What Is Colonialism—and Why Is Queen Elizabeth’s Death Sparking So Much Controversy?

The death of Queen Elizabeth II has resurrected discussions about British colonialism. Here's what historians think.

The Reader’s Digest Version:

  • Colonialism happens when one nation subjugates another.
  • The British Empire colonized dozens of countries through this destructive, bloody practice.
  • Much of Queen Elizabeth’s reign happened after British colonization. More than 55 countries gained their independence while she was queen.
  • Elizabeth remained a symbol of colonialism and reigned during some particularly brutal moments of Britain’s rule in Africa.
  • The response to her death has been mixed. While some mourn, others remember the atrocities committed by the British Empire throughout history.

While most of the world mourns Queen Elizabeth’s death, a growing number of people are pointing out the darker aspects of the monarchy, including the British Empire’s history of colonialism. They’ve taken to social media to express their grief over losing their families and cultures, and a few are even celebrating the queen’s demise, saying she was a “colonizer with blood on her hands.” Many point to the fact that part of Queen Elizabeth’s net worth and many of the crown jewels are directly tied to slavery in the colonies.

Yet while colonialism was a part of Queen Elizabeth II‘s reign, she’s also known for decolonizing. At the time of young Queen Elizabeth‘s coronation, the British Empire encompassed 70 territories; when she died, she was sovereign of just 15. She is largely credited with establishing the Commonwealth—a group of 14 former colonies that banded together as “free and equal” for economics and security.

So which is she: the “queen of the people,” who helped a huge and diverse group of people work together, or the “bloody colonizer,” who had millions of people violently oppressed for Britain’s profit? Social media is known for hot takes, so we asked historians to help us get to the bottom of the controversy.

What is colonialism?

Colonialism happens when one nation subjugates another, taking control of the population and exploiting it while forcing the conquered people to accept the colonizing country’s language, religion and culture over its own native ideas. But that’s a fairly sterile definition for a very bloody practice. “There’s no disputing that colonialism, including British colonialism, is built on slavery and human suffering,” says Nicoletta Gullace, PhD, a historian at the University of New Hampshire with a focus on British history and an expert on the royal family.

At some point in history, every major civilization has engaged in some form of colonialism. Just look at the Americas: Britain, Spain, France, Portugal and other European countries colonized lands indigenous people had been living on for centuries.

What is the history of colonialism in the British Empire?

You may have heard the phrase “the sun never sets on the British Empire,” and that wasn’t an exaggeration. At its height in 1922, the British Empire was the largest empire the world had ever seen, covering one-quarter of earth’s land and ruling more than 458 million people. With a worldwide population of just under 2 billion people, that meant about one in five people living on the planet was a British subject.

Many of those subjects weren’t thrilled with the situation, particularly because they’d become part of the empire by force, through colonialism. Britain tore countries apart, forced their people into slavery and exploited natural resources—all in the name of the crown. These things have left lasting social, cultural and financial scars, all of which are once again in the national spotlight.

“The empire was deeply destructive of Indigenous peoples and their economies, societies and cultures,” says Susan Kent, PhD, an expert on the British Empire, professor emerita at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of A New History of Britain Since 1688. Some of these colonies included the countries known today as Afghanistan, Australia, the Bahamas, Botswana, Canada, Fiji, India, Ireland, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and nearly all of Africa.

And Americans shouldn’t forget the role of British colonialism in their own backyards. The empire colonized Indigenous land to establish the 13 original colonies, and the United States gained its independence from Great Britain only after a bloody war.

Even though it was the largest empire the world had ever known, it certainly wasn’t the longest lasting. Its major growth occurred between the mid-1800s and the 1920s. But by 1947, India, “the crown jewel of the British Empire,” was granted independence, partly as a deal for assisting the Allies in World War II and partly because of Gandhi’s national independence movement. India was leaving, whether Britain liked it or not, and other countries began planning their own independence.

