The passing of Queen Elizabeth II has sparked a long-needed discussion about the role of the monarchy and the legacy of the British Empire. This empire included 15 countries for which the queen was the head of state, including my family’s Jamaica, as well as 40 other Commonwealth members, of which she was the leader.
Many commentators defended her imperial record, one declaring that, “she oversaw a decolonization process that played out around the world, and did so with a great sense of responsibility and duty.” Indeed, the queen took her colonial role seriously, sending the following message to “peoples of the British Commonwealth Empire,” while still a princess in 1947: “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and to the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” The problem is that the outcomes for those in the “imperial family” have always been based on the logic of white supremacy: that Black and brown life is disposable to secure the prosperity for those deemed white.
The queen is the perfect representative of the new age of empire, which poses as benevolent but is based on the same racist logic of the classic colonial period. When she ascended to the throne in 1953, her role as monarch was almost entirely symbolic and Britain was dismantling its empire, ceding to demands from the colonies for their independence. As the powerless figurehead of the empire, her bestowing freedom on colonial subjects was apt—because independence, too, was often largely symbolic. The illusion of political power masked the reality that the economic exploitation of the former colonies remained intact and remains so to this very day.
Take a glance at a map of the world by gross domestic product per capita and it will be obvious that the poorest parts of the world are where the Black people live, the richest the white West, with a ladder of relative suffering in between. The racist paradigms through which the West views the world tend to blame poor people for their poverty. Many observers call corruption an affliction of those in the underdeveloped world, and blame it as the main cause of continued inequality. Thirty African countries lost an estimated $1.8 trillion in so called “capital flight” between 1970 and 2015, far more than the $991 billion received in aid. But if you consider where the money comes from and where it ends up, it is abundantly clear there is little African about the corruption.
For instance, after independence, African countries were left underdeveloped, with few schools, hospitals or infrastructure—and expected to compete in the world. These countries quickly fell into debt and turned to institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for help. The institutions attached conditions, known as structural adjustment conditionalities, that opened up the borrowers’ markets to predators.
The result is that we live in a world that reflects the image of white supremacy. By a recent calculation, resource transfers from the Global South (for the most part, the former colonies) to the Global North (the former colonizers and their allies) between 1970 and 2015 amounted to $242 trillion.
Apparently, the queen had a special place in her heart for Africa, so we should look no further to explore the brutal legacy of empire. At least 17 African countries were part of the British empire—from Nigeria in the west and Kenya in the east to South Africa. Decades after independence, these countries remain underdeveloped, lagging behind the former mother country on every metric. We can see this clearly in not just poverty data but in the effects on health and life expectancy. Average life expectancy in Britain is 81.3 with similar rates in the majority-white countries in the former empire: Canada (82.4), Australia (83.4), New Zealand (82.3) and the United States (78.9). But among Britain’s former African colonies, life expectancies range from 69.6 in Botswana, with a population of less than 2.5 million, to a mere 54.7 in Nigeria, with 217 million residents. This is an unfortunate pattern replicated across so-called sub-Saharan Africa and goes a long way toward explaining why COVID did not have the devastating effect in Africa that it had in the West. There are simply far fewer people old enough to be in the high-risk categories.
In the most developed of Britain’s former African colonies, South Africa, there are more deaths in the 30–34 age bracket than in the 80–84 range. Contrast that to Britain, where there are 36 times as many deaths in the older age bracket. A child born in Somalia has a greater chance of dying before their fifth birthday than a U.S. soldier’s chance of falling in combat during the Vietnam War. Africa is often celebrated as a young continent, but this is just a reflection of low life expectancy. Racism is a matter of life and death all over the world, and the evidence is clear that life matters significantly less in Britain’s former African empire than in the Mother Country. The world celebrated meeting many of the U.N. Millennium Development goals, but these were mostly achieved by China’s rapid success—progress not felt in Africa. As other parts of the underdeveloped world have reduced levels of poverty, researchers predict that by 2030, nine out of 10 people in the world living in extreme poverty will reside on the continent.
The British Empire has not been solely responsible for the creation of the world in the image of white supremacy, but it has undoubtedly been one of the main protagonists. The result is a world where children in former colonies die by the second because of the lack of access to food and clean water. Nine million people die every year from hunger in a world that produces an excess of food. Millions of Black and brown people die from preventable illnesses like tuberculosis, which claims 1.5 million lives annually. It is simply absurd to imagine that decolonization led to an end of Western imperial domination. We may have moved beyond the age of genocidal violence, but the scale of death caused by a racist economic order is in itself a crime against humanity.
The queen was the bridge between the old and new editions of Western empire building, with her reign beginning when the British empire was still intact and ending with most of the colonies having a measure of independence. Rather than representing a beacon of change, Queen Elizabeth was the figurehead for what Malcolm X called “benevolent colonialism”—a system of racist colonial exploitation that pretends to be offering a helping hand to the very people it continues to oppress. With her reign now over, it is the perfect moment to question not only the role of the monarchy in perpetuating white supremacy but how to upend the unjust economic order that gave the British crown its power, and fuels it to this very day.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.