Waveney Ann Moore: A queen and her legacy
Like so many people around the world, I’ve been following coverage of Queen Elizabeth’s death and the elaborate ceremonies that have followed.
I’ve also been reading reports and listening to comments about her legacy and that of the British monarchy she led for 70 years. I was born and grew up under the British colonial system, so I wasn’t surprised that the observations haven’t always been kind.
I sympathize with the feeling of loss her subjects express at the passing of their longtime monarch, but it’s important to acknowledge that not everyone is mourning. To many who are not, the late queen is an embodiment of a centuries-old system that has thrived on cruelty and greed.
There’s the matter of slavery. And the plundering of resources from former colonies. In recent days, some in India and South Africa have called for the return of valuable diamonds that sparkle among the crown jewels.
And it’s not just gemstones that have been a source of wealth. I recently saw Demerara sugar spelled with a lower case “d,” which to me, was an afront. Demerara is one of the counties in the former British Guiana where African slaves and indentured laborers from India toiled on estates to produce the highly prized sugar that was like gold to Britain.
While touring an historic ship in Scotland some years ago, the guide spoke about the greenheart lumber used in its construction. The highly durable timber came from British Guiana, he said. Later, I told him that I was from what is now Guyana, as I sought an acknowledgement I felt was important to claim.
The colonies over which Queen Elizabeth ruled – the British monarchy is a constitutional one with no real political power – saw top jobs go to handpicked people from the mother country and an education system that focused on the idyllic kingdom back home.
For me, this was reinforced at the Anglican convent school run by English nuns that my parents sent me to as a boarder in order to boost my chances of getting into the country’s top girls’ high school. There was one Black Guyanese nun who, in my 8-year-old eyes, was relegated to menial tasks. It also registered with me that white students, some of whom were children of the overseers who ran the sugar estates, were treated with deference.
Growing up, I read children’s books written mostly by English authors, particularly devouring those by Enid Blyton. But I was oblivious to the golliwogs that populated some of Blyton’s books. In high school, I took British exams. My name – Waveney – has British origins.
Pictures of Queen Elizabeth hung in schools and government buildings and appeared on stamps. We sang “God Save the Queen” before shows at the cinema. There was a popular calypso extolling the beauty of Princess Margaret and I remember the excitement when her sister, the queen, visited.
My mother was given a set of Queen Elizabeth II coronation glasses as a going-away gift when she transferred from the school where she was teaching. I remember those glasses being used only for special occasions. At least two remain. My daughter and I have one each. They mean a lot to us. Certainly it’s because of their connection to a historic moment, but mostly, it’s because they’re a family heirloom.
The influence of Britain was felt no less by my husband, who grew up in Jamaica. Over the years, he’s spoken of the role he played when the Queen visited in 1966. She arrived on the Britannia. He was in high school at the time and as part of the Jamaica Combined Cadet Force, helped line the streets for the Queen’s motorcade. He was also part of the honor guard at the national stadium.
The impact of colonialism has come into sharper focus in the past few days. It’s difficult to separate my nostalgia for a childhood that romanticized a faraway, unseen land, its traditions and benevolent queen, from a grown-up reality of what the monarchy and its government oversaw in the countries they subjugated.
Still, I can’t help but feel that the death of Elizabeth is the passing of an era, in a way, of a time of innocence.
Change has already come.
This year, during a visit by William and Catherine – the new Prince and Princess of Wales – Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness spoke forthrightly of “moving on” without the monarchy as head of state. William expressed “profound sorrow” for slavery, calling it “abhorrent,” and pointed to similar words from his father. Visiting Barbados in 2021, as the country celebrated becoming a republic, Charles, now the new king, acknowledged “the appalling atrocity of slavery.”
As Britain’s new constitutional monarch, though, I doubt we’ll hear much more on the subject from him, no matter the clamor for apologies and reparations. But the death of Elizabeth has ignited a call for justice that’s unlikely to be doused in this period of racial reckoning. And while it’s time for honest discussion and reflection, the callousness expressed by a professor on Twitter as the Queen neared her death was clearly wrong.
Certainly, there’s much to be upset about when one thinks of the monarchy’s role in the enslavement of African people and other atrocities that followed. It was British government officials, among them war hero and Elizabeth’s first prime minister, Winston Churchill, who is said to have created a hostile environment for Caribbean people arriving from the colonies to provide much needed workers in Britain’s post-World War II years. The Windrush Generation, as they came to be known, held British passports. The problem was, these eager new residents were Black. In 2018, an investigation revealed that their children, adults who had grown up in Britain, were being threatened with denial of their rights as British citizens and with deportation.
Historian David Olusoga, in a BBC documentary, traced the root of the scandal to earlier times. Churchill, he said, had “whipped up racism that led to the Windrush Generation scandal.”
I’m not sure what a young queen could have done at the time.
I agree that the predicted breaking away of the territories and realms over which she has been monarch is inevitable. Still, it’s not so easy to let go of the notion of royalty. It’s absurd, our yearning for fairy tales and happy endings, never mind the cost of keeping these royal personages in castles and carriages and jewels.
In Guyana, Queen Victoria’s imposing statue that stood in front of what was at one time called the Victoria Law Courts was banished for a time. It’s back in its place of honor.
Saturday, St. George’s Anglican Cathedral will commemorate the life of Elizabeth II. The country, now a republic within the Commonwealth, and where a majority of its citizens are descendants of enslaved and indentured people, will observe a National Day of Mourning on Monday.
From St. Petersburg that day, I’ll watch the funeral service for the departed queen and ponder what the future will hold as a new generation takes over the institution she’s upheld through trial and change for more than 70 years.
September 18, 2022at7:09 pm
Thank you so much, Waveney, for a thoughtful and personal piece on the role of the British monarchy in colonialism, slavery and more. While many of us are reminiscing a long reign of a dutiful queen, the story is far more nuanced. We can hope that this changing of the guard will provide opportunities for honesty, reckoning, and healing.