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth’s father, saw the writing on the wall and formed the Commonwealth, allowing former colonies to be independent while working “freely and equally” with the United Kingdom.

What role did Queen Elizabeth play in British colonialism?

British Royal Queen Elizabeth II escorted by an unspecified dignitary alongside a crowd of children waving British flags in Honiara, Solomon Islands, 18th October 1982.Tim Graham/Getty Images

While the queen was an important figurehead, the queen’s governing power was limited. “The queen didn’t rule—she reigned,” says Gullace, adding that regardless of her personal feelings, she had to function within the British political system as it existed at that time.

When Elizabeth was crowned in 1952, she made it a priority to tour the entirety of the empire. Her “walkabouts” helped create a warmer relationship with many of the colonies and made her the most widely traveled head of state in the world. Over her tenure, she worked tirelessly to expand the Commonwealth, eventually building it into the world power it is today—the second-largest international organization after the United Nations.

But while she may have simply inherited the imperialist system, she did play a part in what happened (or didn’t) afterward. And some of that was pretty grim.

For instance, even though Britain officially abolished slavery in 1833, the crown was still reimbursing slave owners for the loss of their “property” during Elizabeth’s reign. Even worse, the haphazard way the British left many of the colonies led to decades of poverty, bloody conflicts and corrupt regimes.

Was this her fault? Not directly, but that also doesn’t mean her hands are totally clean, says Kent, who co-authored a book about Britain’s colonization of Africa, titled Africans and Britons in the Age of Empires, 1660–1980. The year Elizabeth became queen, the Mau Mau insurrection in Kenya began. The British military, under her reign, responded brutally against Mau Mau fighters and portions of the Kenyan population. To quell the anti-imperial insurrection, Britain put millions of Kenyans into detention camps, where they were tortured.

“She did not order or implement the actions [but] appears to not have done anything to prevent or constrain them either,” says Kent. “On the contrary, she celebrated the empire, remaining silent, publicly at least, while thousands and thousands and thousands of people in Africa and South Asia suffered at the hands of colonial administrators.”

What it comes down to, she says, is this: “The monarchy itself was and is so deeply wrapped up in the empire that it is difficult to extricate it from the actions and consequences of imperialism.”

Decolonization of the empire

Much of Queen Elizabeth’s reign happened after British colonization, and more than 55 countries—including nearly all the colonies of Africa, the Pacific islands and the Middle East—gained their independence while she was queen. That’s why she’s credited with decolonizing the empire.

“Decolonization did not undo much of the damage wrought by colonization,” says Kent, explaining that the institutions, infrastructure and economies of the former colonies had been set up by the British to benefit the empire. The new African nations inherited these things, but they were still tightly bound to England, and many of them barely functioned at all. One example: Placing a telephone call from Nairobi to London was simple, cheap and efficient; placing a call from Nairobi to Dar es Salaam was fraught with difficulties.

“African leaders had to absorb and pay for the huge bureaucratic apparatus put in place during colonization, and their populations did not fare well,” she says.

A symbol of colonialism

Queen Elizabeth chose to be the public symbol of the British Empire, knowing exactly how powerful symbols can be, says Gullace.

“For better or worse, the queen represented the empire—she did so purposefully—both to Britons and to formerly colonized peoples,” Kent says. “She may not have possessed formal political power, but she did wield great influence, and she self-consciously presented herself as the head of the empire/commonwealth.”

Why has Queen Elizabeth’s death sparked debate about colonialism?

Queen Elizabeth II is greeted by a group of people in Maori dress during a trip to New Zealand, circa 1970.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The debate today isn’t so much about colonialism itself—it’s widely regarded as extremely problematic—but rather Elizabeth’s part in it. Should she be held personally responsible for an institution she inherited and actively worked to dismantle? This question doesn’t have a simple answer.

