I live at the crossroads of the Commonwealth. My home is Canada, where First Nations people have called on King Charles to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery as his first official act. This law sanctioned the colonial possession of Indigenous lands and has justified violence against Indigenous people. I live in the French-speaking province of Quebec, which was ceded to the British empire in 1763. Here, the proposed abolition of the role of “lieutenant-governor”, the crown’s provincial representative, is a flashpoint in the upcoming election. And I am also a member of the Caribbean diaspora, a region that was violently pulled into the production of sugar to satisfy the bourgeois tastes of the British empire. To this day, the Caribbean bears the scars of Indigenous genocide, slavery, indentureship and colonialism.
For the people of formerly colonised countries, the monarchy is not a neutral institution. It is the embodiment of imperial legacies that benefited Britain at the expense of its colonies, and played an active role in the slave trade. Queen Elizabeth I financially backed slave-trading voyages, and by the 17th-century King Charles II granted royal approval to the Company of Adventurers of London Trading to the Ports of Africa, marking the moment at which transatlantic slavery officially began.
In the mid-20th century, when Caribbean countries were agitating for independence, the British government, under prime minister Winston Churchill, sent warships to British Guiana, a member of the Commonwealth, and openly removed an elected government in 1953. Even after Caribbean countries achieved independence, many remained members of the Commonwealth, retained colonial curriculums in their schools, and were sold consumer dreams by companies bearing royal warrants. Yet these associations did little to protect these member states. Indeed, when Grenada was invaded by the US in 1983, Britain did not intervene.
For remembering this history just when the Queen’s coffin is travelling through Britain, I might be accused by some of speaking ill of the dead. The media have been dominated by reverential comments and melancholic coverage. Some have focused not on the Queen as the personal embodiment of empire, but rather as the figurehead of political institutions (in Canada, for example, the media seem concerned about whether the Bank of Canada will change the look of its currency to reflect the King’s accession).
The monarchy has been politically and economically devastating for former colonies. It has also had damaging consequences for those who live in its gilded cage. King Charles III was required to marry and produce an heir; as a consequence, he married into an unhappy relationship that eventually fell apart. Prince Harry and Meghan’s relationship has been the subject of racism from the tabloids and allegedly from royal family members, leading the couple to make the decision to leave “the firm”.
Britain and the Commonwealth now have a new king. What else has died with Elizabeth? Barbados recently made the landmark decision to free itself of imperial bonds by removing the Queen as head of state. Following the Queen’s death, other Caribbean countries may follow suit. The Caribbean is still undergoing the process of decolonisation; many countries are dealing with the open wounds inflicted by colonial conquest and resource extraction. They are shifting from being smaller nations within a neocolonial world that required they remain members of the Commonwealth, to becoming protagonists that are actively unsettling the legacies of empire through calls for reparations.
Across the Caribbean, countries such as Jamaica, the Bahamas and Belize are calling for reparations. These demands were only accelerated after the disastrous visit of Prince William and Kate earlier this year. Such reparations would mean not just an apology, but distributive justice between so-called developed and developing countries. Integral to reparations is the idea of repairing unequal, one-sided relationships.
In his first address to the British nation and Commonwealth “realms”, Charles said “relationships change, friendship endures”. Yet friendship requires accountability, especially when there’s a power imbalance – such as when one side speaks of service and duty but such aspirations remain unfulfilled. Surely in 2022, 70 years after his mother ascended the throne in 1952, we have a more nuanced and accurate understanding of these issues. What might duty look like if we understood that debts need to be paid and apologists held accountable? What might public service mean if we understood that imperial attitudes and monarchic institutions must be abolished for an alternative future to be born?
Nalini Mohabir is an associate professor in the department of geography, planning and environment at Concordia University in Montreal
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