Every week on the Gregorian calendar, there is an independence day celebration by a former British colony. Today, 62 countries – a great many of them African – exist as reminders of British imperial ambition. In the wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the British empire, quite predictably, is facing another emotionally-charged scrutiny, more especially in Africa.
White European and American sensibilities have been offended with the pillorying the British monarchy is receiving in the aftermath of the queen’s death. While some have claimed that they do not necessarily object to criticisms of British imperialism but would rather have the conversation at a more appropriate time, the offense has largely been taken as a result of a divergence of views of what imperialism means. There are many who would like Africans to be grateful for British imperialism or to spare Elizabeth in particular, the rancor.
The global public has a tricky relationship with what empire is. Here, I do not wish to provoke the historiographical question of what reign and subjugation deserve to be called imperial. Rather, my concern is moral – do we think empire is bad? What do we think happens when the imperialists come to town?
My argument is that those who are confused and frustrated with the section of Africans who would prefer to spit on Queen Elizabeth’s grave may not be entirely conversant with what British and European imperialism fashioned. At best, they are very forgiving or forgetful.
The point of European imperialism
One may cite two main theories for why empires exist. There is the view that an imperial status is a natural consequence of growth, and in a rather competitive world, it is key to the sustenance of a nation. The curious case of Belgium owning an African colony that was more than 70 times the size of Belgium, follows from this tradition. The very first Belgian monarch, King Leopold I, considered owning a colony in accordance with the expectations of nation-building in 1840s Europe. Belgium, founded in 1830, needed to exact its sphere of influence over an area where it could also extract materials.
The second opinion on empire is right up Rudyard Kipling’s poetic alley – that imperialism occurs when some people take it upon themselves to civilize others. Kipling’s White Man’s Burden implores the white man to “seek another’s profit” and “work another’s gain”, language that likens imperialism to charity missions. The 19th century British colonial entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes was certainly a man who thought himself a Christian soldier even if he expropriated African wealth.
Both theories invite a certain sympathy for the imperialist cause. We are asked to understand empire as a matter of necessity, and in this light, the evils of empire tend to be unintended repercussions of either a nation’s raison d’être or the small price to pay for civilization.
Imperialism is not specifically European but European imperialism, birthed by their age of enlightenment, is specifically treacherous in a way and to a magnitude that other systems of domination cannot compare.
It is absolutely necessary to remind all that the internationalization of the counter-imperialist movement is only a little more than a century old. For the longest while in global affairs, history is written by the victors”, as the saying goes, and at this juncture, by victors who were unified in a supra-kingdom identity. The creation of race, for one, during this period literally incentivized a wider European participation in colonisation because the idea of white supremacy justifies the atrocities meted out to those who were seen as philosophically and physically sub-human. And this is partly why the concept of empire has enjoyed hallowed glorification, thanks to the ‘winners’ who wrote world history.
This is as true as it is Thrasymachian. And that brings me to the point of European imperialism.
Apart from territorial expansionist politics, European imperialism was also a ‘world-making’ opportunity where the values, truths and thought processes of the vanquished gave way to those of the victors. European imperialism in Africa was designed to pursue the interests of crown, capital and if you can believe, Christ, but the processes of whipping our fore-parents in line was also to culminate in the standardization of a certain kind of world where the African and all other peoples knew their place beneath the white European.
We often refer to the usurpation of a people’s intangible way of life as cultural imperialism and it
is as if that is separate from colonization. But this is a consequence of recency bias because in fact, in the long history of human evolution, cultural imperialism has been occasioned only through overtaking lands. Americanisation, a perfect example of imperialism through Hollywood, Bretton Woods and Silicon Valley, is a very recent phenomenon. Even that is often spurred by military adventurism.
But European imperialism was the motherboard. From about the 17th century, the seeds of the world we now know had begun to bear fruits. Colonies in Africa, Asia, and Americas were situated in compliance with the conveniences of London, Brussels, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon et al. The writer Howard French also notes in Born in Blackness that this period was the beginning of the obscuration of Africa’s primary contributions and agency in the making of the modern world. Plundering the continent and belittling Africans was essential to Eurocentric world-making. Indeed, by colonizing virtually everyone else, Europe essentially created the modern world in its own image and in obeisance to its own interests.
