It’s Complicated: Reflections on the Legacy of Queen Elizabeth II
At 6:30 PM BST September 8, 2022, it was announced Queen Elizabeth II quietly passed away at her beloved Balmoral Castle in Scotland. The announcement of her death sparked a variety of reactions across the world. To some, Elizabeth II’s 70-year reign, the longest of any female monarch in history, represented poise, unity, and stability as the United Kingdom adjusted to its new position on the world stage in the postwar era.
To others, however, she was a representation of England’s brutal, racist, and exploitative colonial past.
Still, there are others who view the Crown as nothing more than a pompous, antiquated, ceremonial position— an inconsequential tourist attraction with no real power in today’s world.
What about SAIS students? How do they view the monarchy?
To find out, I sat down with six students— all from the UK or former British colonies— to hear their reactions to the news, what the monarchy represents to them, and how Charles III taking the reins would affect British foreign policy moving forward.
From sadness, shock, and disbelief to indifference, memes, and nonchalance, SAISers and their families had a variety of reactions to the news.
“It came as a bit of a shock, even though she was really old. My mom always used to joke that the Queen was her grandma and she was going to have tea with her grandma,” said Veronica Mensah, a second-year MAIR student from Ghana.
“You feel sad when someone passes away. The queen, for my grandma, was someone that had been around her entire life and occupied that role. So, I think it’s somewhat of a big change. My mom had a similar kind of feeling, not crying or anything, just sad. Even my German family thought it was sad. I think a lot of people in Germany are big fans because after WWII she was kind of a figurehead of the reconciliation with Germany after WWII.” said Joshua Vitzthum, a
half German, half British second-year MAIR student.
Despite the expressions of general sadness over the loss of human life, every interviewee made a similar caveat— while the Queen was nice and charming on an interpersonal level, she was still the head of state of a country with a long and troubled history of racism, exploitation, and colonialism.
“No one is going to say she was the Prime Minister or a general on the ground in Nigeria, however, in the colonies, to the people on the ground, she was viewed as the ruling monarch—the head of state. To them, seeing her at the helm while these atrocities took place does not make her absent of responsibility. My father was able to get a full-ride scholarship to MIT after receiving an amazing education in Ghana despite, not because of, British withdrawal from the country.” says Deji Oyekunle, a first-year Nigerian American student.
How the Queen was viewed appeared to depend heavily on socioeconomic, educational, and generational factors. Many students who were either American or several generations removed from colonial rule were fairly indifferent.
“The thing with a lot of Indian people is that they are very paradoxical in their thinking. Both my mom and my aunt yesterday were saying the line of ‘Queen Elizabeth represented a more dignified role of the monarchy’ but, in the same breath, would say the monarchy is horrible and did horrible things. Even in India there’s a long-standing divide between wealthier, more English-educated Indians, who have a more favorable view of the monarchy, and poorer, less educated Indians.” remarked William Simpson, a first-year student whose mother is Indian.
While student’s opinions on Queen Elizabeth and what her time on the throne represented were mixed, their thoughts on what King Charles might do to address Britain’s historic wrongs, such as returning stolen art and artifacts, issuing formal apologies from the Crown, or approaching the conversation around reparations were not.
Tanvi Gupta, a second-year MAIR student from India, said, “I think the monarchy is losing a bit of relevance. Elizabeth being alive was good for their relevance and now that she’s gone I think they’re going to struggle a bit. In a perfect world they would return the art but what’s the incentive to do it? I guess if they start they’d have to return everyone’s, which would be amazing, but I just don’t think they are going to.”
Others were even more pessimistic about the new monarch.
“What do you think Charles is going to do? Nothing at all. The man just got his first job at 70, he still needs to do all the onboarding and that will take a while. By the time that’s done they’ll disappear back into obscurity.” Kosi Ogbuli, a first-year MAIR, continued, “What do I think they should do? Return everything. You can keep the castle… but the crown? The diamond? That’s out. Put all the wealth of the royals in a trust, like the Patagonia guy, and have it set up so only the people affected by British colonialism can access it. I don’t think any former colonial subject cares about an apology.”
As in most things, reactions to the death of Queen Elizabeth were complicated and nuanced. Despite the Queen herself appearing to be a sweet, inoffensive, maternal figure, it is hard to separate her personally from the hundreds of years of brutal colonial rule the Crown represents. Will these wrongs be addressed under King Charles’ rule? Students from the commonwealth are not holding their breath.