“The end of an era” will become a refrain as commentators assess the record-setting reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Like all monarchs, she was both an individual and an institution. She had a different birthday for each role — the actual anniversary of her birth in April and an official one in June — and, though she retained her personal name as monarch, held different titles depending on where in her domains she stood. She was as devoid of opinions and emotions in public as her ubiquitous handbags were said to be of everyday items like a wallet, keys and phone. Of her inner life we learned little beyond her love of horses and dogs — which gave Helen Mirren, Olivia Colman and Claire Foy rapt audiences for the insights they enacted.
The queen embodied a profound, sincere commitment to her duties — her final public act was to appoint her 15th prime minister — and for her unflagging performance of them, she will be rightly mourned. She has been a fixture of stability, and her death in already turbulent times will send ripples of sadness around the world. But we should not romanticize her era. For the queen was also an image: the face of a nation that, during the course of her reign, witnessed the dissolution of nearly the entire British Empire into some 50 independent states and significantly reduced global influence. By design as much as by the accident of her long life, her presence as head of state and head of the Commonwealth, an association of Britain and its former colonies, put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such, the queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.
Elizabeth became queen of a postwar Britain where sugar was still rationed and rubble from bomb damage still being cleared away. Journalists and commentators promptly cast the 25-year-old as a phoenix rising into a new Elizabethan age. An inevitable analogy, perhaps, and a pointed one. The first Elizabethan Age, in the second half of the 16th century, marked England’s emergence from a second-tier European state to an ambitious overseas power. Elizabeth I expanded the navy, encouraged privateering and granted charters to trading companies that laid the foundations for a transcontinental empire.
Elizabeth II grew up in a royal family whose significance in the British Empire had swollen even as its political authority shrank at home. The monarchy ruled an ever-lengthening list of Crown colonies, including Hong Kong (1842), India (1858) and Jamaica (1866). Queen Victoria, proclaimed empress of India in 1876, presided over flamboyant celebrations of imperial patriotism; her birthday was enshrined from 1902 as Empire Day. Members of the royal family made lavish ceremonial tours of the colonies, bestowing upon Indigenous Asian and African rulers an alphabet soup of orders and decorations.
In 1947, Princess Elizabeth celebrated her 21st birthday on a royal tour in South Africa, delivering a much-quoted speech in which she promised that “my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” She was on another royal tour, in Kenya, when she learned of her father’s death.
On Coronation Day in 1953, The Times of London proudly broke the news of the first successful summiting of Mount Everest by the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and the New Zealander Edmund Hillary, calling it a “happy and vigorous augury for another Elizabethan era.” The imperialistic tenor of the news notwithstanding, Queen Elizabeth II would never be an empress in name — the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 stripped away that title — but she inherited and sustained an imperial monarchy by assuming the title of head of the Commonwealth.
“The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past,” she insisted in her Christmas Day message of 1953. Its history suggested otherwise. Initially imagined as a consortium of the “white” settler colonies (championed by the South African prime minister Jan Smuts), the Commonwealth had its origins in a racist and paternalistic conception of British rule as a form of tutelage, educating colonies in the mature responsibilities of self-government. Reconfigured in 1949 to accommodate newly independent Asian republics, the Commonwealth was the empire’s sequel, and a vehicle for preserving Britain’s international influence.
In photographs from Commonwealth leaders’ conferences, the white queen sits front and center among dozens of mostly nonwhite premiers, like a matriarch flanked by her offspring. She took her role very seriously, sometimes even clashing with her ministers to support Commonwealth interests over narrower political imperatives, as when she advocated multifaith Commonwealth Day services in the 1960s and encouraged a tougher line on apartheid South Africa.
What you would never know from the pictures — which is partly their point — is the violence that lies behind them. In 1948, the colonial governor of Malaya declared a state of emergency to fight communist guerrillas, and British troops used counterinsurgency tactics the Americans would emulate in Vietnam. In 1952 the governor of Kenya imposed a state of emergency to suppress an anticolonial movement known as Mau Mau, under which the British rounded up tens of thousands of Kenyans into detention camps and subjected them to brutal, systematized torture. In Cyprus in 1955 and Aden, Yemen, in 1963, British governors again declared states of emergency to contend with anticolonial attacks; again they tortured civilians. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Troubles brought the dynamics of emergency to the United Kingdom. In a karmic turn, the Irish Republican Army assassinated the queen’s relative Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last viceroy of India (and the architect of Elizabeth’s marriage to his nephew, Prince Philip), in 1979.
