The Monarchy Has Never Really Been About Service, So Maybe Media Shouldn’t Let Royalists Re-Brand It Now

Regular people, governments and (most troubling to me) journalists are telling a story about Queen Elizabeth and the monarchy that just isn't true

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Stacy Lee Kong

Sep 16 2022

13 mins read

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<p>Image: Library and Archives Canada</p>

‎Last Thursday, when news broke that Queen Elizabeth II had died, I scrolled through Instagram and Twitter, curious to see what people would be saying, and was struck by how fawning the posts were. It felt like everyone was talking about how sad it was that this 96-year-old woman had died! And okay, death is sad and I understand why it can feel like we know someone after seven decades of seeing her on their TV screens and reading about her and her children, but it was frustrating to see everyone from old high school classmates to Playmobil post as if there was really only one way to feel about this news.

So, I wrote an Instagram post about all the people and companies who publish sad social media statements mourning a public figure that might have seemed grandmotherly, but who was also the head of a violent, sometimes genocidal institution that exploited its colonies through slavery, indentured servitude and straight-up theft. I went on to do several interviews about the monarchy’s colonial past—and present—and while I (surprisingly) didn’t get too much backlash, the negative comments I did get were all in the same vein: that it was ‘too soon’ to talk about the dark parts of the Queen’s legacy. In fact, it was disrespectful and downright improper to bring up something as unpleasant, not to mention distant, as colonialism.

‎And it wasn’t just random internet commenters; much of the media coverage throughout the English-speaking world, and especially here in Canada, implied the same thing. Countless special reports focused on the Queen’s dedication to doing her duty and stressed how impressive her work ethic was. New anchors literally expressed their admiration for her, while the Globe and Mail’s editorial board published an editorial that explained she deserved all the privileges she was afforded because of her “exceptional dedication to service.”

“The one thing that nearly all observers comment on, even those who don’t much like the idea of Canada’s constitutional monarchy, is that Queen Elizabeth II was accorded such popular affection and respect because she worked to earn it,” the board wrote. “She was born into exceptional privilege, but what stood out (unlike many other members of previous and subsequent generations of the Royal Family) was her exceptional dedication to service—to the duties that are the justification for the privilege.”

… Um. Let’s unpack exactly what those duties were, shall we?

Maybe journalists need a reminder of just how violent the British Empire was

I’ve noticed a tendency to ignore or gloss over where that “exceptional privilege” comes from, so let’s talk about the British empire and how it amassed its wealth and power. The phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” describes just how vast it was—between the 16th and 20th centuries, Britain conquered territories in North America, Australia, Africa and Asia. By 1913, it was the largest empire to have ever existed, covering 25% of the world’s land surface and encompassing 412 million people, which was about 23% of the world’s population at the time. These countries were resource-rich, and the empire extracted those resources—and maintained its control of those territories—through the use of various atrocities, including massacres, concentration camps and, of course, slavery and indentured servitude.

I’ve seen people boasting that the British Empire passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, which was decades before the U.S. abolished slavery with its 13th Amendment in 1865. First of all: you don’t get to brag about ending the horrific thing you started! But also, this is only the latest in a long tradition of minimizing British slavery, something I think can only happen because it doesn’t occupy the same space in our cultural imagination as American slavery. As David Olusoga pointed out in the Guardian in 2015, “Britain… has been far more successful at covering up its slave-owning and slave-trading past. Whereas the cotton plantations of the American south were established on the soil of the continental United States, British slavery took place 3,000 miles away in the Caribbean. That geographic distance made it possible for slavery to be largely airbrushed out of British history, following the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Many of us today have a more vivid image of American slavery than we have of life as it was for British-owned slaves on the plantations of the Caribbean. The word slavery is more likely to conjure up images of Alabama cotton fields and whitewashed plantation houses, of Roots, Gone With The Wind and 12 Years A Slave, than images of Jamaica or Barbados in the 18th century. This is not an accident.”

