SEPTEMBER 11, 2022
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HONIARA, Solomon Islands — Millicent Barty has spent years trying to decolonize her country, recording oral histories across the Solomon Islands and promoting Melanesian culture. Her goal: to prioritize local knowledge, not just what arrived with the British Empire.
But on Friday morning, when asked about the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Ms. Barty sighed and frowned. Her eyes seemed to hold a cold spring of complicated emotion as she recalled meeting the queen in 2018 with a Commonwealth young leaders’ program.
“I love Her Majesty,” she said, sipping coffee on the Solomon island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific, 9,300 miles from Buckingham Palace. “It’s really sad.”
Reconciling a seemingly benevolent queen with the often-cruel legacy of the British Empire is the conundrum at the heart of Britain’s post-imperial influence. The British royal family reigned over more territories and people than any other monarchy in history, and among the countries that have never quite let go of the crown, Queen Elizabeth’s death creates an opening for those pushing to address the past more fully and rethink the vestiges of colonialism.
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“Does the monarchy die with the queen?” said Michele Lemonius, who grew up in Jamaica and recently completed a Ph.D in Canada with a focus on youth violence in former slave colonies. “It’s time for dialogue. It’s time for a conversation.”
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Many former British colonies remain bound together in the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 56 countries. The members are connected by their shared histories, with similar legal and political systems, and the organization promotes exchanges in fields like sports, culture and education. Especially for smaller and newer members, the group can confer prestige, and while the Commonwealth has no formal trade agreement, its members conduct trade with one another at higher-than-usual rates.
Most of the Commonwealth members are independent republics, with no formal ties to the British royal family. But 14 are constitutional monarchies that have retained the British sovereign as their head of state, a mostly symbolic role.
In these countries, the monarch is represented by a governor-general who has ceremonial duties like swearing in new members of Parliament, though on occasion a governor-general has taken more direct action, as when an Australian prime minister was dismissed in the 1970s. These nations held accession ceremonies over the weekend proclaiming Prince Charles the new king.
Especially for the 14 constitutional monarchies, the queen’s death has been greeted with bolder calls for full independence.
On Saturday, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda announced plans to hold a referendum on becoming a republic within three years. In Australia, the Bahamas, Canada and Jamaica, debates that have simmered for years about their democracies’ ties to a distant kingdom have started to heat up again. From the Caribbean to the Pacific, people are asking: Why do we swear allegiance to a monarch in London?
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Historians of colonization describe it as an overdue reckoning after the seven-decade reign of a queen who was as diminutive in stature as she was commanding in her use of duty and smiles to soften the image of an empire that often committed acts of violence as it declined.
“The queen, in a way, allowed the whole jigsaw puzzle to hang together so long as she was there,” said Mark McKenna, a historian at the University of Sydney. “But I’m not sure it’ll continue to hang on.”
Her son King Charles III, at 73, has little chance of matching the queen’s power as a shaper of global opinion — a task she took on at a younger age, in a different time.
Her reign began overseas when her father died in 1952. She was 25, traveling in Kenya, and she made it her mission to ease the transition away from colonial rule. On Christmas Day in 1953, in a speech from Auckland, New Zealand, she emphasized that her idea of a Commonwealth bore “no resemblance to empires of the past.”
“It is an entirely new conception — built on the higher qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty and the desire for freedom and peace,” she said.
Queen Elizabeth went on to visit nearly 120 countries. She met more leaders than any pope and often embarked on 40,000-mile jaunts around the world, all while colony after colony bid adieu to old Brittania after World War II. India and Pakistan became independent nations in 1947 and declared themselves republics in the 1950s. Nigeria did the same the following decade. Sri Lanka became a republic in 1972, while the most recent country to cut ties with the crown was Barbados, just last year.
“The British monarchy has shown a capacity to evolve over the ages, from colonial to a post-colonial monarchy, and the queen undertook that re-creation quite well,” said Robert Aldrich, a historian at the University of Sydney, noting her acceptance of former colonies’ independence and her investment in the Commonwealth.