We may never learn what the queen did or didn’t know about the crimes committed in her name. (What transpires in the sovereign’s weekly meetings with the prime minister remains a black box at the center of the British state.) Her subjects haven’t necessarily gotten the full story, either. Colonial officials destroyed many records that, according to a dispatch from the secretary of state for the colonies, “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” and deliberately concealed others in a secret archive whose existence was revealed only in 2011. Though some activists such as the Labour M.P. Barbara Castle publicized and denounced British atrocities, they failed to gain wide public traction.
And there were always more royal tours for the press to cover. Nearly every year until the 2000s, the queen toured Commonwealth nations — a good bet for cheering crowds and flattering footage, her miles clocked and countries visited totted up as if they’d been heroically attained on foot rather than by royal yacht and Rolls-Royce: 44,000 miles and 13 territories to mark her coronation; 56,000 miles and 14 countries for the Silver Jubilee in 1977; an additional 40,000 miles traversing Jamaica, Australia, New Zealand and Canada for the Gold. The British Empire largely decolonized, but the monarchy did not.
During the last decades of her reign, the queen watched Britain — and the royal family — struggle to come to terms with its postimperial position. Tony Blair championed multiculturalism and brought devolution to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but he also revived Victorian imperial rhetoric in joining the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Social and regional inequality widened, and London became a haven for superrich oligarchs. Though the queen’s personal popularity rebounded from its low point after the death of Princess Diana, the royal family split over Harry and Meghan’s accusations of racism. In 1997 the queen famously shed a tear when the taxpayer-funded Royal Yacht Britannia was decommissioned, a few months after escorting the last British governor from Hong Kong. Boris Johnson floated the idea of building a new one.
In recent years, public pressure has been building on the British state and institutions to acknowledge and make amends for the legacies of empire, slavery and colonial violence. In 2013, in response to a lawsuit brought by victims of torture in colonial Kenya, the British government agreed to pay nearly 20 million pounds in damages to survivors; another payout was made in 2019 to survivors in Cyprus. Efforts are underway to reform school curriculums, to remove public monuments that glorify empire and to alter the presentation of historic sites linked to imperialism.
Yet xenophobia and racism have been rising, fueled by the toxic politics of Brexit. Picking up on a longstanding investment in the Commonwealth among Euroskeptics (both left and right) as a British-led alternative to European integration, Mr. Johnson’s government (with Liz Truss, now the prime minister, as its foreign secretary) leaned into a vision of “Global Britain” steeped in half-truths and imperial nostalgia.
The queen’s very longevity made it easier for outdated fantasies of a second Elizabethan age to persist. She represented a living link to World War II and a patriotic myth that Britain alone saved the world from fascism. She had a personal relationship with Winston Churchill, the first of her 15 prime ministers, whom Mr. Johnson pugnaciously defended against well-founded criticism of his retrograde imperialism. And she was, of course, a white face on all the coins, notes and stamps circulated in a rapidly diversifying nation: From perhaps one person of color in 200 Britons at her accession, the 2011 census counted one in seven.
Now that she is gone, the imperial monarchy must end too. It’s well past time, for instance, to act on calls to rename the Order of the British Empire, a distinction that the queen has bestowed on hundreds of Britons every year for community service and contributions to public life. The queen served as head of state in more than a dozen Commonwealth realms, more of which may now follow the example of Barbados, which decided “to fully leave our colonial past behind” and become a republic in 2021. The queen’s death could also aid a fresh campaign for Scottish independence, which she was understood to oppose. Though Commonwealth leaders decided in 2018 to fulfill the queen’s “sincere wish” and recognize Prince Charles as the next head of the Commonwealth, the organization emphasizes that the role is not hereditary.
Those who heralded a second Elizabethan age hoped Elizabeth II would sustain British greatness; instead, it was the era of the empire’s implosion. She will be remembered for her tireless dedication to her job, whose future she attempted to secure by stripping the disgraced Prince Andrew of his roles and resolving the question of Queen Camilla’s title. Yet it was a position so closely linked to the British Empire that even as the world transformed around her, myths of imperial benevolence persisted. The new king now has an opportunity to make a real historical impact by scaling back royal pomp and updating Britain’s monarchy to be more like those of Scandinavia. That would be an end to celebrate.
Maya Jasanoff, a professor of history at Harvard, is the author, most recently, of “The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.”
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