‎In fact, there were 46,000 slave-owners in Britain who owned 800,000 people—and when the Slavery Abolition Act was passed, those slave-owners were not only compensated for their losses, but formerly enslaved people had to work 45 hours a week (unpaid obviously) for the next four years, ostensibly so they could ‘learn to be free,’ but more likely so as not to inconvenience their oppressors.

And let’s not forget about indentured servitude. After slavery was abolished, those former slave-owners still needed someone to work their sugar plantations, so, working with the British government, they set up a system of indenture, which is when people agree to work for free for a specific period of time (usually seven years), after which they receive compensation or their debts are considered repaid. Between 1838 and 1920, more than half a million Indians came to the Caribbean, mainly Trinidad and Guyana, but also Jamaica, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and St. Kitts and Nevis, and while they ostensibly were there of their own free will, it’s important to note that this system was both exploitative and rife with abuse.

As British academic Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, herself the descendant of indentured servants, noted in 2018, “examples of malpractice included the indentured being beaten on voyages, sailors and plantation overseers using their power to sexually assault women and children, overwork and confined, unsanitary living conditions. Mortality could be high, both on the plantations and on the ships carrying migrants to the colonies. Restrictions on the movement of Indians beyond the plantations, and the use of the court system to enforce labour laws rendered indenture closer to penal servitude than voluntary labour.”

‎The human cost of slavery, indentured servitude, massacres and concentration camps are obviously unimaginable, but we should also note there was a monetary cost for these colonized nations, too. You might think countries like Trinidad, Jamaica, India, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan just ~somehow~ have a lot of poverty, but in fact, they were stripped of their wealth by their colonizers. For example, in 2018, economist Utsa Patnaik published research that found Britain stole nearly $45 trillion from India between 1765 and 1938 largely due to sketchy trade practices; when the East India Company took control over the Indian subcontinent, they stopped paying for goods with their own money and instead started collecting taxes from Indian people, then using some of that revenue to fund their purchases. And while I’m not sure if Patnaik’s research includes the gems that were taken from India, I think it should. Until 1725, it was the only place in the world to find diamonds, and British monarchs took full advantage. According to one viral Twitter thread, of the royal family’s current collection of 23,000 jewels, 19,000 are from India, including the Koh-i-Noor diamond, a 105.6 carat diamond that was taken from the then 10-year-old Maharaja Duleep Singh, the last Sikh ruler of the northern Indian kingdom of Punjab, when the East India Company conquered the region and deposed him.

Also! colonization is not just ‘in the past’

I also want us to think a little bit more about what service Queen Elizabeth was providing because technically, the sun still never sets on the British empire, since the U.K. maintains control over 14 territories around the world. So sure, Queen Elizabeth didn’t order anyone to take diamonds from India and give them directly to her, or oversee a slave trade or system of indentured servitude. But there are two things to acknowledge here. She directly benefited from this history. The Queen’s personal wealth is reportedly about US$500 million—which now belongs to King Charles, who is exempt from paying taxes on this inheritance, btw—and while some of it probably comes from modern-day investments, some was passed down from her ancestors, who did directly receive it from colonized nations. The connection is even more direct when considering the monarchy’s assets; the Koh-i-Noor diamond is a key part of the crown jewels, and Britain just straight-up refuses to give it back.

‎And second, Queen Elizabeth played an important role in upholding colonialism. The other thing I keep hearing from royal apologists is that the British monarch has no political power because they don’t control the government or military. This is a fascinating misunderstanding of power, for the record. Like, do those people think we’ve been talking about Queen Elizabeth’s death for a full week because she had no political or cultural significance…?

But also, the monarch does have political power. In Britain, the queen or king is head of state, head of the armed forces and head of the church. Bills only become law when the monarch approves them by giving royal assent—so while we may think of the monarch as a figurehead who just rubber-stamps laws that have already been approved by the House of Commons and House of Lords, the fact remains that Elizabeth still saw and signed off on everything that happened in the U.K. during her reign. As journalist Heidi N. Moore pointed out on Twitter, “not one bill, not one massacre, not one prominent deportation, happened without the Queen's knowledge AND approval. For 70 years. Please never disgrace our intelligence by claiming she didn't know. She was the first to know.” What’s more, Moore says, she actually did “personally approv[e] genocides and massacres start[ing] literally the day she became Queen, when she was traveling [sic] in Kenya.”

