Was Queen Elizabeth an imperialist war criminal whose death should not be mourned? Some absurdly are suggesting so, because she presided over the British Empire, or at least its final days. These voices of grievance against the British have a grossly distorted view of humanity. The British Empire was bad compared to what?
Americans were among the earliest “victims” of the British Empire, hence the American Revolution. It’s fashionable now to mock the original American patriots, who supposedly were just rebelling over taxes. But they rightly feared their basic liberties were endangered, not just through taxation without representation but also forced housing of British troops in American homes, arrests, and trials of Americans by British military courts instead of a jury of peers, with the occupation of and trade blockade against Boston, America’s second largest city. But the reasons for independence enlarged during the war. During peace talks with the British, Benjamin Franklin told his British counterparts that America was no longer interested in the empire and independence was nonnegotiable. He cited the atrocities against American prisoners on British war ships in New York Harbor, on which 11,000 Americans died, the equivalent of over one million relative to today’s population.
Americans, like most peoples, did not want to live under a foreign potentate across the sea and preferred to rule ourselves. And yet we owe nearly all our laws, system of government, liberties, and political sensibilities to the British. We are glad to be independent but grateful for our British origins. Almost every society that was under the British Empire, whatever the misdeeds and even atrocities, benefitted from it. Most countries who were under the empire are now part of the British Commonwealth because they, in some sense, however mixed, appreciate this legacy.
But Washington Post columnist Karen Atiah asked: “How do we speak honestly about the loyal servants to Britain’s powerful and historically brutal empire?” Atiah quoted a Carnegie Mellon professor of Nigerian background who had tweeted, “I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is dying. May her pain be excruciating.” Atiah lamented these “harsh and hateful words” but thought them understandable for those who “have suffered massacre and displacement at the hands of the British.”
Atiah admits that nearly all of Britain’s empire was decolonized during Elizabeth’s reign. But she insists there should be no credit because Britain only did so under economic pressure. And she admits that Elizabeth, as a figurehead monarch, had virtually no say over British. But Elizabeth is still faulted for representing a brutal system and adorning herself “with jewels plundered from former colonies.” Atiah, who’s also of Nigerian descent, also faults Britain for backing postcolonial Nigeria’s suppression of its Biafra region 60 years ago.
In reality, Nigeria, like all countries, would have violence and tumult, as it does today, even if the British Empire never existed. Current fashion ignores that humanity is intrinsically and universally sinful and prefers to imagine most of humanity as the victims of ongoing oppressive systems typically equated with Western Civilization. The West certainly has committed centuries of depredations. But the West did not invent empire, colonialism, conquest, and oppression, which have been central to all human history, on every continent. Every society originates in the story of conquests, in which one tribe conquers other tribes, suppressing them, sometimes slaughtering them, displacing them, exploiting them, privileging themselves over the tribes they defeated, sometimes erasing all memory of them.
A new film called The Woman King is about the Dahomey Kingdom in West Africa that endured until the late 19th century, displaced by the British Empire. The Dahomey arose in the 1600s and, like other empires, grew by conquering and displacing other tribes. They prospered on the booty of their conquest and by selling the defeated tribes into slavery, mainly to European slave traders. The British Empire, after abolishing slavery in the 1830s, began to suppress African kingdoms that sold slaves, including the Dahomey. The movie features a fictional warrior woman fighting to defend her people and to halt their slave-selling habits. But in truth, there was no abolition movement among the Dahomey. The British Empire was the abolition movement.
The British Empire of course profited from slavery in the 1600s and 1700s before it shifted dramatically against slavery and led the way in eliminating legal slavery from the earth for the first time across thousands of years of human history. Like all empires, the British Empire was greedy and self-serving and often oppressive and cruel. It also carried with it British concepts of liberty, human rights, limited government, and rule of law. America’s Founding Fathers were claiming what Britain’s trajectory of ordered liberty ultimately pointed to. So too were countless freedom fighters in later British colonies, like Gandhi. The British Empire in its final days heroically fought and defeated far worse tyrannies like the Third Reich and Soviet Union. Some in former British colonies, like the people of Hong Kong, may wish they still lived under the British crown instead of the tyrants in Beijing. Under Britain, Hong Kong lacked full self-rule but had freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and rule of law, under which it prospered.
The British Empire, despite all its sometimes-crooked chicanery, ultimately was a liberal empire that pointed to human liberty and dignity realized through parliamentary constitutional democracy. Queen Elizabeth’s reign included that empire’s efforts to decolonize and transmit lawful democracy to its former colonies, often resisting Communists and others who contended for dictatorship.
Queen Elizabeth represented the best of the British Empire: dignified, respectful, restrained, stable, transcending culture and time on behalf of timeless truths. Confused critics like Atiah, often from their own vantage point of privilege within the American “empire,” want to “dismantle” the last vestiges of Elizabeth’s supposedly “racist, colonial empire.” They are blind to the far worse evils that the British Empire blocked. And they ignore the great tyrannies of today that truly threaten decency and humanity, against which British-originated principles of liberty still contend.