six million slaves were transported over the years and the trade was protected by the royal family and parliament. Again the damage done was not simply economic; it was to African confidence and self-worth eroded over 400 years of slavery and continuing to be affected today.
I look around at the suffering across the commonwealth but most prominently in Sri Lanka where there are fuel queues, children’s education hampered by no food and electricity, a currency deflated, freedom of speech threatened, women resorting to prostitution for food and war criminals at the helm of a nation and I wonder who can speak up when we need a voice.
I commend and respect Queen Elizabeth for 70 years of service to her people and her job, diligently executing her duties but in these days of TikTok super fame and digital democracy will we look up to William or Charles in the same way we did the queen to uphold values that have evolved and are part of a bygone era built on the backs of nations still dealing with the aftermath of the upheaval caused by the British?
The consequences of colonialism need to be acknowledged without sweeping them under the carpet as the past; it is the only way forward to attribute some meaning to this antiquated institution once the queen has passed.