Moore is talking about the Mau Mau rebellion, and even if you do believe that she didn’t know everything that was happening during that conflict because her advisors lied to her about the atrocities they were committing (which I don’t, but some academics, including Harvard prof Caroline Elkins, do) you have to understand that it was all done in her name. Earlier this year, Elkins explained to Vox that the queen did have plausible deniability—but that her knowing what was happening at the time is actually less important than addressing it now, saying, “if we even step away from the ‘did she know, did she not know,’ what we do know is that these crimes were committed in her name—Her Majesty’s government. And so therefore, the question is: How does she now address this in a way that acknowledges the past while also looking to a different kind of present and future?”

‎But… she never did. Just like she didn’t apologize for, or even acknowledge, any of the other atrocities the British committed in her name, much less the royal family’s historical role in the slave trade and the way it profited from the subjugation of people and pillaging of land for hundreds of years.

Pretending none of this happened, or that Queen E was just a nice old grandma, allows the monarchy to do the same thing

What’s wild is, none of this has been a secret. I mean… a lot of it has been on The Crown! And yet, so many people have been working overtime to pretend that none of this is important or relevant when evaluating Queen Elizabeth’s legacy. I think it’s worth questioning why that is. As Passage managing editor Davide Mastracci explained earlier this week, “those with an interest in keeping the monarchy in place are now cracking down on dissenters. Critical voices have been completely shut out of mainstream media. Harassment campaigns have been launched against academics that critiqued Elizabeth’s legacy, with participants including Jeff Bezos. And several people in the U.K. have even been arrested, merely for peacefully holding up signs and protesting.”

To me, it’s not that surprising that billionaires and governments are invested in maintaining the colonial status quo, so Bezos criticizing Nigerian-born Carnegie Mellon University professor Uju Anya for tweeting, “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving, raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating” actually makes a lot of sense, as do the arrests of anti-monarchy protestors. But journalists are not supposed to operate as the PR arm of powerful institutions, so I’m very curious why I keep seeing them helping rebrand the monarchy as a warm and fuzzy family dedicated to public service instead of a powerful and (undeservedly) wealthy group of people who not only benefited from colonization but who also have a vested interest in upholding that system to maintain their own power and privilege.

Frankly, it has been a bit embarrassing to watch. Toronto Star social & racial justice columnist Shree Paradkar described the vast majority of Canadian news coverage of the Queen’s death as a “hagiographical public discourse” and tbh, she’s right. The tenor of the conversation seems to be shifting a bit now, but for the most part, Canadian media has opted to tell one story about Queen Elizabeth: that she was iconic, important and, most difficult to prove, good, so we should all miss her. But that’s only one perspective, and for many of us from formerly or currently colonized nations, it’s not one we share—for good reason.

‎Last week, South African journalist Sipho Hlongwane perfectly explained the disconnect we’re seeing play out to the Washington Post:  “The thing that I think Western people need to genuinely try to absorb and realize is that colonialism is history in the West. It is a thing of the past, in the West. But in our countries, colonialism is now.”  

I wish newsroom decision-makers would sit with that for a while.


And Did You Hear About…

Adam Serwer’s smart piece on the uproar over Black hobbits in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, and what conservatives really mean when they say they want to keep politics out of art.

Launch House, a social group/incubator/community for 20- and 30-something start-up founders that turned out to be a hotbed of misogyny—and a breeding ground for sexual assault.

This lovely, sad piece by author Emma Straub about her dad, author Peter Straub.

The TikToker who says he solved the mystery of why Kelly Rowland tried to message her boo via Excel in the music video for “Dilemma.”

Michelle Cyca’s excellent longform article on an Emily Carr University prof whose claims of Indigenous heritage turned out to be exaggerated, if not totally fabricated, and the overarching problem of ‘Pretendians.’

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