Queen Elizabeth II: A Checkerboarded Legacy

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Art/Photo by The Royal Family via Twitter

The Queen is seen seated at Buckingham Palace in February 2006 ahead of a special celebration for her 80th birthday. This photo was shared in an official announcement of the Queen’s passing by the Royal Family on Twitter. Commenting on her initial reaction to the news, Mrs. Hignight conveyed that she was “stunned at the significance of the moment and interested to see how the transition of power would proceed in these modern times.”

Philip Lam, Staff Writer

   On September 8, 2022, in a statement announced by the Royal Family, the perennial British monarch Queen Elizabeth II, passed away in her sleep at Balmoral Castle. Throughout the western world, various news programs interrupted regular broadcasting to deliver the stunning news. Having ruled for over 70 years, this designated the Queen as being the longest ruling monarch in England’s nearly thousand-year history.

   With the Queen’s cavalcade—fully adorned in the gold, blue, and red Royal Standard of Scotland—embarking on a six-hour journey throughout the undulating hills of the British highlands to the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, millions lined the streets to watch the cortège. The Queen’s coffin was subsequently flown to London where she was laid to state at Westminster Hall. Millions more flooded the clamorous streets of the English capital to pay their respects.    

   During her groundbreaking reign, Queen Elizabeth met with thirteen American presidents, worked alongside fourteen British Prime Ministers, and bore witness to an epochal seven decades of history, from the Cold War and the Space Race, to decolonization and self-determination, and to the age of internet and Brexit. Queen Elizabeth managed to retain an element of continuity, even as the British Empire around her dwindled and the age of colonialism entered its twilight years.   

   With the Queen’s funeral held on September 19 at Westminster Abbey, the solemn finality of the Queen’s departure unequivocally marked the end of an era. However, the late Queen leaves behind an indelible yet checkerboarded legacy inextricably tied with moments of both high plaudit and insidious imperialism.   

   The probing question that has emerged is how the Queen will be portrayed in history textbooks, but more importantly, how she should be viewed through the lens of history. If the purpose of history is to provide an impartial and transparent account of an event or figure, then Queen Elizabeth is no exception. With the period of bereavement coming to a close as the Queen is laid to rest at Windsor Castle alongside her husband Prince Philip, a period of objective reflection should follow.

   Unraveling the legacy of anyone, even that of figures as venerable as the Queen, can be problematic for historians, who often have to consider the context of a specific time period before interjecting current social, political, and moral standards to arrive at a conclusion. 

   To boldly assert that the Queen was solely responsible for the brutal colonization of Africa and Britain’s history of overzealous imperialism elsewhere would be unfair and partial, to say the least. She was a figurehead who, in 1952, was thrusted into the institution of colonialism rife with human exploitation and injustice. 

   This is not to say that stalwart supporters of the Queen, likely Britons and the Western World; nor opponents, likely formally colonized countries, have erroneous interpretations of her legacy, just incomplete ones. It is only logical then for historians to acknowledge all perspectives of an event while remaining receptive to any new developments. 

   Mrs. Hignight, a history teacher at West High, is inclined to agree: “Recognizing bias is important, so in the end, the historian can use all of the information to develop the most objective portrayal of history as possible.” Despite the Queen’s favorable portrayals in the weeks following her death, with various news outlets lauding her achievements and reiterating her longevity, “all sides of the story deserve to be heard,” remarked Mrs. Hignight, “even if what they are saying makes us feel uncomfortable.”

   To fully capture the legacy of Queen Elizabeth, it is worth going back to 1952. Incidentally, then-Princess Elizabeth was in Nairobi during a tour of Kenya when she learned of her father’s passing and her consequent ascension to the throne. While a trip to Kenya might sound inoffensive enough, upon closer scrutiny, a more hazy picture begins to emerge. The British began to colonize the Swahili Coast during the notorious Scramble for Africa. In 1902, the colonial hegemony requisitioned the bountiful lands in Kenya, reserving them for European settlers and leaving Africans with nonexistant tenancy rights.   

   Indeed, most efforts at decolonization occurred during the Cold War spanning from the late 1950s to the early 1990s, a period of time when the Queen was closely, if not intimately, involved in the colonial institution.

   West High student Endicott Coleman (11) holds a more critical view of the Queen. While he acknowledged that “the queen did a good job in ruling her own country,” Coleman alleged that she has otherwise done “a very lackluster job” in ameliorating the wounds in countries afflicted by Britain’s imperial past. Being of Irish descent, he particularly shared that “the events that took place during [the Troubles] and the deaths of Irish citizens that followed because of the way the British Army dealt with the militant groups resulted in [him having] some rather negative feelings about [the Queen]” and her handling of the situation.

   Furthermore, Coleman pointed out the lingering implications of British rule, “such as those living in Yemen affected by the ongoing civil war.” Coleman claimed that this precarious state “can ultimately be linked back to the power vacuum left by the British when they withdrew, resulting in the fighting by multiple groups vying for power since the late 1950s.”

   Elsewhere, the lingering effects of imperialism continue to be deleterious: in South Africa for example, it was not until the early 1990s that apartheid, which was akin to American Jim Crow Laws, was dismantled and Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president in 1994. Likewise, it was not until July 1, 1997, that Hong Kong, a British colony since 1841, was returned to China after more than a century of economic exploitation through the Opium Wars.

   But how does the late Queen factor into all of this, you might ask? After all, “the role of the queen has really been more symbolic,” pointed out Mrs. Hignight. Even if Britain’s system of constitutional monarchy relegated the Queen’s political power to below that of the Prime Minister or any member of Parliament, the Queen was nonetheless an observer of the horrible systemic injustices that had their roots in British colonialism and subjugation. To see her as a “constant force in an inconstant world,” as reported by the New York Times, while designed to complement, also communicates her ostensible inaction. Portraying her as benign and composed could inadvertently downplay Britain’s history of colonial violence and white supremacy.

   Conversely, it is important to acknowledge the Queen’s successes. Mrs. Hignight expressed her admiration at the Queen’s “ability to be a strong and powerful woman who held her own,” exhibiting commendable resolve in a seemingly patriarchal world, and even more so when the Queen was first crowned.

   Moreover, in an attempt at British reconciliation with formerly colonized countries, particularly in Africa, Britain not only encouraged independence but supported the creation of republics. The Queen, according to The Atlantic, “supported recognition of African nationalism” as early as the 1960s. So while the effects of the colonial institution were still pervasive, perhaps the Queen on a personal level was more progressive towards decolonization, yet lacked the political power or public support to enact change.

   Bearing in mind these multiple perspectives, we can hash out a more nuanced portrait of Queen Elizabeth. She is, like any other world leader, a human—flawed like all of us. While it would be short-sighted to view the Queen and as the primary conduit of British imperialism, equally “claiming that she was benevolent makes her seem perfect,” Mrs. Hignight commented, adding that it bothers her that “so much of history has been written from the European perspective.” While a Western perspective is not inherently dangerous, it becomes problematic when it drowns out other perspectives, with Mrs. Hignight warning that the reinforcement of “European superiority . . . is a dangerous path.”

   While the Queen’s death has drawn mixed reactions across the globe, with some mourning and others celebrating, it is irrefutable that, in the name of history, the Queen should not be vilified for the uncontrollable variables of politics—the prevailing attitudes of her time—but simultaneously, should not be completely absolved for her complicity in some of those matters. The Queen’s passing, if anything more, is a time for reflection, reckoning, reconciliation, and remedial action; which can only be achieved when historians—and their audiences—bear the utmost impartiality and fairness in mind.