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For many people, Queen Elizabeth was the face of a historically oppressive empire


As we continue to remember the life and legacy of Queen Elizabeth II, we're going to turn to what may be a sensitive issue for some. It is the ambivalence and even resentment some may feel right now as the world marks the death of the long-serving monarch. While the late queen was a beloved symbol of family and national unity to millions. For others, she was the contemporary face of an historically oppressive empire, the building of which caused profound suffering around the world. During her reign, independence movements swept across many former colonies. Most would go on to enjoy good diplomatic relations with the U.K., but that history remains a part of collective memory.

We wanted to hear more about how this moment is being marked in some of the former colonies. Needless to say, it's a very big subject. But we found three people who have written about this and thought deeply about these issues. They are Opal Palmer Adisa. She's a member of the Advocates Network. She's also the former director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies. We reached her in Kingston, Jamaica. Opal, welcome. Thank you for joining us.


MARTIN: Jyoti Atwal teaches history at JNU in New Delhi, India. Jyoti, thank you so much for joining us.

JYOTI ATWAL: Thank you.

MARTIN: And Saul Dubow is a professor of history at Cambridge University in England. He grew up in South Africa. And his research focuses on the history of apartheid and the British Commonwealth. Saul Dubow, thank you so much for joining us as well.


MARTIN: So let's start with the fact that Queen Elizabeth's role was largely ceremonial. I think many people understand that. She was Britain's longest-serving monarch, and there are many aspects of that history that are troubling. I was wondering what each of you learned about the empire when you were growing up. Opal Palmer Adisa, would you start?

PALMER ADISA: Yes. And I just want to say that I'm speaking on behalf of myself, not the Advocates Network, although I'm a member of that, and some of the members share my sentiments. When I was growing up, the - England was the mother country. It was something to be looked upon. The queen was our queen, supposedly. And, you know, we were supposed to honor her. And so there was nothing taught in the colonial education - and it's still the case - there was nothing she taught about what the British Empire did. Even when we learned about slavery, which was very little about our enslavement, the implications and the horrendous actions of the British - or the Spanish, for that matter - were never delineated.

MARTIN: What about you, professor Atwal? I was curious about what you learned about the British Empire as you were growing up in school and was interested in how you came to think about it subsequently.

ATWAL: I think in India, every commoner knows the period of the British Raj through history schoolbooks and through popular cinema. And colonial period was undoubtedly a watershed as it brought economic dismantling or breakdown for India, along with many political challenges to pre-colonial institutions - whether for good or bad, that has been a matter of debate. Now, historians also contend that nearly all classes and castes were negatively impacted in one way or the other. And this is the basis of knowledge of every schoolchild in India that the British exploited us, that their foreign - there was colonial rule and there are matters that we have to remember. So this is a basic premises.

DUBOW: What are you - forgive me, professor Dubow, I'm going to make it clear that all of you are speaking for yourselves and not for, you know, certainly entire nations of people. But I - given that, you know, the queen's support for sanctions, I mean, it is now known that the queen differed with former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the American president, Ronald Reagan, on the questions of sanctions against South Africa because of apartheid. That is known. It is known now that the queen and Nelson Mandela had a warm friendship, as I understand it. There were letters to each other and so forth. So I'm just wondering what this moment brings up.

DUBOW: The Commonwealth was a domain, and she was someone who very well understood the politics of post-colonialism. But for her, South Africa was special. So when South Africa leaves the Commonwealth in 1961, we don't know directly because part of the majesty of the queen is that she never says what she thinks and she doesn't record what she thinks. But we do know, including through films like the Netflix "The Crown," that when Margaret Thatcher and President Reagan and others were very keen to, if not support the apartheid government, to be very much opposed to economic and military sanctions in the mid-1980s, this was threatening the unity of the Commonwealth. And it is believed quite credibly that the queen intervened very delicately to suggest that apartheid should go and certainly that sanctions should be imposed.

