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Since the death of Queen Elizabeth II last week, Kris Manjapra has been thinking a lot about a peculiar moment from his childhood.
He told CNN that, in 1990, when he was 12 years old and living with his family in Calgary, Canada, the Queen visited the city. The students at his school were instructed to assemble along the side of the road so that they could behold her cavalcade and receive her wave.
“I was an immigrant child in a very White city with my parents. We were struggling as new immigrants,” said Manjapra, a history professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where his research focuses on, among other things, the critical study of race and colonialism. “And I remember thinking how odd it was that we (the students) were being used as props in a kind of pageant.”
Manjapra, who’s of mixed African and Indian parentage, was born in The Bahamas in 1978, one year after the Queen made her Silver Jubilee tour to the country. And like many others in the US with roots in Britain’s former Caribbean colonies, he’s had a complicated reaction to the death of the Queen – of someone indelibly linked to a history of empire. For them, the past week has been marked less by grief than by frustration over how there seems to be little room in the narrative for engagement with the often overlooked legacy of British colonialism in the region.
“What’s striking to me is how so much energy seems to be available to feel sorrow for the loss of one individual,” Manjapra said. “Certainly, the loss of a person should be mourned, especially by her family. But why is it so inaccessible to feel remorse and sorrow for all the damage that was done in the name of this very same person?”
Marcia Bartlett, who was born in Jamaica in 1956 and grew up under British colonial rule, echoed some of Manjapra’s sentiments. She lived on the island for almost 30 years before she moved to New York, one of the states with the most Caribbean immigrants, and said that she’s interrogated Britain and Jamaica’s relationship since she was a curious high schooler.
“From then on, I’ve had seeds of resentment toward these people governing my island,” Bartlett told CNN.
Many former British colonies are tethered to one another in the Commonwealth of Nations, a loose and voluntary association of 56 countries. Most members are republics. But 14, including The Bahamas and Jamaica, recognize the British monarch as their official head of state. In November 2021, Barbados became the first realm since 1992 to cast off the crown.
Like many others in the US with ties to the Caribbean, Bartlett was deeply moved by Barbados’ decision to jettison the monarchy, and hopes that the remaining former imperial possessions in the region will follow suit.
“I was cheering,” she said. “I think that it (transitioning to a republic) is going to come up in a referendum at some point in Jamaica. There are still people with the mindset that it’s good to be led by the Brits. But as far as I’m concerned, Jamaica needs to sink or swim on its own.”
To understand the Queen’s mixed legacy in the eyes of many Caribbean people and their descendants, let’s revisit some of the region’s history.
By the 18th century, the Caribbean was a crown jewel of the British imperial economy; according to the SlaveVoyages database, north of 2 million enslaved people disembarked in the empire’s Caribbean colonies by the time the British slave trade was abolished in 1807.
Yet “after slavery, freed people were denied access to land and expected to work for low wages,” the University of Toronto history professor Padraic Scanlan wrote for the Washington Post last year. “Emancipation policies also proved to be a useful justification for imperialism.”
Social and political challenges have persisted even since the middle of the 20th century, a groundbreaking time when many British colonies declared their independence.
“The British left a mess behind when formal colonization began to end in the 1960s,” Manjapra explained. “During the Queen’s first speech while in Jamaica in 1966, however, she spoke only of the ‘loyalty and kindness’ of the people of the Commonwealth. She never acknowledged the harm caused by the plunder, massacres, deprivation and racism of British rule.”
Manjapra underlined the irresponsibility Britain demonstrated in the Caribbean during the decade.
“There was this kind of walking away from the mess that colonialism had created, leaving the Caribbean in deep debt, with no resources, with very weak institutions – things people there still suffer from today,” he said.
Further, there’s the issue of slavery’s legacy – the Queen’s relative silence around it. After Britain formally abolished the practice of human bondage in its colonies in the 1830s, it took out a loan of 20 million pounds to compensate slave owners.
“Up until 2015, the British state was paying off this debt,” Manjapra said. “A deeply immoral practice was taking place and finally came to light a few years ago. But the Queen stayed silent. The silence of the Queen on so many matters related to justice for people of color in Britain and in former colonies – I can’t read it as duty or dignity or being ‘apolitical.’ That silence was a very political act, and essential to the mechanism of the British state.”
The Royal Family has acknowledged, but has stopped short of apologizing for, Britain’s numerous imperial crimes and their lingering effects.
“An apology would be nice, but – nothing,” Bartlett said.
Frayed relationships were on full display this past March, when Prince William and Kate toured the Caribbean and were met by anti-colonial protests.
‘Denial won’t make anything go away’
The Queen’s death may well open a new chapter in the Caribbean.
The New York University law professor Melissa Murray, whose family is from Jamaica, recently noted on Twitter that the Queen’s passing could rekindle crucial discussions about the role of Commonwealth ties in the region.
“I imagine that her death will accelerate debates about colonialism, reparations and the future of the Commonwealth,” Murray wrote. “We’re likely overdue for the difficult conversation that will inevitably come from reckoning with our past. And even for those who respect and revere the Queen, the residue of colonialism shadows day-to-day life in Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean.”
Manjapra, who’s the author of the 2022 book, “Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation,” expressed similar sentiments. In particular, he stressed that paving a path forward hinges on not obscuring Britain’s egregious legacy of colonial violence.
“We don’t deal with painful histories by ignoring them or denying them, or even by trying to immediately find a resolution,” he said. “We deal with painful histories by acknowledging their presence with us in our lives and in our world, and then by engaging in discussion, by creating opportunities for meaningful conversation on what a future of healing can look like.”
Doing all this, of course, takes time and effort and investment.
“Frankly, it’s the conversation on reparations,” Manjapra said. “Reparations are on the table, and need to be on the table to deal with what happened and what continues to unfold.”
Put a little bit more bluntly, he added, “colonial conditions aren’t in the past – they persist, and continue to buttress the racial caste system.”