Dark side of the Queen’s legacy matters
On Thursday, Queen Elizabeth II died at 96. An outpouring of sympathy from world leaders emphasised her dutiful service and stabilising presence. President Joe Biden issued a statement that commemorated her as a “source of comfort and pride for generations of Britons”, a monarch whose rule accompanied “unprecedented human advancement and the forward march of human dignity”. Barack and Michelle Obama struck a similar tone, characterising the Queen as a leader who “took on the enormous task of helming one of the world’s great democracies”.
Even as the President and his predecessors praised the Queen’s commitment to dignity and democracy, the reaction was very different in the formerly colonised world, where many refused to mourn. Instead, the internet exploded with memes, videos and commentary that conjoined Queen Elizabeth’s memory to chilling recent histories of colonial death and destruction.
This disjuncture exposes how the Queen’s death is an historical event not only because of her unprecedented 70-year reign but also because her life was intimately tethered to the history of the British Empire. The Queen’s enduring image as a calm and steadying force in a chaotic modern world — “the one constant is an inconstant world” — is directly linked to the whitewashing of Britain’s brutal colonial past.
Public memories of a benevolent British Empire have been powerfully influenced by the official suppression of factual evidence, producing historical narratives that do not accurately represent historical realities.
The way we remember “Her Majesty” is connected to questions about who gets to tell the history of empire, whose lives are remembered, whose are forgotten, democracy and dignity for whom and at whose expense. These are issues of critical importance that shape our historical understanding of racism, global economic inequality and White supremacy in our contemporary world.
The case of Kenya — where Princess Elizabeth at the time was on February 6, 1952, when her father, King George VI, died — epitomises the whitewashing of the history of the British Empire. The British began to colonise East Africa in the late 19th century. Beginning in 1902, the colonial administration had seized some of the best lands in Kenya and “reserved” them for European settlers. In these areas officially known as the “White Highlands”, African people had no tenancy rights.
Africans resisted colonial rule and its violent practices of land alienation, taxation and compulsory labour. After Kenya became a Crown colony in 1920, anti-colonial activists pressed the British Government for changes to land ownership rules and political rights. The struggle continued for decades, including after the Second World War, as Britain refused to relinquish control over its global empire.
When Elizabeth became queen, Kenya had been under direct crown rule for more than three decades and was one of the 70 colonies, protectorates and mandates ruled by Britain. Beginning in the 1950s, the Mau Mau movement for land and freedom demanded the expulsion of White settlers from Kenya and the annihilation of the colonial system. In October 1952, after the Mau Mau murdered an appointed African chief who served British interests, colonial officials declared a state of emergency in an effort to crush the Mau Mau and maintain their power.
The eight-year counterinsurgency involved the mass detention without trial of 150,000 people in a sprawling network of extrajudicial prison and labour camps. Colonial agents systematically used torture and violence to interrogate and “rehabilitate” Mau Mau suspects. As historians including David Anderson and Caroline Elkins have exposed, British officials at the highest levels of government knew about these state-sanctioned atrocities, which included castration, rape, electrocution, starvation, sleep deprivation and sexual assault. A June 1957 memo drafted by the attorney-general of the Kenyan colonial administration likened the mistreatment of suspected detainees to “conditions in Nazi Germany”. Still, he advised the Governor of Kenya: “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.”
The Mau Mau movement paved the way for Kenya to declare independence from Britain in 1963. But even after independence, British officials purposefully destroyed and hid evidence of the widespread violence perpetrated by the colonial administration against the Kenyan people. In 2011, troves of state secrets were discovered at a vast repository called Hanslope Park. Among the 15 miles of floor-to-ceiling shelving were 60 metres of records that documented the human rights violations committed in Kenya from 1952 to 1960 — years after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
Meanwhile, Kenyan people continued to resist and fight against this colonial violence and the official efforts to hide the truth about their historical experiences. In 2009, Mau Mau survivors of torture filed a class-action lawsuit against the British Government for ill treatment. Four years later, after the discoveries at Hanslope Park, the British Government announced a plan to compensate living survivors. In financial terms, it was a small win. But the moral victory was huge.
Colonial violence and the destruction of records documenting it were not unique to Kenya — the disappearing of evidence was an official practice across Britain’s mid-20th-century empire. In fact, the systematic practice had an official code name: “Operation Legacy”. From the 1950s through the 1970s, at the height of postwar decolonisation movements, colonial officials in Kenya, Malaya, Malta, Aden, Nigeria, Uganda, Singapore and elsewhere removed and destroyed files with potentially “embarrassing” material. The purging of the official archive formed part of an institutionalised effort to shape the historical legacy of empire as a global system that Britons could be proud of — one that former prime minister David Cameron would later define as a “help” rather than a “handicap” to hundreds of millions of formerly colonised people.
Speaking outside her new office at 10 Downing Street, newly elected prime minister Liz Truss described the Queen as “the rock on which modern Britain was built”. In doing so, she directly connected the image of a benevolent queen to the image of a benevolent empire by echoing Winston Churchill’s 1942 description of imperial Britain as “a veritable rock of salvation in this drifting world”.
While some claim the Queen was merely a ceremonial head of state, others refuse to accept a “fairytale” rendering of the past that exonerates her of complicity in colonial torture. Was the Queen merely a figurehead or does she represent the way the empire wants to be remembered: sincere, dutiful, service-oriented?
The 21st-century depictions of White innocence and composure that define the Queen’s portrayal in film and television are not incidental, harmless nostalgia. They are central to the erasure of colonial racism and violence. The persistent refusal to face the violent history of empire and to reckon with its enduring legacies are sustained by this image of a harmless and diminutive queen whose reign was marred only by private, family scandals. Lest we forget, the biggest scandal of all, the only one of global historical significance, was the scandal of empire.
• Elizabeth Kolsky is associate professor of history and faculty director of the Albert Lepage Centre for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University. She is the author of Colonial Justice in British India: White Violence and the Rule of Law