For Many Scholars, Queen's Legacy Inseparable from ColonialismHistorians in the News
tags: colonialism, racism, British history, Queen Elizabeth II
Queen Elizabeth II's death has garnered a spectrum of feelings around the world about her life, legacy and the monarchy.
When she took the throne in 1952, more than a quarter of the world's population was under British imperial power. That was more than 700 million people — including in parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific islands.
While her 70-year reign saw the British Empire become the Commonwealth of Nations — and the decline of the United Kingdom's global influence — the scars of colonialism linger. Many note the enslavement, violence and theft that defined imperial rule, and they find it difficult to separate the individual from the institution and its history.
Moses Ochonu, a professor of African studies at Vanderbilt University, told NPR the queen's death brought attention to "unfinished colonial business."
"There is a sense in which Britain has never fully accounted for its crimes," Ochonu said.
The memory of Elizabeth is complicated by the fact that during her rule, more than 20 countries gained independence, Ochonu said.
"It's her dual status as the face of colonialism, but also a symbol of decolonization that defines how she is perceived in many former British African colonies."
Ochonu's own feelings toward the queen's death are mixed — in part because of his childhood. He was born in Nigeria, a little over a decade after the country saw an end to colonial rule.
He recalled how the queen continued to be fondly associated with prestige and grandeur. Images of Elizabeth as a young woman visiting parts of Africa humanized the crown and the monarch.
But coupled with that nostalgia is "residual anger" over the brutal price paid for many countries' independence. Ochonu said in Nigeria, many are still haunted by Britain's role in their civil war, when the global power secretly tried to prevent the Republic of Biafra's secession efforts. In Kenya, Britain tortured thousands of rebels in detention camps, for which it apologized in 2013.
That's why Ochonu said her death prompts a time of reflection rather than mourning.
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