She often signaled her approval with awards and a personal touch. After the Solomon Islands pursued its independence in the 1970s, she knighted the country’s first prime minister, Peter Kenilorea. His son, Peter Kenilorea Jr., a current member of Parliament, was 10 at the time.
“I remember how nervous I was — and how her smile put me at ease,” he said.
Even in some countries with deep colonial wounds, the queen often seemed to benefit from a belief that she could be separated from Britain’s at times callous rule. Queen Elizabeth was assigned little blame when the British authorities in Kenya tortured suspected Mau Mau rebels in the 1950s, or after British forces fighting anticolonial unrest used similar tactics against civilians in Cyprus in 1955 and Aden, Yemen, in 1963.
“She was seen merely as a female monarch,” said Sucheta Mahajan, a historian in India, where the queen was also welcomed after decades of exploitive British rule. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
Decades later, Queen Elizabeth was still seen by many as a unifying symbol of august values. From Australia to Jamaica, even those who want a republic found themselves getting emotional about the queen.
“It’s what we stand for, in some ways,” said Kevin Pearce, 63, of Melbourne, Australia. “It’s what holds it all together.”
But as the queen aged and receded from view, and as the world tackled a broader examination of the sins of colonialization, it became harder to maintain a sense of benign distance. In former colonies worldwide, demands for a full accounting of the pain, suffering and plundered riches that helped contribute to the royal family’s enormous wealth have been increasing.
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At the ceremony in November marking the end of the queen’s status as Barbados’s head of state, Prince Charles acknowledged “the appalling atrocity of slavery” in the former British colony.
In Jamaica in March, Prince William and his wife, Kate, were met with protests that demanded an apology and reparations. And in August, President Nana Akufo-Addo of Ghana — which gained its independence from Britain in 1957 — urged European nations to pay reparations to Africa for a slave trade that stifled the continent’s “economic, cultural and psychological progress.”
Now that the queen is gone, even her royal accouterments face a more critical gaze. Twitter users have begun loudly calling for the Great Star of Africa — the largest uncut diamond in the world, which is part of the Sovereign’s Scepter — to be returned to South Africa.
In India, newspapers have also asked about the future of the Kohinoor diamond, which sits in the queen’s crown and is said to have been taken from India.
And yet, trying to decolonize — to free a country from the dominating influence of a colonizing power — is an empire of work in its own right. The queen gazes from the currency of many countries, and her name graces hospitals and roads. Institutions like the Scouts have created generations who swore allegiance to the queen, and educational systems in many countries still prioritize the British colonial model.
“Post-colonial does not mean decolonized,” said Dr. Lemonius, who runs community projects in Jamaica, including one focused on sports for young girls. “The eye still looks to the monarchy, toward the master. Once you shift your gaze away from that long enough, you have the time to start looking at yourself and moving toward reconstruction.”
Some Commonwealth countries find it hard to get worked up either way about the monarchy. Only a slight majority of Australians favor making their country a republic, and in a poll of New Zealanders last year, just a third expressed that preference.
“It’s simply not an important part of our life,” said Jock Phillips, a New Zealand historian.
Yet royal succession is a turning point.
Ms. Barty, 31, who studied in England and at Columbia University, said the queen’s former realms would keep evolving. Western and Indigenous ways of thinking, she said, can complement each other — the kauri tree Queen Elizabeth planted when she visited the Solomon Islands for the first time nearly 50 years ago has grown into a tower of shade.
“To get to the thought where I’m decolonizing the system, I had to come through the Western system,” Ms. Barty said. “It’s about reconciling.”
And perhaps, she added, the process begins with what the queen tried to embody.
“For me personally, what she upholds — and what I feel needs to be a lasting legacy that we continue to instill in our youth — is service,” Ms. Barty said. “She fulfilled her services; she lived a life of duty, all the way through to the day she died.”
Reporting was contributed by Suhasini Raj from New Delhi; Skandha Gunasekara from Colombo, Sri Lanka; Victoria Kim from Seoul; Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi, Kenya; Yan Zhuang and Natasha Frost from Melbourne, Australia; Jasper Williams-Ward from New Providence, the Bahamas; and Tamica Garnett from Georgetown, Guyana.