By Raffique Shah
September 12, 2022
It’s incomprehensible that I, whose generation had every reason to dislike the British monarchy and wish for its early demise and for it to be replaced by something more modern, early in my life, became indifferent to the Windsors’ lingering presence as a symbol of Britain’s once inordinate prowess, and more than that, one woman’s mesmerising presence that defied all odds for almost 100 years.
Elizabeth R, more than any other royal, had such influence on my rebellious mind that when I was told by my wife that the Queen had died, I instinctively responded “long live the King,” as if that was etched in my psyche, part of my colonial construct, the only words I could utter. I didn’t ask “which queen?” when or where she died.
Elizabeth and I, born 20 years apart, were destined to cross each other’s paths in ways few royals and commoners did. When her coronation in England was held, on June 2, 1952, I was six years old attending what is now known as the Freeport Presbyterian School.
There was so much fanfare that accompanied the event, which, in my childish mind, I recall some aspects vividly. All pupils were there because we had heard that the new Queen had been generous enough to ensure all of us got “snowballs” dipped in delicious syrup, and buns. What a royal treat for mostly poor children whose parents could only occasionally afford such luxuries.
Each pupil also got light metal buttons that depicted Queen Elizabeth’s face and name that we could pin on our shirts. Now, tell me, how could we, and countless millions other poor children from across the British Empire, ever be disloyal or ungrateful to such a nice, generous queen?
It was when I started reading books that were not listed on the curricula, and encountered many examples of Britain’s brutality against its subjects who did not readily conform to what was required of us, that I saw the white man in all his nakedness.
As I read passages from The Black Hole of Calcutta, I understood what it must have been like being overstuffed into a gaping prison-hole in the searing heat, I tried to imagine that torture—inflicted by “civilised” white men on black or Indian subjects. Prester John by John Buchan, which was required reading for our literature class, seemed to have been a sick joke played on the pupils.
Dickensian England—say, taken from Oliver Twist or Great Expectations, among other chilling tales from medieval England—served, I suppose, to show that whites were as callous, as brutal to their own, as they were to “inferior” races. I hasten to add that for use of language, for excellent prose and great storytelling, you can’t beat Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, George Orwell, et al.
I was writing on what the late Queen Elizabeth meant to me when I wandered off into the brutal side of being British, why many non-whites will find it difficult to like Liz. When I devoured the syrupy “snowball” on Coronation Day in 1952, not in my wildest imagination did I think I’d hold an opinion of her, far less get close to her. But both happened before I was 20.
I went off to Sandhurst at age 18 where I discovered the monarchy was very much present in every form, and where the Queen was commander-in-chief. Every declaration was to queen and country, in that order—this while bloody struggles for independence or freedom engaged British troops in colonies as diverse as Malaysia, Kenya, British Guiana (Guyana), Aden, and ten or 12 more.
The blood of young British soldiers, at least one a former roommate of mine, soaked into the sandy desert wilderness or the muddy jungles of Asia and where one drop of British blood was spilt rest assured a bucket of native blood would flow. For reasons I could not fathom at the time, Britain seemed bent on holding on to colonies that had nothing in them but trouble.
In July, 1965, the Queen took what is called the sovereign’s parade and I got my first chance to see what the monarch looked like. I was standing rigidly at attention as she inspected the parade, passing less than three feet in front of me. In blooming yellow, she looked as small as a bird—but there I saw a monarch who had fascinated me since I was five.
The following year she led Commonwealth Heads into Westminster Abbey and I was a few feet away, carrying the Trinidad and Tobago colours. The Queen had so much influence over so many leaders of varying political persuasions that she could use to quell blood-letting and senseless wars, yet she made no such intervention, as far as I know. That I will always hold against an otherwise pleasant personality.