Sadly, in many history textbooks across Africa, young people are taught the ‘merits’ of colonization. But if imperialism was an opportunity to construct a world apropos of Europeanism, any merit of colonization is literally the tools the colonized was bequeathed to survive in a world created by the colonizer.
Elizabeth and African anger
Indeed, no other imperial European power proved as successful as the British colonial experience. The lengths reached by British domination were the stuff of envy, with crown providing the arms and legs to the dreams of capitalist exploitation, particularly in Africa. That was the case for more than 200 years before Elizabeth became the queen of her people and the colonized.
In conversations with various individuals, I have urged an elevation of the target of our polemics and I stand accused of humanizing the woman whose political office represents so much of how things have historically gone south for Africans. I often feel that to single out the departed queen for the iniquities of the empire can seem mean-spirited and intellectually myopic. After all, Elizabeth, like her father George and her son Charles, was born to ceremonial duty and destiny.
It’s not personal, it’s business, and the machinery that props them – which should be our target – has been grinding for nearly half a millennium
Since 1660, the British monarchy has been updated with the times and lest we forget, the clamor for its dissolution is older than Britain’s exploits in Africa. But the question of why the monarchy persists in the United Kingdom is not an interesting question and it is one I am grateful not to answer. Mine is to seek to understand how and why the monarchy expanded its grandeur and allure internationally. Why has it also, in contemporary times, maintained its popular mystique despite the advent of liberal democracy and in spite of the stories of its dying and dead counterparts? (The European monarchies that survived World War I are not half as intriguing or powerful as Buckingham Palace today).
Perhaps, that is where Elizabeth and her reign come in. In 1952, when her father died, Elizabeth was on a family vacation in the British colony of Kenya. Later in the same year. the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) lit the fires of what has come to be known as the MauMau Uprising. It was a response to the British government’s sanction that forced locals off their lands to make room for colonial settlers. The uprising was only one of several ominous acts of civil disobedience after World War II in British Africa. The independence struggle had picked up across the continent by this time and in Britain, the colonial power was planning and pitching postcolonial scenarios. In 1953, Elizabeth told New Zealanders in a Christmas message broadcast via radio that she felt at home anywhere the British had colonized but was ditching the imperial tradition for a “new conception of an equal partnership of races and nations”, i.e. the Commonwealth.
But the significance of that fateful day when George I died for many Africans is that Elizabeth’s ascension began in Africa. If the argument is therefore that Africa should have occupied more than a footnote in Elizabeth’s imperial reign – as history has shown – those who make it have been sorely disappointed. In fairness, the future queen had already announced on an earlier visit to the continent – Cape Town, South Africa in 1947 – that she was committed “to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong”. She did not attempt to depart from this pledge even if the British substituted “imperial” for “Commonwealth”.
Sometimes, Elizabeth’s defenders cite her evangelism of the commonwealth in the former colonies as proof that she welcomed positive change. But the imperial-to-commonwealth argument falls at the first hurdle – what is our common wealth when our alliance is not on common grounds? Where are the reparations and acknowledgements that equal partners require to forge forward?
For a large part of the three score years and a decade that she reigned, Elizabeth was singularly the most effective arsenal in the British diplomatic toolkit and she was deployed quite effectively. By whatever design or spell, the queen was often regaled with excellent hospitality in the former colonies whose leaderships could separate her person from the politics. Even in Ghana, the magnificent force of decolonization, Kwame Nkrumah, danced famously and heartily with Queen Elizabeth in 1961 when she visited that country.
She was around for the consensuses that have shaped the post-World War II world in the last 50 years and incredibly failed to take advantage of watershed moments to kick off what will undoubtedly be a long and hard conversation. She seemed content to play envoy of imperial purpose and perhaps, this is what I overlook when I extend her grace.
The monarchy’s allure has been perpetuated by more efforts than the Machiavellian attempts in London. But critically, what we have witnessed is the power of an institution to soften the blows thrown at British colonialism, dissuade retrospection and offer nothing more than gesture politics.
With this in mind, what many Africans are saying today is that the queen made the choice to star as alibi for imperialism.