By Lavinya Stennett
s events unprecedented and plans premeditated took place surrounding the Queen’s death and funeral took place mid-September into the early days of this week, the nation has been confronted with its present and its past in a way it has not before.
Over the past few days, Britain and the world has revisited the classroom, and been taken in by a history lesson, starting with the topic of colonialism. Though the public engagement with the topic of colonialism is not rare, discussions still happen few and far in between and are framed in very reduced terms - ‘was colonialism good or bad?’. What strikes me as interesting this time round, though still there are stark polarities and strongly opposite views held about colonialism, the conversation is broader, and people are curious.
Undeniably, the Queen was a national symbol of unity, which was felt throughout the commonwealth, and is the reason we are all discussing her reign, and British colonial history right now. For close to a century, the queen was at the helm of a nation's history that unfolded across the world through an Empire. She presided over periods of indirect rule in many states limited economically by colonialism, and throughout the period of post-Independence in the early 1960’s across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. The generations before and diaspora who later grappled with the effects of an Empire she presided over, experienced layers - to varying degrees - layers that covered the simplicity of an innocent spectacle: her fashions, rare royal appearances and the echoing of her name in a national song. Fundamentally, we have been presented with a unique opportunity in time to really look back on the past, beyond the surface, to hear and recall facts about the Empire which are ugly, and have a chance to reconcile this past as it has been a part of our society for the last 500 years.
I think that we have a reason to live in the here and now, and I actually agree with many people’s response to remember that ‘colonialism was a long time ago’.
I remember this because, it helps me understand that the dynamics which we see today didn't come out of anywhere, in fact, they were created by colonialism and are still embedded. It also adds urgency to the question of recompense for actions made long ago. How do we address the physical suffering, languages and cultures being decimated and millions of deaths, in light of continued inequality from the disproportionate impact of climate change in formerly colonized countries, political control affecting economic development, to health and policing on Black people in this country. We need more context, and history, to help us understand a system that was inherently calculating and violent in ideology and action. Debates on whether colonialism was good or bad don’t actually help the future, as they deny the current reality.
In full view of this history, when we think about the royal family and the establishment, the two are interconnected.
Yes it is possible to have thoughts that differ from an institution you are connected to, however the establishment has never been neutral in matters of worldly or political affairs despite common perception. The individuals within the establishment also are not completely removed from the business of which they are the figureheads for, otherwise it would be an ineffective business - everyone plays their role. While the Queen herself was not the person responsible for the last 500 years, neither was she the person orchestrating events on the ground. However, during many trips to Africa, which she referenced herself during an event with other African leaders, the queen would have been thoroughly briefed on the mood and events within the country post - colonialism, in which treaties with her name on were signed. It also brings into the question the idea of ‘colonialism - light’, that her presence and role was more softer than other operatives of colonialism, as some would still like to believe till today or her and the family. But as they say, ignorance is bliss.
We accept without question the grandeur of the royal family’s processions, elegant fashions and ostentatious displays of wealth,
without any acceptance as to the conditions and origins that allow the display. The origins and conditions were far from glamorous, and often came through unglamourous actions such as pillaging, theft, and enslaved labour. These are more than a showcase of verbs and adjectives, but this material reality has not quite yet sunk in for Britain, though the effects are around us everywhere, on our roads, in our schools. The news, ironically, in the week before and after the Queens death, were surrounded with the remnants and reminders of the British empire, for example rightwing Hinduvta attacks in Leicester. Colonialism happening ‘a long time ago’, does not remove the fact that there is a direct link with these events to the British empire, in particular its direct policies that shaped national identity.
The ills of colonialism are here today, and society in Britain gives us many reference points via current events, such as the Queen's death, to begin engaging. Often we get approached by teachers and educators alike, asking how we teach students about a topic that is tricky, like colonialism. The events of the last few weeks are just the starting place, and whilst the world is beginning to ‘move on’, post the funeral, many of us will just be beginning a conversation on what modern day Britain stands for, and the monarchy’s role within that. Otherwise we run the risk of waiting for another event, death or coronation, to guide us to speak about our histories, however devoid of the true past those processions are.
Relfections on the colonial hangover by Lavinya Stennett
By Lavinya Stennett