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The questions over the queen’s role in Britain’s violent empire, explained by a historian

An expert on the British Empire explains “Her Majesty’s government” in the 20th century.

Queen Elizabeth II next to soldiers in red.
Queen Elizabeth II in Kenya in November 1983.
John Shelley Collection/Avalon/Getty Images
Caroline Houck is senior editor of news at Vox, where she oversees the daily flagship newsletter and helps direct news coverage.

Queen Elizabeth II’s death last week has prompted both an outpouring of grief and complicated reactions across the globe — in large part because during her 70 years on the throne, she ruled over the twilight of the British Empire.

At the height of that empire after the First World War, the United Kingdom had colonies on every continent save Antarctica, ruling one out of every five people in the world. Over the centuries, Britain extracted wealth from those colonized lands — by one estimate, $45 trillion in today’s dollars from India alone.

“All empires were violent,” said Caroline Elkins, whose second book, Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, came out earlier this year. “And the British Empire was no exception to that.”

And decoupling the monarchy from that legacy is in some ways impossible.

“The monarchy very much wraps itself up into the empire — deploying its symbols, its images, its familial language,” Elkins said. “There’s no question that serious, systemic violence and crimes happened in her name, during her period of reign.”

At the same time, there’s “absolutely no extant documentary evidence directly linking [Queen Elizabeth II] to knowledge of systematic violence and cover-up in the empire,” Elkins said, and what little evidence does exist indicates that some of Britain’s highest-ranking officials lied to the queen to cover up atrocities, “just as they did with the public and Parliament.” And yet, she acknowledged, for some it might seem implausible that a monarch “renowned for her incredible knowledge about foreign affairs ... really was completely in the dark.”

Vox spoke to Elkins, a professor of history and African American studies at Harvard University, to dig into those questions about the legacy of British colonialism and the role of the monarchy — then and now.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The queen’s death has sparked a lot of really disparate reactions, some of them resurfacing grievances about colonialism and the way it continues to affect the world, that are probably not discussed often enough. So let’s get into that. The British Empire isn’t ancient history; it was still a huge power in the 20th century. Can you give us a sense of what that empire was like?

The British Empire was the largest in history. And in that period, after World War I, it was at its height. To give a sense of size and scope, about a quarter of the world’s landmass was part of the empire. Nearly one in five people around the world were British subjects.

And I think it’s very important also to bear in mind at this period of time, Britain was the superpower in the world. So Britain is ruling the world, and its empire has a formidable role considering that otherwise, as George Orwell would say, it’s sort of a craggy rock where people were cooking potatoes and herring.

It was a massive, massive empire. How was it maintained?

It’s important for us to take a big-picture stepback and say: All empires were violent. And the British Empire was no exception to that.

There is a myth, as we think about it as historians, of “British exceptionalism” [from that rule]. And I have spent pretty much the last 30 years of my career really excavating the historical record to demonstrate the degree to which violence or the threat of violence was a major component in how Britain was able to maintain this massively large empire.

One of your books actually gets into that, and specifically gets into the case of Kenya. Do you want to explain what happened in Kenya?

So Kenya — particularly after the loss of India in 1947 — becomes one of the jewels in the imperial crown, along with Malaya, in part because it is a major source of cash crop production in the form of tea and coffee. It also has a bit of a romantic affinity with many people in the colonial world — it’s a white settler colony. Because of the settler presence, there was large-scale land alienation from Black Africans, who were overnight turned into sort of landless individuals or populated into very overcrowded reserves, much like we would think of Native American reserves in the United States, and then exploited for their labor on these different plantations.

After World War II, there’s a movement called Mau Mau, which is effectively an anti-colonial movement, as well as a civil war. It’s a civil war because there were Africans on the ground who were also working within the colonial administration, called loyalists. And this war was waged against both what were seen as the white and Black faces of colonial rule. And there was approximately 1.5 million people who had taken an oath ... for their land and freedom. And what ends up happening is it descends into a brutal, bloody battle, and it was largely waged against the civilian population. About 20,000 Mau Mau guerrillas or fighters fought the British military in the forest, and it’s kind of a jungle war.

But a disproportionate amount of the time was spent detaining the entire Kikuyu population who had taken this oath, about 1.5 million people, in detention without trial. And a large number were detained in a detention camp system. And then, for the most part, women and children are detained in a process called “villagization,” where they are put into barbed-wire villages, which are detention camps in all but name. And it’s in these systems of detention where draconian, systematized violence and brutality and torture were instrumented in horrific ways. There was also forced labor and starvation policies. And these were done in order to force this rebellious population to submit to British colonial rule, to reject their Mau Mau movement and to come back into the fold of British colonial control.

That’s really horrific. I think one of the questions that raises is: How high up in the British government are these decisions being made? How representative is this of how the UK government more broadly treated people in its colonies?

My [second book] demonstrated two things to your question. The first of which is that Kenya was not an exception. It was part of a much longer system, stretching all the way back into the late 19th/early 20th century, of the movement of ideas and people, practices, legal regimes, that created sort of this web of violence and the laws enabling them and the actors executing them across the British Empire. The British government oversaw the movement of both these people and practices from one hot spot to the next every time there was a rebellious population.

The second of which is: Who knew what? And what did knowing mean, right? And what is very clear from my research is that ministers all the way up to the prime minister knew this in successive governments. So Winston Churchill would be one. And certainly, Churchill was actually quite instrumental, prior to his ascending to the premiership, in crafting some of these policies — for example, “air control” in the Middle East, what we would call today weapons testing — from his role in executing, in various ministries within the government, policies that were meant to both conquer and reconquer colonized populations. And, of course, he wasn’t the only one.

