When my parents were born in Malaysia, the country was still part of the British Empire. Queen Elizabeth II was their monarch, and she was the one who “bestowed” independence upon the nation in 1957.
As a small child growing up in Malaysia and Singapore, another former colony, the Queen’s face was distinct, present, and always recognizable to me. She featured heavily in my stamp collection because Australia, New Zealand, and other countries throughout the British Commonwealth honoured her in postage stamps. She came to stand in for Britain in my earliest history books, often flanked by Beefeaters, the guards at Buckingham palace. When I visited London at the age of three, I told everybody on the plane that I was going to London to “see the Queen.”
Queen Elizabeth II had by that point become distilled into a ubiquitous symbol of Britain that even a toddler could identify. I connected her with civility, tea, Digestive biscuits, and doilies. I believe many of us who grew up in former colonies have similar associations.
The British Royal family is noted for its branding prowess. Queen Elizabeth II took advantage of new mass media tools that emerged over the course of her 70-year reign, from radio broadcasts to televised addresses. The Royal Mint and Royal Mail ensured her face was on coins and stamps, making her omnipresent. As an institution, the Royal family has orchestrated pageantry around major events like weddings and the Queen’s Jubilee. It has also created rules about how the Queen’s image and symbols can be deployed by other companies, thereby tightly controlling how she is represented. All of these branding efforts appeared to work: While support for the monarchy has been on the decline in Britain, the Queen herself was highly popular until her death.
It wasn’t until I attended college and began to understand the history of colonialism that my impressions of her began to change. The British first arrived in my part of the world in the 1600s, first as merchants, then as invaders, then as masters. In the centuries that followed, the British used their power to oppress my ancestors, siphoning off our natural resources, impoverishing us and asserting their supremacy. They shipped people from one colony to another to work on plantations; my forefathers were brought from South India to Malaysia as indentured laborers to work on the rubber plantations.
Scholars are still grappling with the impact of British colonialism on people across the world. A study by economist Utsa Patnaik, published in 2018 by Columbia University Press, calculates that Britain stole a total of nearly $45 trillion from India alone during the period between 1765 to 1938. And a new book by Caroline Elkins, a professor of history at Harvard University, describes how the British used systematic violence to maintain control, even though rulers liked to portray themselves as benevolent and civilized.
In 1920, the British Empire covered 24% of the Earth’s land mass. But by the time Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1953, the British had lost their grasp over the colonies. One of the Queen’s greatest accomplishments was letting go of this power gracefully. She had the forethought to evolve her role from sovereign ruler to the head of the commonwealth. In 1960, she had a personal flag created to represent this new role, which she described as, “an entirely new conception built on the highest qualities of the spirit of man: friendship, loyalty, and the desire for freedom and peace.”
The Queen’s vision for herself in the post-colonial era played out exactly as she wanted. She portrayed herself as a benevolent peacemaker, and this is how many of us saw her when we saw her face on stamps and postcards. So even from afar, in the formerly colonized lands, we tuned in on TV to watch her birthday celebrations. We got excited when members of the royal family “honored” us with their visits. And my parents indulged my request, as a three-year-old, to visit Buckingham Palace so that I might catch a glimpse of her.
Yet, I wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t been so good at shaping her self-image and disseminating it to the world. Perhaps we might be forced to reckon with the uglier side of British colonial rule. Perhaps former colonies might demand reparations for everything the British took from us over the centuries. We’ll never know.
And given her long tenure, Queen Elizabeth II has had decades to cement her legacy. It is likely that her image, so carefully programmed for decades, will continue to conjure feelings of warmth toward the kindly head of the commonwealth, rather than the last reigning monarch of the colonies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.