Elizabeth, Empire, and How We Talk About the Royals

I was driving home from work when I heard the Queen had died. As a British historian, I’m no monarchist, though as a Canadian, I guess I’m a subject before I’m a citizen. I wondered if Charles would pass on being Charles III, given that the first Charles lost his head in January of 1649. It seems unlucky. My students are sometimes very moved by the plight of this Charles, who apocryphally feared that his shivering in the cold before the executioner would be mistaken for cowardice. It might seem strange for Americans to care about any king or queen, but British monarchs offer a reliable catalog of tabloid behavior, often at odds with the supposed mystique of the office: Henry VIII and his many wives, James I and his pathological fear of witches, George IV and his gambling debts. The king has “two bodies,” as theorists have long put it: the body natural, and the body politic. The monarch is a fallible human individual, but also embodies the state. Elizabeth II was the longest reigning monarch of them all, and the standard line is that she took this embodiment very seriously—more seriously than the rest of her family, whose natural bodily adventures kept everybody entertained. Even Prince Andrew’s ties to sex offender Jeffrey Epstein have sometimes been passed off as entertainment; when Metro sang “the banned old Duke of York,” (to the tune of the traditional “grand old Duke of York”), it registered as scandal-as-usual, rather than a sobering revelation of sexual predation. But now, in the wake of Elizabeth’s death, praise for her individual service has run alongside bigger questions about what monarchy stands for, particularly as regards the British empire.

There are two related issues here. First, there are the institutional legacies of empire, given that the British monarch is still technically the head of state in a number of former colonies, including the Bahamas, Jamaica, Canada, and Australia. This could potentially make for interesting politics, although Australia’s Prime Minister at least has tabled the topic for now, saying the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians is a much greater priority for his government. And this raises the second issue: the monarchy as an ugly emblem of imperialism’s bloodshed and racism, as well as a beneficiary of its lopsided wealth.

This take on the monarchy is not exaggerated. Queen Victoria became Empress of India in 1877 as famine decimated that country—a consequence not just of short-term drought and tepid relief efforts, but of long-term imperial economic pressure that diverted wheat from India to Britain and converted Indian food crops like chickpea to cash crops like cotton. Historians don’t even need to resort to the language of symbolism; there’s plenty of hard evidence linking monarchy to the ills of empire. A century earlier, the future James II headed the Royal African Company, which trafficked in slaves.[1] His older brother, the second King Charles, gifted enslaved people to his mistresses. See, for example, the Duchess of Portsmouth, painted with a Black child, whose name we will never know, and whose innocent gaze at the duchess domesticates the brutality of slavery.

But there would have been a British empire even if the monarchy had died with Charles I. It was his republican successor, Oliver Cromwell, who annexed Jamaica and sought the violent subjugation of Ireland. Imperial expansion was already zealously underway by the time of Charles’s execution, and its promoters were frequently parliamentarian in their politics, not royalist. When Englishmen could not afford to invest in the East India Company, they got in on the ground in Virginia, and these merchants used their new wealth and social power to support the Commonwealth (and later, the constitutional monarchy of 1688).[2] Some of the most vociferous advocates of checks on royal power promoted slavery in colonies like the failed Providence Island (now part of the Colombian Department of San Andrés and Providentia).[3] The wealth generated by slavery—and this would include the government payout to plantation owners when slavery was abolished in the 1830s—left long legacies in Britain. Today any interested readers can follow the money here. And the commodities of empire became thoroughly part of everyday life. Take the most stereotyped of British rituals, tea time. As Jamaican-born British cultural theorist Stuart Hall famously noted, “They don’t grow [tea] in Lancashire, you know… Where does it come from? Ceylon-Sri Lanka, India. That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English. There is no English history without that other history.”

I do not think that we should excuse the royal family’s history because everybody else was just as bad. I welcomed historian Maya Jasanoff’s excellent guest essay in the New York Times, which detailed the Queen’s link to empire. But Jasanoff has spent her career taking these things seriously. I hope that the recent outrage over empire will not become a variety of the popular fascination with all things royal. It would be easy to do, given the long history of enjoying royal misdeeds. I hope that empire will stay on the front pages, and that its uncomfortable truths will not fade into comfortable politics. I’m not speaking of those in Jamaica who are calling for reparations, or for those who have long insisted that “Rhodes Must Fall,” but of the average progressive North American who enjoys a good virtue-signal, like those who post BLM signs but oppose housing zoning that would improve racial and economic inequalities. I wonder how many of those who have enjoyed indicting the monarchy in recent days, for example, have also enjoyed watching The Crown, including early scenes where Kenyans flock to the young queen’s car, or where a crusty but unthreatening Winston Churchill grumbles about losing India. (Full disclosure: I’ve watched every season.) In 2011, Antoinette Burton identified the challenge of teaching British history in America: “I have found that undergraduates of many different backgrounds and class positions come to British history classes hoping for the same kinds of relief from the combative subjects of racial strife and struggle they get in American history and literature courses that many white middle-class Americans seek when they turn on Masterpiece Theatre.”[4] A decade-plus later, this is changing; maybe the Queen’s death will hasten the change.  


Featured image: Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Windsor Horse Show on May 16, 1982. Photo: Anwar Hussein/VCG. Available at https://www.caixinglobal.com/2022-09-09/gallery-queen-elizabeth-ii-through-the-years-101938256.html.


[1] Will Pettigrew, Freedom’s Debt: The Royal African Company and the Politics of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1672-1752 (Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[2] Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution: Commercial Change, Political Conflict, and London’s Overseas Traders, 1550-1653 (Verso, 2003).

[3] Karen Kupperman, Providence Island, 1630-1641: The Other Puritan Colony (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[4] Antoinette Burton, Empire in Question: Reading, Writing, and Teaching British Imperialism (Duke University Press, 2011), 90.

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