Omer Aziz is a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard and author of the forthcoming memoir Brown Boy.
The passing of Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-serving monarch, has provoked strong emotions across the world. After all, her reign touched billions of lives, including my own. I remember watching television with my grandmother as a boy and her pointing out that “Lizabeth” was on the screen. Sometimes I saw Elizabeth, as many saw her, as a grandmotherly figure – even when I came to doubt the wisdom of monarchy as an institution. There was an unquestioning reverence for this Queen, especially in her older years. She was a symbol, a person and the Crown all at once.
But what was missing in the symbolism and pageantry, and what cannot be missing from the eulogies and remembrances, is the fact that the Queen held a very grand and specific legal office, an office that stretched back in time and perpetrated enormous amounts of violence against the people it subjugated. The complex grief of those subjects’ descendants should not be easily dismissed.
Eventually, one must grow up and be shorn of the myths of royal nostalgia and Empire. In later years, I would learn that my grandmother, and all my great-grandparents, were the colonial subjects of Her Majesty’s Empire. I imagine every brown or Black child in Canada learns, eventually, what their Irish brethren knew from the crib: that the British monarch was a symbol of oppression. One ends up learning a few more things: That this same empire colonized India and parts of Africa and the Caribbean; exploited and benefited from the worst excesses of the transatlantic slave trade; induced famine in Ireland and Bengal; gave reparations to slaveowners after emancipation; murdered Black and brown people in their own towns, turned other humans into serfs, stole their wealth and jewels, and claimed to be doing it on behalf of enlightened civilization. These crimes were of immense proportions, affecting multiple generations. Where does personal respect end and accountability – or honesty – begin? Elizabeth, for all her personal grace, could not redeem a disgraceful legacy.
Tom Rachman: Shaken and stirred: Brits struggle with their emotions after losing the Queen
Canadian schoolchildren learn about the monarchy as if it’s a benign institution. Many of those same schoolchildren’s parents hailed from the lands blighted by the British Empire. Whether Elizabeth was responsible for the crimes of the Crown is secondary. Elizabeth was The Crown, and therefore cannot be extricated from the office she embodied. She wore the crown, as did her priors. That crown literally contains diamonds stolen from some of the people colonized.
With Elizabeth’s death, though, the grief is not so simple. By all accounts, she was a decent human being. She stood above the pernicious family politics that consumed all around her. She was also the representative of a certain legacy, and the Black, brown, and Irish people feeling a complex knot of emotions after her passing can be forgiven for still carrying the traumas inflicted by Elizabeth’s forebears.
Even this dignified Queen, when constricted by the diamond-encrusted thorns of the imperial Crown, could not bring herself to apologize for any of the Empire’s crimes. She could not countenance any reparations, even purely symbolic, for the Empire’s plunder. She was, in the end, her office. Perhaps that was her duty – to preserve a connection to the past that could withstand the tornadoes of change ripping through the West. The history she carried, for some people, was a symbol of monarchical continuity; for others, a reminder that their ancestors were nearly destroyed. There should be room within all of our hearts to understand the expressions of grief and anger coming from diverse peoples at the passing of such a significant figure.
At some point, however, the grieving ends, and one moves forward, renewed. Perhaps this is the time for Canada’s own national rebirth. Perhaps more Canadians could appear on our coins, and new Canadians could take an oath to the Constitution, and not the King. Perhaps, one day, a Canadian could even become head of state. Perhaps that person would be Indigenous.
To grow up is not to erase the past, but to grow out of it. What is certain is that the future does not belong to the Crown, or its inheritors. Not in the year 2022. It belongs to the ordinary people of every colour, from various corners of the globe, whom Elizabeth’s forebears never saw, the people who survived all the Crown’s violence, who survived the massacres of Empire, and yet lived to create a generation that would combine the strengths of all cultures, and indeed, would build their own crowns in the process. I grieve for Elizabeth’s passing, but will not shed a tear for the Crown, or the brutal, neglected history that sparkles out of all its diamonds.