MARTIN: So Opal Palmer Adisa, I recognize, as you said, you're a member of a group called the Advocates Network. You're not speaking for them. It's a nonpartisan group in Jamaica that advocates for human rights and good governance. But I will say that earlier this year, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge visited Jamaica to celebrate the queen's seven years on the throne. And your group put out an open letter that read in part, quote, "we see no reason to celebrate 70 years of the ascension of your grandmother to the British throne, because her leadership and that of her predecessors have perpetuated the greatest human rights tragedy in the history of mankind." You know, obviously, this has a deep stem as well. What made the group put out this letter, if you feel comfortable sharing that, and how was it received?

PALMER ADISA: Well, it was well-received. And we had a tremendous protest with more people participating than we had anticipated. We just felt as a people who have suffered and continue to suffer as a result of colonialism, that to invite or to celebrate such ascension was, you know, a betrayal of who we are and a betrayal of what we have suffered and a betrayal of our people. And the fact is that the British government has still not apologized to people throughout the diaspora and the African continent for the enslavement, have not apologized, nor offered any kind of reparation for, you know, 500 years of free labor and export extraction of major resources from the various islands that have benefited and helped to build the British Empire.

MARTIN: Professor Atwal, coming to you. Obviously, there's also a very deep stem here. I'm wondering, what do you think, just giben your background, your research, your own work and your perspective, what do you think this moment brings up? And I'm particularly interested, you know, given that Queen Elizabeth visited India three times during her reign in 1961 and 1983 and 1997, each important in their own way, and so tell me whatever you want me to know about this.

ATWAL: In 1997, India was celebrating its 50 years of independence from Britain, and the queen was invited. She was visiting India during that period - that year. And she visited (inaudible) where in 1990, (inaudible) killings have taken place, where over a thousand Indians had been shot, which included children and women had been shot mercilessly by General Dyer. And he was supported by the governor of - then-governor of Punjab - General Dwyer. And the connection between that moment and the 50 years of independence was very crucial. And people expected that there will be an apology from the queen, who simply called it a distressing example of the colonial rule, and that was it, and did all kinds of other symbolic rituals that were associated with the temple but never apologized.

So I think there is some expectation from the Indian side for that, and also the return of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, although Camilla Parker will be wearing that all her coronation, we hear that for the ceremony of the coronation of the king, she will be wearing that. So we'll have to wait and see how Indian people react to that because the - is expected that it will return. The demands, you know - I saw in the media that there are our voices which are coming up.

MARTIN: Professor Dubow, final thought from you, yeah.

DUBOW: I think you've heard - you heard from three different parts of the world, all of which was subject to British imperialism, all of which fought against British imperialism in different ways, but all of which experienced British imperialism in different ways. When Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1953, the British Empire was collapsing. It was collapsing in the sense that all the countries that we represent were leaving the British Empire or had left. And she was highly skilled in managing the politics of decolonization up to a point.

But King Charles comes at a moment when there is a new kind of anti-colonialism, not just an anti-colonialism to find political freedom, but an anti-colonialism which is looking much more deeply into the residues of empire, residues which are both economic but also psychological and cultural. And it's a really open question whether he is geared to be able to deal with those much more complicated politics, not least because he doesn't yet have the long experience and particular charisma of his mother.

MARTIN: Well, these have been really interesting, powerful insights from all of you. And I really thank you so much for talking with us about all of these things. That was Saul Dubow. He's professor of history at cambridge university. We also heard from Jyoti Atwal, who teaches history at JNU. We reached her in New Delhi, India. She joined us via Skype. And we also heard from Opal Palmer Adisa, who is a former director of the Institute for Gender Development Studies at the University of the West Indies. And we reached her in Kingston, Jamaica. Thank you all so much for sharing these insights with us. We very much appreciate it.

ATWAL: Well, thank you for raising the subject. It's important that there is this conversation across territories.

PALMER ADISA: Thank you to other speakers also. Thank you. I learned a lot. Thank you.

DUBOW: Thank you all.

MARTIN: Tomorrow on the program, we'll hear more about the type of leader Queen Elizabeth was, when we talk with an historian focused on the British monarchy. We'll ask if her reign was marked by substantive achievements along with the symbolism and traditional. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.