The Queen’s Gambit: A Legacy of Colonial Complicity?

Written By: Naqib 

Edited By: Noor 

Visuals By: Gabrielle

The recent death of Great Britain’s longest reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II, has sparked reactions amongst people who believe she was a figurehead of modern colonization, and therefore should be considered responsible. However, what many fail to understand is that the late Queen’s political power was limited, and moreover, we may have to blame the British Parliament for these humanitarian crimes instead. How much did the Queen have a role in keeping British colonization alive?

Anna Arabindan-Kesson, a Black diasporic arts professor at Princeton University remarks in a Times op-ed article that, “For many of us from the ‘colonies,’ the death of Elizabeth II signifies in very particular ways that she was the symbol of an empire built on genocide, slavery, violence, extraction, and brutality, the legacies of which continue in our present day, she was not only a symbol, she was complicit in this empire” (Times). When Arabandan-Kesson claimed the Queen was complicit in colonialism, this may be true to a certain degree. In fact, when Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1952, she inherited British imperial power over 700 million people across Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands and the Middle East (NPR). In another example, at the height of the Kenyan Mau Mau uprising of the 1950’s, British forces were responsible of commiting atrocities against Kenyas such as setting concentration camps of up to 1.5 million people and using these camps to rape and torture the population (The Guardian). However, the key word here is ‘inherited’. The Queen herself was never responsible for the further colonization of any other countries nor the atrocities committed by British soldiers in occupied colonies during uprisings.

In fact, by the time she inherited the throne, the British Empire was already deteriorating. Hong Kong was Britain’s last colony, by the UK passing the territory over to China in 1997, under the Queen’s rule. Furthermore, the Queen has visited many of Britain’s colonies to support movements and grant independence through a peaceful transition of power. The Queen’s most recent one being the removal of herself from head of state for Barbados in November 2021. “As you celebrate this momentous day, I send you and all Barbadians my warmest good wishes for your happiness, peace and prosperity in the future”, said Queen Elizabeth II in congratulating the separation of Barbados from the British monarchy (Town & Country). 

It is crucial to see through a historical lens that the Queen was indeed a figurehead of modern colonization, but through her extensive influence and changing of modern times, she openly denounced the British Empire to a certain extent. In her Christmas 1953 address, she stated that the newly created Commonwealth of former British colonies “bears no resemblance to the empires of the past” and ensured the purpose of the association was to create “a vehicle for the rule of law, economic development, and human rights” (The New York Times). She continued to congratulate past colonies over their independence days throughout the rest of her reign, exemplifying how the British parliament should be considered responsible for actively engaging in colonialism, instead of the Queen herself. 

Kingsley Odion, a Nigerian psychology graduate, provided an interesting insight; “The British came into Africa and swept our way of life under the carpet. A lot of Nigerians including myself feel bad about that. But colonialism wasn’t the Queen’s fault. This feeling is not toward the Queen, but to Britain, the country that colonised Nigeria. It’s not about the Queen, but the entire British system. We shouldn’t forget that Nigeria got independence during her rule. I believe there would not have been an independent Nigeria if not for her rule” (France 24). His statement exemplified the fault of parliament in modern colonization and how the Queen should not be blamed for it, rather she was a figurehead of a parliament which she had very limited power over. Furthermore, the Queen is addressed by British Prime Ministers for advice, not decision making. 

Many made quick judgements to blame the Queen for colonization after her death. A Washington Post columnist, Karen Attiah took to Twitter saying, “If the queen had apologized for slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism and urged the crown to offer reparations for the millions of lives taken in her/their names, then perhaps I would do the human thing and feel bad” (The Guardian). However, as mentioned before, we may have to blame the British parliament for their extensive power and control over colonies, while the Queen played a role of representing them, but nevertheless had very limited abilities to actually stop colonization herself.  

Queen Elizabeth II’s recent death has ignited various conversations about her historical roles regarding colonization, with many going as far to blame her for the atrocities and crimes committed during her time. However, as we saw, the Queen was embraceful in the uprising of republican regimes, separating from Britain and continued to congratulate them on independence days. If anything, the Queen was complicit in colonization in the sense that she represented the parliament which committed these humanitarian crimes, but we must look at the bigger picture and realize, she herself must not be considered responsible for modern colonization. Rather, as a society we need to be careful in our “quick to blame” culture and challenge ourselves to look at the situation holistically.

Works Cited 

Kohli, Anisha. “Queen Elizabeth II’s Death Is a Chance to Examine the Present-Day Effects of Britain’s Colonial Past.” Time, Time, 13 Sept. 2022, Accessed 3 Oct. 2022.

“Not Everyone Mourns the Queen. For Many, She Can’t Be Separated from Colonial Rule.”, 12 Sept. 2022, Accessed 3 Oct. 2022.

Houck, Caroline. “Queen Elizabeth II and Colonialism, Explained by an Expert on the British Empire.” Vox, Vox, 13 Sept. 2022, Accessed 3 Oct. 2022.

Murphy, Victoria. “Queen Elizabeth Sends Message Congratulating the People of Barbados as They Remove Her as Head of State.” Town & Country, Town & Country, 30 Nov. 2021, Accessed 4 Oct. 2022.

Thomson, Derek. “Colonialism Wasn’t the Queen’s Fault”: Our Observers React to Elizabeth II’s Death.” The Observers – France 24, The Observers – France 24, 10 Sept. 2022, Accessed 5 Oct. 2022.

Rios, Edwin. “Queen’s Death Intensifies Criticism of British Empire’s Violent Atrocities.” The Guardian, The Guardian, 10 Sept. 2022, Accessed 5 Oct. 2022.

Kimeu, Caroline. ““A Brutal Legacy”: Queen’s Death Met with Anger as Well as Grief in Kenya.” The Guardian, The Guardian, 12 Sept. 2022, Accessed 12 Oct. 2022.

“Opinion | Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire.” The New York Times, 2022, Accessed 12 Oct. 2022.