Britain’s King Charles III makes a televised address to the Nation and the Commonwealth from the Blue Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace in London on September 9, 2022, a day after Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96. – Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-serving monarch in British history and an icon instantly recognisable to billions of people around the world, died at her Scottish Highland retreat on September 8. (Photo by Yui Mok / POOL / AFP)
Understandably, the death of Queen Elizabeth II, the British longest reigning sovereign whose funeral is being concluded today, has attracted mixed reactions. Some bordered on her service to her country and the panache that she brought to bear on the British monarchy while others focused on the crimes and other atrocities of the British imperialism, a legacy she inherited and partly sustained while she reigned. In our editorial on the Queen last week, The Guardian partly dwelled on her service to the British people and the landmark events of her life and times. However, before the curtain is drawn on British Royalty as portrayed by the late Queen and her very long reign, it is important to follow up on the groundswell of public discourse focusing on the crimes of the British Empire. No doubt, the discourse will not be buried along with the Queen, but passed, like a relay baton, to King Charles III who has taken over the throne from her mother. The King needs to address the issue and bring succour, even if only psychological, to the aggrieved Africans who suffered during colonialism and are still reeling from the damage.
Imperialism, a system of economic and political domination of one country by another was a defining element of the British Empire. Countries in Africa, Asia, Middle East, Far East and North America came under the imperial control of the British Empire. Propelled by the dynamics of industrial revolution that spurred the exploitation and expropriation of material resources from the dominated countries for the benefit of her majesty government and her subjects, the British massacred the colonial people and plundered their resources. In the system of external domination, there was no deal for the colonised people; it was all the way a tale of misery. The history of British Empire was characterised by such horrendous episodes, namely, the transatlantic slave trade, the Opium Wars and the opium trade, Boer concentration camps, and famine and partition of India in the 1940s.
In Asia, India was plundered and became notoriously renowned as it became known as the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British. Notably, the British East India Company exploited trade in textiles and spices about 1600 and subsequently took over control of ports and cities, and shipping its captured wealth back home. The devastating levels of exploitation of India resources led to the 1857 Indian Mutiny leading to horrible pacification of that country and the Queen Victoria became the “Empress of India.” Chaotic economic policies led to famine and death of millions of people while continuing resistance culminated in India’s independence in 1947 and its division into two namely, India and Pakistan.
In China, Britain by means of coercion forced China to buy opium that Britain stole from India from which it made generous profit. The British Navy bombarded China in 1840 and 1856 massacring Chinese troops with a consequent looting of the country.
The bloody legacy of the British Empire was intensely felt in Africa where the impact of colonial occupation was beyond merely episodic but epochal. Britain was responsible for taking away about 3.5 million African slaves to the Americas through the middle passage. Slave merchants made fortunes out of sales of African slaves. According to some sources, slave merchants pocketed £12 million on the sale of African people. Above all, the Empire reoriented the African economies to depend on Britain for trade, producing for the British industries export goods while importing its basic food requirement. It was an unmitigated historical disaster that has continued to haunt the continent to this day. The colonisation process as one of violence was both physical and structural. Resistance forces in Africa such as the Mau Mau in Kenya were brutally repressed. Between 1880 and 1900, Britain ruled 30 per cent of Africa’s people who then were under British occupation and, in consequence, much of African culture and values were undermined.
The net effect of occupation, besides the slavery and dehumanising of Africans, is that the British carted away fine arts works of the Africans, a people that they claimed had no soul and no history and was in the heart of darkness. In 1897, an estimated 10,000 artefacts were looted in Benin (Cf: The British Museums by Prof. Dan Hicks). This number boosted by those looted from other ancient civilisation in Nigeria such as Ife, Lokoja, Igboukwu are quite considerable. The world’s largest clear cut diamond, known as the Great Star of Africa, or Cullinan l, that adorns the royal crown and sceptre, was stolen from South Africa. The Queen (Elizabeth II) ascended the British monarchy against this bloody legacy of her forebears and did nothing in concrete terms to expatiate the awful past. While there have been calls for reparation, this moment of transition in Britain is auspicious to put the question of reparation back on the agenda. As Gathanga Ndung’u, a community organiser with Ruaraka Social Justice Centre has rightly observed, “this is a moment to let the world know the legacy she is leaving behind, the stolen hope, shattered dreams and broken souls in every country that her military has invaded.”
Back to our country, Nigeria reels from the hideous policies of British colonial rule. It imposed an unworkable system on Nigeria, a multinational country through the ill-motivated amalgamation of 1914. It did this without any regard for its plural ethnicity but for colonial financial consideration, plunging the country into an insoluble national question till today. It has maintained its neocolonial links with our country, and the African continent in a way that continues to perpetrate the dependency syndrome of Nigerians and the African people. We believe, the time to intensify the call for reparation is now. Certainly, nothing, either in monetary quantum or in kind, can effectively atone for the tragic experience and consequences of Africans during the slave trade and British occupation, but reparation in whatever form will provide a more than symbolic gesture of admission of wrong doing, even if they were not perceived so at the time. And there is no better person to champion that cause than the new King Charles III. He should start the process today, as his mother, the late Queen, is laid to final rest.