By Anna Debeye
— Dhruv Gulati, a second-year Science student, was just finishing up a board meeting in the AUCSA office when he learned that the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, died at the age of 96. Gulati comes from India and explains his surprise at the Queen’s death: “I stood up on a chair… it seemed like big news”. Her death on the evening of Thursday 8 September, brought an end to a reign of seventy years and her son, Charles, will now be taking over as the King. Although for many this news was met with sadness, it simultaneously sparked a conversation on different social media outlets regarding the relevance of the British monarchy, its colonial and oppressive history, and Queen Elizabeth’s role within it. Not only Twitter, but also the AUC group chats were filled with discussion on how the death of the Queen should be approached. The opinions differ greatly; some students are in mourning, whereas others refuse to show respect to a person they believe hurt their nation.
The Dutch Wanjiku, a third-year Social Science student, has both Kenyan and Zambian roots and shares her perspective on the British monarchy. “I cannot bring myself to say that I am sad,” she explains. Kenya has suffered significantly under the rule of the British empire; during the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, the local Mau Mau army rose up against the British colonial rulers. As a result, the Brits started a violent campaign against both those who fought for liberation and the members of the Gikuyu, the local ethnic group Wanjiku’s family belongs to. Although Wanjiku is aware that the Queen had little political power during her reign, she did condone the British actions within Kenya. For many Kenyans, Queen Elizabeth represents the lingerings of the British empire and the harm that it has caused. Wanjiku therefore does not mourn her death: “If someone beats you up, why should you respect that person?”
Gulati describes how the reactions in India, another former British colony, differ greatly from those in Kenya. He explains: “The perception of colonizers changes a lot depending on your socioeconomic background.” His great-grandfather, for example, gained a lot from British rule, for he belonged to one of the higher classes, and was consequently a big fan of the Queen. Additionally, Elizabeth only became Queen after India became independent and therefore, Gulati believes she is not necessarily linked to the history of British rule in India. Nevertheless, Gulati does mention his anger at the fact that Britain is still in possession of the Kohinoor diamond that was stolen from India during the colonial period: “the diamond is on her [Queen Elizabeth’s] crown now and it is going to be on her dead body while people pay their respects.” He describes how it is difficult for once colonized countries to express feelings towards the intangible hardships that they face as a result of colonialism and therefore it is easier to focus on the touchable aspects of it, such as the diamond.
Ed Humphries and Olivia Walker, first-year Humanities students, are British, from London and Bath, and were quite saddened to learn the Queen had died. Walker explains how she found it difficult to believe: “The Queen is a bit of an immortal figure in my mind.” Although the Queen held little political power, both Brits emphasize her symbolic importance. Walker points out how the monarchy allows the British citizens to maintain links to their past. This might change with the death of the Queen, however, Humphries clarifies. Many Brits felt a connection to Queen Elizabeth and not necessarily to the rest of the royal family, including King Charles III, since “a lot of people have been born and have died with her,” Humphries elaborates. Walker and Humphries compared the Queen to a grandparent: “You sort of think the Queen will go on living, the Queen is sort of old forever”, Walker elaborates.
They both consider the Queen to have been a constant factor throughout the turbulent history of Britain. Humphries points out how she oversaw many major events and changes: “When she started, the UK was completely bombed out, no money and no real economy left, running out of food … and now it is one of the biggest economies in the world, massive famous cities and huge cultural portals.” Despite her lack of a political function, Walker stresses how she “represents the important times.” Since she would only appear on television during Christmas, most Brits have come to associate her with family and tradition. Humphries believes that even certain countries within the British Commonwealth, such as Canada and Australia, hold a certain level of respect for the Queen. The transition to King Charles may therefore have an effect on the position of the monarchy within the countries of the British Commonwealth. Humphries expects that her death will be followed by some radical changes: “There has been talk about it [disposing of the monarchy], but they [the British Commonwealth countries] never did, because the Queen is so iconic.”
Sebastian Leo Olsen, a first-year Humanities student from Yorkshire in Britain, thinks it would be a shame if countries were to break out of the British Commonwealth as a result of the new monarch. Nevertheless, he does believe that King Charles is likely not to hold the same level of respect as Queen Elizabeth. “He has done some slightly dodgy things in the past,” Olsen points out, referencing the controversy surrounding donations to his charity by family of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Olsen considers the Queen to have been a good figurehead for Britain and describes how highly regarded the Christmas and pandemic speeches were, especially by the older generation, who found support in them. He does acknowledge that not everyone might have appreciated her words of advice during difficult times, for “she is living in a palace and she’s got everything she needs.” Overall, Olsen believes the British monarchy overtime has been reduced to merely a tourist attraction: “As long as there is no actual power and control within the monarchy, it is definitely a good thing for the country, because it brings a lot of people in.”
Lola Collingbourne, a third-year Social Science student, has lived in Australia for most of her life and approaches King Charles with reserve, exemplifying Humphries speculations: “He is a bit of a tool, he is not a symbol of security and stability and most people think he murdered his wife.” Although there is an underlying respect for Queen Elizabeth within the country, due to the length of her reign, this will not automatically be passed on to King Charles. Collingbourne clarifies that the Queen brought some stability in difficult times and is therefore generally considered a positive figure within the country. In 1999, Australia held a referendum to decide whether it should become a republic and a little over half of the people voted against this change. However, this transition to a new monarch might result in another referendum in the eyes of Collingbourne, since Queen Elizabeth “was actually liked and respected” within her position and King Charles is not.