“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
This proverb, amplified by renowned Nigerian author Chinua Achebe in 1994, might help to explain the chasm in perspectives between the mourners of the late Queen Elizabeth II and people in countries colonized by Britain and their descendants.
Almost immediately after her death on Sept. 8 at age 96, I noticed the stark differences in reactions to her passing. On one side were the solemn, reverent and admiring statements from government leaders, institutions and royal devotees, and on the other, a much more critical reaction to her reign from mostly people of color with ties to colonized countries, among others.
The democratizing power of social media allowed millions of people the ability to raise a dissenting voice to the world on platforms like Twitter and share their more complicated view of the monarchy.
Almost as swiftly, a backlash to the criticism scolded the irreverence and chided people for bringing up Britain’s colonial history at an inappropriate time, prompting Washington Post columnist Karen Attiah to tweet, “Black and brown people around the world who were subject to horrendous cruelties and economic deprivation under British colonialism are allowed to have feelings about Queen Elizabeth. After all, they were her ‘subjects’ too.”
Locally, these divisions were on display as well. In Seattle Times reporter Daniel Beekman’s story on local reactions to Queen Elizabeth’s death, while some people expressed shock and sadness, others, like Aretha Basu, whose family was forced to migrate due to the impacts of the partition of India and Pakistan, felt very differently. Basu said, “There’s an experience of violence and massive amounts of injustice and human turmoil shared across so many cultures and places, and the throughline is the British monarchy.”
It’s not too surprising that those who don’t bear the scars of empire or colonization would be oblivious to its harms, especially given that history isn’t widely taught. To be sure, the lions now have plenty of historians, but the hunter is not studying their work.
In Britain, study of colonization and empire in schools is still extremely limited, and consequently, only 17% of British people polled in 2020 believed colonized countries were worse off because of it.
I didn’t understand the impact of this history either until college, despite growing up in a progressive family and going to schools with a multicultural curriculum. It wasn’t until I learned history from the perspectives of writers like Achebe and scholars like Walter Rodney, who wrote “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” (before being assassinated at 38), and learned about the plunder of resources in our side of the world from Eduardo Galeano in “Open Veins of Latin America” that the full picture began to become clearer.
The people of Africa, Latin America and South Asia, for example, don’t lack resources today because their regions were resource poor. In fact, they were resource rich — a 500-carat South African diamond is embedded on the queen’s royal scepter and the over 100-carat Indian Kohinoor diamond is encrusted on her crown, as just two examples.
But they ended up lacking resources and their populations were impoverished because their resources were extracted through centuries of colonization, their existing political, ethnic and cultural connections broken by arbitrary borders and the empowerment of one group over another. In India alone, economist Utsa Patnaik estimated in research published by Columbia University Press that Britain took $45 trillion in wealth over nearly two centuries, through 1938.
At its height in the early 1900s, the British Empire ruled over 20% of the world’s population.
The massive accumulation of wealth for the Crown continues today, with Forbes estimating the royal family’s wealth at $28 billion. And unlike other ultrawealthy people, royals do not have to pay taxes on inheritance, so whatever the new king or others inherit will not be taxed.
During the queen’s reign in the 1950s and ’60s, the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau independence movement by Britain and its colonial authorities led to 1.5 million Kenyans detained in camps or villages, with thousands killed and many tortured. In 2013, the British government finally apologized and provided financial damages to thousands of survivors who were tortured in the camps.
Some argue that while the queen reigned over the period of often brutal decolonization and independence movements in many countries, she was not made aware of the violence or atrocities done in her name. But Harvard scholar Elizabeth Elkins, who wrote the book “Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire,” disagreed. She wrote in Time magazine, “the queen’s ministers not only knew of systematic British-directed violence in the empire, they also participated in its crafting, diffusion, and cover-up, which was as routinized as the violence itself.”
The death of any human being is something to mourn — whether they are a queen or a fighter for independence.
But to heal from the harms of our history and to avoid repeating our mistakes, we must be honest with ourselves and willing to examine unvarnished truths.
That requires curiosity and a desire to understand history — history not just told from the perspective of the colonizer but from the perspective of the colonized, something we are also struggling with mightily in the U.S. This reckoning is not something we should fear or resist, even if it might complicate the memory of a beloved figure.