By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
September 19, 2022
On a sunny day in February of 1952 I was an eight-year-old schoolboy made to attend a memorial service for King George VI, the father of the late Elizabeth II. On that day I remembered the “Taps” played by the Police Band or the Tacarigua Orphan Home Band, as the bugles rattled through the bamboos on the banks of the Tacarigua River that flowed on the western side of the church.
In February 1955, Princess Margaret, Elizabeth’s sister, visited Trinidad. Once more we were ordered to stand on the side of the Churchill-Roosevelt Highway and wave our flags as her vehicle traversed slowly to the capital, as she brought royal greetings to our people. After our display of loyalty, we were rewarded with buns and maybe sweetened drinks. My sister, born in that month, was named in her honour.
Born in 1943, I share memories of the colonial era and the age of Independence. Those memories collided nostalgically in Germany in 2006 when Trinidad and Tobago played England at the World Cup finals. As we stood for the playing of the national anthems of both countries, “God Save the Queen” and “Forged from the Love of Liberty”, mixed feelings came over me.
Tomorrow, most of the Western world will stand in rapt attention as we/they view the burial of Queen Elizabeth II. However, it should not be forgotten that Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1552 to 1603, profited from the Atlantic slave trade. She approved of John Hawkins’ journey that brought 300 Africans to England which he sold eventually to North America. She also contributed one vessel to Hawkins’ second trip to Africa and received some of his profits from that journey.
Both the slave trade and slavery contributed to Britain’s riches and the subsequent enslavement of black and brown people. In its heyday, Britain’s empire covered over a quarter of the world’s landmass and claimed 700 million people as subjects. It was one of the world’s most violent empires even though it deluded itself that it was a civilising force.
Elizabeth, “a faithful Protestant”, was crowned on June 2, 1953. In her first speech to Parliament, she reminded her people of Britain’s imperial greatness and the need to protect itself from “the encroaching terrorism” of the natives. In so doing, she set the stage for the continued violence against her subjects.
Caroline Elkins, in her monumental book, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, reminds us that “violence was not particular to any one location or time period, but was rather intrinsic to Britain’s civilising mission… Violence was not just the British Empire’s midwife, it was endemic to the structures and systems of British rule. It was not just an occasional means to liberal imperialism’s end; it was a means and an end for as long as the British Empire remained alive. Without it, Britain could not have maintained its sovereign claims to its colonies”.
Britain’s cruelty in Kenya shows how cruelly it treated some of its subjects: “They used electric shock and hooked suspects up to car batteries. They tied suspects to vehicle bumpers with just enough rope to drag them to death… They thrust bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin, sticks, and hot eggs up men’s rectums and into women’s vaginas. They crushed bones and teeth; sliced off fingers or their tips; and castrated men with specially designed instruments or by beating a suspect’s testicles ’till the scrotum burst’, according to Anglican church officials…
“Mau Mau suspects and detainees were forced to clean night soil buckets barehanded and run for hours around a compound holding a full night soil bucket aloft, which then spilled over, encrusting the person holding it with faeces and urine.”
King Charles III has inherited much of his wealth from the people who his forebears exploited. His fortune is worth billions of dollars. This, however, “represents a small fraction of the royal family’s estimated $28 billion fortune. On top of that, the family has personal wealth that remains a closely guarded secret… As king, Charles will take over his mother’s portfolio and inherit a share of this untold personal fortune”. (NYT, September 13.)
In spite of this tremendous personal fortune, King Charles is not above taking money from any sources to advance the charity foundations that he supports. Recently, the Sunday Times reported that Charles “had accepted 3 million euros in cash—including money stuffed in shopping bags and suitcases—from a former Qatari prime minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani”.
In November of 2018, King Charles visited Ghana. He declared: “The appalling atrocity of the slave trade, and the unimaginable suffering it caused, left an undeniable stain on the history of our world” (London, Guardian, November 5, 2018.) However, he never apologised for the sins of his fathers and grandfathers.
One is entitled to feel saddened at the death of Queen Elizabeth II and even admire her perseverance in running her empire. However, we should not forget that the wealth Britain gained came from the sweat and toil of those who laboured in the colonies and those of us who were deluded by the grandeur of her empire.
As we watch the burial of Queen Elizabeth II we should remember the words of the second verse of the British National Anthem: “O Lord our God arise / Scatter her enemies / And make them fall / Confound their politics / Frustrate their knavish tricks / On Thee our hopes we fix / God save us all.”
Remember, too, that all that glitters isn’t always gold. The grandeur of the monarchy should be counterbalanced by the evils it committed.