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Sadness and forgetting: Queen Elizabeth II, monarchy and empire

  • 20 September 2022
  Long queues lasting hours. Saturation coverage, featuring multiple journalists from the same national broadcaster. Australia’s programming, and that of several countries, readjusted. The passing of Queen Elizabeth II and her seventy-year reign has certainly made its mark.

The Australian reaction has been particularly striking. Parliament was suspended. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese insisted that this was not a time to be partisan, thereby placing a lid upon the pot of simmering republicanism. Only a few politicians expressed disagreement with the view of unqualified reverence, including Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe, who saw ‘anger and disbelief from First Nations people at the glorification of our oppressor.’

Internationally, the picture was more potted. In South Africa, the Economic Freedom Fighters party admitted no mourning for the passing of the monarch of seven decades, ‘because to us her death is a reminder of a very tragic period in this country and Africa’s history. Britain, under the leadership of the royal family, took over control of this territory that would become South Africa in 1795 from Batavian control, and took permanent control of the territory in 1806.’

Negative social commentary, typified by bilious remarks from critical race theorist and Carnegie Mellon academic Uju Anya on September 8 wishing the fading monarch to suffer ‘excruciating pain’, caused apoplectic rage. Fox News host and conservative commentator Tucker Carlson’s own response was typically, even grotesquely typical, about the virtues of empire. Just as the US had left Afghanistan ‘airstrips, shipping containers and guns’, the British bequeathed India ‘an entire civilisation.’

When more nuanced commentary came to the fore, it was hard to avoid the difficult realities of the British monarchy and an institution that has not, through its history, delighted those conquered in its name. With Elizabeth II, it was notable that she let an opportunity to engage the topic of empire in Britain’s collective memory go begging.

India provided one of the most striking sites of debate on the issue. There were responses of genuine respect, marked by qualified irritation. Flags were made to fly at half-staff, and a day of mourning declared. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated that the Queen would ‘be remembered as a stalwart of our times’ who ‘provided inspiring leadership to her nation and people.’ 

'As remarkable an enduring monarch as Queen Elizabeth II was, she remains synonymous with an institutional amnesia streaked with nostalgia.' 

That same day, Modi played his more accustomed role as Hindu nationalist, giving a speech