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For many, Queen Elizabeth II's death reopens painful wounds

Queen Elizabeth II attends a service for the Order of the British Empire at St Paul's Cathedral on March 7, 2012 in London, England. (Geoff Pugh/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II attends a service for the Order of the British Empire at St Paul's Cathedral on March 7, 2012 in London, England. (Geoff Pugh/Getty Images)

For some, the recent death of Queen Elizabeth II signaled an end to British glory. But for others, it reopened painful wounds.

The history of British colonialism is still an ever-present issue, as Harvard history professor Maya Jasanoff writes in an essay for the New York Times, “Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire.” As queen, Elizabeth’s job was to be the face of the British state as she toured domains and held ceremonies, Jasanoff says.

“Behind the scenes, there were much more violent and bloody kinds of upheavals,” Jasanoff says. “I think it’s important that we just bear in mind that the vision, the image that we see, is not the same necessarily as the full picture.”

Elizabeth was crowned queen in 1953 in the wake of India and Pakistan’s independence from British rule. Many believed colonialism to be largely over with Elizabeth on the throne, but Jasanoff disagrees. Although a few other nations gained independence, a majority of colonies still remained under the British Empire’s control. Thanks to the imagery Queen Elizabeth purported, Jasanoff says people nowadays believe that transfer of power was peaceful.

Some argue Elizabeth shouldn’t be held responsible for the sins of her ancestors and that she was only a symbolic figurehead with no substantive power. Others also see the monarchy as an apolitical institution, separate from the actions of the British Empire. How people view the monarchy now is the result of hundreds of years of “deliberate fashioning” by the monarchy to produce a specific, favorable image, Jasanoff says.

Increasing conversation surrounding reparations and redress for Britain’s harmful past has only been sparked by a force of events — such as Kenya’s lawsuit against the British state brought forward by torture victims — or handled by others in the queen’s circle. Prior to taking the throne, King Charles III made amends for slavery while visiting the Caribbean.

“It was [Charles], not the queen, who did that,” Jasanoff says. “My hunch is that we will now see more open conversations now that she has passed.”

Elizabeth’s death shocked many around the world, including those from former colonies. While it may seem contradictory, Jasanoff says Elizabeth did her job well, meeting people around the globe and touching minds and hearts.

Elizabeth’s rule spanned the entirety of many peoples’ lives and her status as a fixture of the world gives people a sense that people knew her personally, Jasanoff says.

“We have all of these images of her and her family. We feel as if we know them, when, in fact, we most of us reallyknow remarkably little about them,” Jasanoff says. “But they have been put before us. We’ve been invited to attach our emotions to them, and I think we’re seeing some of the consequences of that now.”


Kalyani Saxena produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Gabe Bullard. Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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