The British Empire once ruled over a quarter of the world’s population, from North America to India and from interior Africa to the Middle East. This June, the UK is lavishly celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, marking 70 years since she ascended the throne in 1952, after her father, King George VI, died, to become the longest serving Head of State in British history. Under Queen Elizabeth, much of the British Empire collapsed, as many nations became independent.
However, as the United Kingdom displays cheerful images celebrating the Queen’s seven decades on the throne, a terrible history of the country she leads lurks in the background—history of pain, humiliation, slavery and divisions are still remembered across the globe. Nothing will make that history go away and be forgotten. Nations, which paid dearly under the British Empire and still live with the consequences, from India to Jamaica, will always remember such legacies.South Sudan became the last former British colony to gain independence in 2011 by breaking away from The Sudan, which was also part of the British Empire on which the “sun never sets”. Careful scrutiny of the imperial history in The Sudan would reveal that its division, decades after independence, was rooted in an imperial idea to, administratively, divide it into two regions back in the earlier 19th century, and that break up became a division leading to actual partition. The British colonial policy makers, undoubtedly, mastered the “divide and rule” game earlier on and made it a standard policy wherever they set foot.
Wherever the Empire ruled, it made history and turned lives of millions of people around in unprecedented ways and, when it was time to leave, it created divisions, instability and wars across the vast Empire, from Palestine to Kenya and from Iraq to South America, leaving millions of people to face every unimaginable calamity.
Sir James Fitzgerald, the last Chief Justice of Palestine, while packing to depart as the British Mandate in the Holy Land came to an end, summed it up by saying “It is surely new technique in our imperial mission to walk out and leave the pot we placed on the fire to boil over.“ That pot is still boiling, more than seven decades later. Imperial UK made sure that Palestine will not know peace by issuing the notorious Balfour Declaration, promising Palestine to the Zionist movement to create what became Israel in 1947, and sending millions of Palestinians into refugee camps where they are still living today. As years went by, the UK never stopped supporting Israel, as it continues to steal Palestinian land in incremental steps by confiscating Palestinian homes and agriculture lands, forcing more Palestinians into the Diaspora, scattered around the world.
Decades later, Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, would face the same fate, as the UK struck a secret deal with the United States to hand it over to become the largest American military base outside the USA. Its entire population was brutally removed by the British and dumped in Mauritius’s poor neighbourhoods. A British official justified their removal by describing them as mere “Tarzans and Men Fridays”, not people of the land with a deep history. Despite being British subjects, they cannot go back to their ancestors’ land—even today, and not even for a visit.
For the Palestinians, former subjects of the British Empire, and the Chagos Islanders, a simple apology for this British disaster would be the best celebration of the Platinum Jubilee. However, that is not forthcoming any time soon.As part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, her grandson, Prince William, the second in line to the British throne, visited Jamaica where he was met by Jamaicans protesting his visit and demanding a formal UK apology for the slave trade during the Empire era. Instead of apologising, the Prince expressed his “profound sorrow” for the slavery that “should never have happened”, but not an apology. His father, Prince Charles, while visiting Barbados last November, described slavery as an “appalling atrocity” while attending celebrations ending Barbados’s links to the British Crown and becoming a Republic. Jamaica is also planning to become a Republic. Neither the Crown Prince nor his son, William, or the British government offered sincere official apologies to any nation that was colonised by the UK. On 20 May, Prince Charles faced calls for an apology from Indigenous Peoples in Canada—once part of the Empire, too— but offered none.
Earlier this month, more than 100,000 Kenyans, another former British colony, petitioned Prince William to help them get an apology and reparations from the UK for human rights abuses and land theft they suffered between 1902 and 1963, when Kenya became independent. Again, they have got nothing so far.
The slave trade in the Caribbean remains a particularly painful legacy of the British Empire. Even inside the UK, itself, more people are demanding the removal of its symbols dotting public spaces across the country. Since the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, some 70 memorials and landmarks glorifying slavery-linked imperial individuals have been removed, or considered for removal/renaming, in London and elsewhere in the UK.
But despite these niceties, part of the British political establishment still refuses to officially apologise to any nation they have colonised. Nigel Farage does not believe in any apology at all, while the Labour party proposed investigations into Britain’s colonial legacy, but even that is not an agreeable proposition. Theresa May, a Conservative former prime minister in 2019, stopped short of apologising for the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India, instead expressing her “deep” regret for the murder of 379 civilians who were peacefully protesting the arrest of a civilian leader.
Intriguingly enough, the colonial mentality that justified the Empire’s past atrocities, appears well entrenched in the UK’s education system. A petition on the UK parliament’s page demanding that the colonial past and transatlantic slave trade be made compulsory subjects in UK schools, received less than 300,000 signatures. After Prince William’s Kenyan episode, 95 per cent of respondents from over four thousand polled, said he should not apologise— not much different from the thinking of former Empire officials who justified infamous outrages during the Imperial years.
To really mark this Platinum Jubilee milestone, remember Queen Elizabeth should act responsibly and apologise for her country’s tragic colonial past. At 96 years of age this year, 2022, this may well be her last chance to make history by saying “sorry” to millions of people in India, Palestine, Jamaica, Kenya and many more around the world who her ancestors once ruled.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.