The Royal Family’s Colonial Past
May 18, 2021
On March 7, the interview of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry by Oprah Winfrey was televised to great anticipation and speculation. It generated huge media coverage, attention and controversy, a feat the couple has been far from foreign to since their marriage in 2018 and their resignation from the royal family in 2020. As Oprah’s reaction gifs went viral alongside jokes on Prince Philip’s old age, another conversation arose—the debate over the abolishment of the royal family.
The interview offered Meghan a chance to speak her voice and share her perspective on topics that were previously ignored. Arguably the most explosive moment of the interview was when Meghan revealed there were members of the royal family that had “concerns”over the potential darkness of their son Archie’s skin tone. When Meghan Markle, a biracial woman with an African-American mother and white father, married Prince Harry and became the Duchess of Sussex, there was hope that she would represent a more modern, inclusive royal family. However, what followed was consistent negative press about the new duchess, with many comparing Meghan to her new sister-in-law Kate Middleton.
Many snippets within the interview seemed to shed light on racism ingrained in both the monarchy and media. For example, Meghan divulged that in the infamous “flower girl dress” incident, it was actually Kate who had caused her to cry—not the other way around as the press had reported. This story, she characterized, would be “the beginning of a real character assassination”, with the pattern of perpetual attacks by the media exposing the systemic prejudice ingrained in society. Headlines like “Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton” disparaged Meghan’s “breaching” of royal protocol in wearing a dark nail polish or one shoulder dress, though similar styles garnered public admiration on Kate Middleton. Prince Harry also commented on the colonial undertones of such attacks of which “nobody in my family said anything over the course of three years.” Naturally, this interview resurfaced the conversations of the Windsor family’s deep historic entanglements in colonialism.
The Commonwealth, a free association of nations that maintain cooperation and ties with the United Kingdom, has roots firmly in colonization. The glaringly obvious sign of this connection is the vast majority of nations that were former British colonies, including Barbados, Malaysia, and India. The organization and the Queen’s prominent role as the head of it is, to its critics, a continuation of the British Empire and a representation of Britain’s history of massive exploitation. From the African slave trade, the genocide of Australian aboriginals, the plunder of resources in India and the millions of deaths by disease, starvation and violence, the legacy of the British Empire remains profound today, as many countries remain entrenched in poverty due to underdevelopment and instability from British colonization.
Moreover, the British royal family’s prominence is directly linked to the influence accumulated from the pillaging of other nations. From Elizabeth I, who supported John Hawkins in his voyages of capturing African slaves, to the later ruling Stuarts, who would also play a key role in the slave trade as both members, supporters and owners of the Royal African Company (which had held an monopoly over the Atlanic slave trade), the monarchy is nowhere near short of pro-slavery figures. However, the Queen has never acknowledged the monarchy’s role in the slave trade. On the contrary, the monarchy has sought to dissociate itself from the atrocities of the British Empire of which they were the face, ignoring requests for reparations.
Additionally, the Koh-i-Noor, the largest diamond in the world, is mounted on the Queen’s crown, which is set to be worn by Kate Middleton in the event that Prince William becomes King. This diamond—the center symbol of royal wealth—was stolen from India during the period of colonialism as the country was forced into giving it up to the British monarchy. The Prime Minister of the time, David Cameron ruled out the possibility of returning the diamond as atonement for Britain’s past. If the royal family is meant to serve as a representation of Britain’s past and a force of stability within the kingdom, one must question whether the past that this institution stands for should be one that is celebrated with millions from taxpayers.
Despite these indelible links to an abhorrent past, these factors are not likely to topple the monarchy in any near future. Britain as a country still has a long road to reckoning and repenting for its colonial past—a 2016 YouGov poll found that 67% of the British public were either proud of or had no opinion on colonialism and the British empire. In addition, the royal family itself is no stranger to rebranding for the sake of preservation and survival, a trait that contributed to their survival as many other European royal households fell. But the times seem to be gradually changing, and the royal family will soon have to be confronted with a past they have ignored for far too long. The public can no longer stay ignorant of this powerful institution’s foundation in colonialism, systemic racism and white supremacy.
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