And I think what’s very important to bear in mind is that this transcended party. Some of the most draconian policies were implemented and enacted under the Labour government. In the postwar Labour government of Clement Attlee, Malaya becomes a site of the first real use of detention without trial on a massive wide scale (after it was used, of course, early in the 20th century in the South African or the Boer War). But in Malaya, it’s policy: illegal deportations; villagization, the putting of these colonized populations into villages; the degree to which black spots are used for interrogation and torture — this all happens under the Labour government, and the knowledge of that goes all the way up to the top. And I think that was what was so stunning in some of my research: the degree to which people knew this was going on at the time.

And then the extraordinary effort that was made to cover it up in the moment. So the lying to Parliament, the lying to the media, the explaining away whenever instances are brought to light, that “these were unfortunate one-offs that are the result of minor officials, bad apples,” such that they really sidestepped any accusation of systemic violence and brutality in the empire. But make no mistake, those allegations were being made, over and again, at the time, and, you know, they were quite successful in deflecting those allegations.

So different governments came and went, and this violence of the empire continued to persist. But one of the things that remained the same was the monarchy, and specifically Queen Elizabeth II as a symbol of the empire. So there’s that symbolic power of her. But there’s also the question of, to what extent was the monarchy involved in this maintenance of empire?

It’s important how you frame that question. Because there’s two elements of the empire that I think are important for our discussion and how they intersect. One is that the monarchy very much wraps itself up into the empire — deploying its symbols, its images, its familial language (the queen and her predecessors refer to themselves as the matriarch or patriarch of empire). The purpose of the British, as they call it, their “civilizing mission,” their kind of benevolent, liberal imperialism, was always wrapped in this language of kinship. And so therefore, they’re seen as the imperial family, and the monarchy really beckoned the colonial subjects to revere it, and [some of them] did. There’s no question about that, from much of my own research.

And yet at the same time, you know, 50 years later, when my work became the basis for the first time the British government was sued by a colonized population for systematic violence, these same said detainees, several of them that were claimants to the case, appealed to the queen. They were going to her for justice. That shows the ways in which that reverence has been internalized.

So insofar as she’s complicit, if you will, it’s that the image of the monarchy really, in this sense of imperial benevolence, which flows from this matriarch, in the case of Queen Elizabeth II, it could be argued that this is obscuring the fact that the empire itself was intensely violent.

That then brings us to the question, which I raised before: How much did she know about what was going on?

Let’s cut right to the heart of it. And this is where I think there really are some misplaced observations that have been going on in the wake of her death. The first of which is: there is absolutely no extant documentary evidence directly linking her to knowledge of systematic violence and cover-up in the empire that I’m aware of, and I’ve been studying this for 30 years. I could be proven wrong. The second of which is that there were not records kept of her weekly meetings with prime ministers. So we don’t know what was said during those weekly meetings.

Gotcha. So she might have known more.

Could have been.

But what does exist of the records of those weekly meetings — so, for example, diaries kept by prime ministers, which when they retire, they publish several volumes of their diaries. We’ll take Harold Macmillan [who served as prime minister from 1957 to 1963] ... the only time there was sort of a public reckoning around violence in Kenya’s detention camps was in 1959, when 11 detainees were beaten to death in a detention camp in Kenya, and the British government got caught, and they couldn’t explain it away. A showdown happens in Parliament, and McMillan is worried that this is going to potentially bring his government down.

And he writes in his diary that afterward he spoke with the queen, and explained to her that this was basically the result of minor officials and not the fault of the colonial secretary at the time, Alan Lennox-Boyd. So what we know from his entry in his diary is that he lied to the queen, because we know Alan Lennox-Boyd was right in the middle of it, that this was not the result of quite minor officials. And that Macmillan himself also knew about this systematic violence and the cover-up that was going on.

So what we do know from the official record is that — just as they did with the public and parliament — this particular prime minister, on this particular very public reckoning, lied to the queen.

Now, of course, over three decades, serious, repeated accusations of systematic crime committed in her name abounded, including right in Cyprus and Northern Ireland, which actually reached the European Commission on Human Rights. And so I think this is what is going to be debated going forward — that question of what did she know? Because I think for some it may feel implausible that for this monarch, who was renowned for her incredible knowledge about foreign affairs, that she was known for being assiduously prepared for her meetings with the prime ministers, where she was known for offering very wise and sage advice, is it plausible to believe that she really was completely in the dark? That’s a question I think that the public will debate around her legacy. And I think that’s what we need to focus on.

I also think the other area to focus on is looking forward, insofar as there’s no question that serious, systemic violence and crimes happened in her name, during her period of reign.

And how do you address and account for that?

What we do know is that with King Charles III, there can’t be any question about plausible deniability. Because given the demands for a broader sort of imperial reckoning across the empire, based upon abundant numbers of protests and petitions from formerly colonized people, as well as the abundance of evidence that folks like myself have produced, he cannot sidestep this. So the question becomes: Will he break with tradition, with the legacy of his mother kind of gatekeeping a unique history of exceptionalism of the British Empire?

If we even step away from the “did she know, did she not know,” what we do know is that these crimes were committed in her name — Her Majesty’s government. And so therefore, the question is: How does he now address this in a way that acknowledges the past while also looking to a different kind of present and future?

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