“I feel it’s unfair to tar the queen for what her predecessors (members of the royal family tree) did,” says Gullace. “We need to be careful about judging the past based on present standards. She was humane and egalitarian and did what she could with the power she had.”

Gullace cites the famous example of the queen going up against then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over Britain’s response to South African apartheid. In the late ’80s, when member nations of the Commonwealth agreed on economic sanctions against South Africa in opposition to the country’s apartheid, Britain was the sole holdout. The queen took issue. As the New York Times reported on July 20, 1986, “The queen reportedly also believes that Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative Party Government lacks compassion and should be more caring toward less privileged members of society.”

But do her good actions negate the long-lasting consequences of her more controversial acts? “It’s understandable that those negatively affected by the impacts of British imperialism and colonialism would direct their pain, anger and hurt at Queen Elizabeth, or at least at the monarchy,” says Kent.

Even the former colonies themselves are divided on the issue. Leaders of Kenya and South Africa released official statements praising the queen and paying tribute, while politicians and citizens posted poignant messages about all the pain the empire caused. “We do not mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth,” is the beginning of a message from an opposition party in South Africa.

And this response isn’t limited to Africa. There has been such a slew of social media posts highlighting Irish discontent with the queen—one of the most popular is a troupe of Irish dancers doing the jig to “Another One Bites the Dust” in front of Buckingham Palace—that it’s become its own class of anti–Queen Elizabeth meme.

Should these wrongs be righted—and is it even possible?

The online debate has renewed public interest in official or unofficial reparations for people victimized by British colonialism. While it seems like a good idea, it gets complicated quickly, says Gullace.

Do aristocratic families pay it back? Does it come from the government coffers (and thus become a tax on the average Briton)? Do you give back objects, like artwork, antiquities and jewels? (There’s already a public call for the return of the Koh-i-noor diamond from India and the Cullinan Diamond from Africa, both worth about $400 million.) Or do you take it further, transferring wealth? How will Britain decide which former colony gets reparations first and which type?

“There are billions of pounds tied up in postcolonialism, and the bottom line is: What price is a society willing to pay to heal?” she asks.

Kent sees a compromise. “I would indeed like to see King Charles III return the jewels and other items seized from colonies; it would go a long way to announce a new way of thinking about former colonies,” she says. “It would be symbolic and not make much difference in the actual lives of formerly colonized peoples, but symbolism can be potent.”

What might Queen Elizabeth’s death mean for the future of the monarchy?

All this controversy leads to the inevitable question: Is this the end of the monarchy in England? And will the history of colonialism be a factor?

“It’s not clear to me that Charles will bear the burden of association with colonial violence, but he also doesn’t command the emotional connection with people that Elizabeth did,” says Kent. “If the reception of Prince William and Kate in Jamaica is any indication, many of the [former colony] nations that accepted the British monarch as head of state will likely not do so in the future.”

On the other hand, Gullace thinks that now that Charles is king, the monarchy will likely continue for emotional and economic reasons. “Britons still want the monarchy, and many feel emotionally attached to it as a fundamental thing that makes them unique,” she says. “The monarchy is also a huge draw for tourists, who bring a lot of money into the economy.”

How will the queen be remembered?

It remains to be seen how the history books will be written now that Queen Elizabeth has passed away. But even as Elizabeth was a symbol of colonialism, she was also a powerful symbol of stability and safety—one that Britons need more than ever these days.

“The loss of Queen Elizabeth is deeply, deeply felt by the vast majority of Britons, who see in her a sign of stability and continuity in a world gone haywire around them,” says Kent. “She, and the royal family generally, may seem to be the only stabilizing force in a country faced by economic ruin and climate disaster. Brexit, the pandemic, irresponsible politicians, environmental catastrophe and an upcoming winter of insufficient heating and food—these are what Britons are up against. Celebrating the life of a woman who seemed never to wobble, not even for a second, may provide solace and relief against the buffeting of a future that looks very bleak.”

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Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.