When my parents were born in Malaysia, the country was still part of the British Empire. Queen Elizabeth II was their monarch and it was she who “granted” independence to the nation in 1957.
As a young child growing up in Malaysia and Singapore, another former colony, the Queen’s face was distinct, present and always recognizable to me. She featured heavily in my stamp collection because Australia, New Zealand and other countries throughout the British Commonwealth honored her with stamps. She came to support Britain in my early history books, often flanked by the Beefeaters, the guards at Buckingham Palace. When I visited London aged three, I told everyone on the plane that I was going to London to ‘see the Queen’.
Queen Elizabeth II had by then distilled into a ubiquitous symbol of Britain that even a small child could recognise. I hooked her up with courtesy, tea, Digestive biscuits and towels. I believe many of us who grew up in former colonies have similar associations.
The British royal family is noted for its branding prowess. Queen Elizabeth II took advantage of the new media that emerged during her 70-year reign, from radio broadcasts to televised speeches. The Royal Mint and the Royal Mail secured her face on coins and stamps, making her ubiquitous. As an institution, the royal family has orchestrated the appearance around important events such as weddings and the Queen’s Jubilee. It has also created rules about how the Queen’s image and symbols can be deployed by other companies, tightly controlling how she is represented. All of these branding efforts seemed to be paying off: While support for the monarchy is waning in Britain, the queen herself was hugely popular until her death.
It wasn’t until I went to college and began to understand the history of colonialism that my impressions of it began to change. The British first arrived in my part of the world in the 1600s, first as traders, then as invaders, then as masters. In the centuries that followed, the British used their power to oppress my ancestors, extracting our natural resources, impoverishing us and claiming supremacy. They sent people from one colony to another to work on plantations. My forefathers were brought from South India to Malaysia as indentured laborers to work in the rubber plantations.
Scholars still grapple with the impact of British colonialism on people around the world. A study by economist Utsa Patnaik, published in 2018 by Columbia University Press, estimates that Britain stole a total of nearly $45 trillion from India alone in the period between 1765 and 1938. And a new book by Caroline Elkins, professor of history at Harvard University, describes how the British used systematic violence to maintain control, even though the rulers liked to present themselves as benevolent and civilized.
In 1920, the British Empire covered 24% of the land. But by the time Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1953, the British had lost control of the colonies. One of the queen’s greatest achievements was to give up this power with grace. She had the foresight to evolve her role from sovereign ruler to head of the commonwealth. In 1960, he created a personal flag to represent this new role, which he described as “an entirely new concept based on the highest qualities of the human spirit: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace.”
The queen’s postcolonial vision of herself played out exactly as she intended. She presented herself as a benevolent peacemaker and that is how many of us saw her when we saw her face on stamps and postcards. So, even from afar, in the former colonized countries, we tuned into television to watch her birthday celebrations. We were thrilled when members of the royal family “honored” us with their visits. And my parents granted my request, as a three-year-old, to visit Buckingham Palace to get a taste of it.
However, I wonder what would have happened if she wasn’t so good at shaping her self image and projecting it to the world. We may be forced to reckon with the uglier side of British colonialism. Perhaps the former colonies will demand reparations for everything the British have taken from us over the centuries. We’ll never know.
And given her long reign, Queen Elizabeth II has had decades to cement her legacy. It is likely that her image, so carefully planned for decades, will continue to evoke feelings of warmth in the affable head of the commonwealth, rather than the last reigning monarch of the colonies.