After Queen Elizabeth II: Reparations and return of the jewels

Published on Oct 25, 2022 11:16 AM IST

The article has been authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Reparations and return of the jewels after Queen Elizabeth II death.(AFP)
Reparations and return of the jewels after Queen Elizabeth II death.(AFP)
ByHindustan Times

The longest-serving monarch of the United Kingdom (UK), Queen Elizabeth II, passed away at the age of 96 after a long reign of 70 years. The Queen ascended the throne in 1952 and was a witness to significant social and political changes that took place around the world during her reign. The Queen’s tenure as the head of State for over seven decades witnessed drastic changes with post-war austerity, then the State’s transition from an empire to the commonwealth, the end of the Cold War, and the UK’s both entry and exit from the European Union. During her reign she oversaw 15 prime ministers, beginning with Winston Churchill born in 1874, to Ms Truss who was born 101 years later in 1975.

After decolonisation, out of almost 100 former colonies, most of them remained connected through the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of former British colonies. Most of these states are bound by a sense of shared histories, similar legal-political systems, and culture they all imbibed from their coloniser. The majority of the members of the commonwealth are independent democratic republics, however, 14 member-States are constitutional monarchies with the British monarch as the head of the State, a mostly symbolic role.

With the death of the Queen and the ascension of King Charles III to the throne, a debate has rekindled regarding republicanism in the States that regard the monarch as the constitutional head. In 2021, Barbados voted to remove Queen Elizabeth II as the head of State, thereby becoming a republic. Just after King Charles III ascended the throne, Antigua and Barbuda too announced that they plan to hold a referendum to move towards republicanism. This shows that anti-monarchist movements have resurfaced, especially in the Caribbean. However, similar voices can also be heard in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Such voices also existed during Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, but it was for the sentimental connection to the queen that the countries did not act upon it. However, with the recent developments, one can comprehend that the sentimental attachment was only to the individual, not the institution because after she passed away, the voices of dissent have only grown louder.

Apart from the debates over republicanism, there have also been other kinds of demands concerning Britain’s colonial history. As one looks back to the colonial legacy of Britain, the atrocities faced by people in Kenya, Nigeria, Jamaica, and across the African continent, the British Raj in India, their meddling with the internal affairs of their colonies, the issue of Hong Kong and China, looting of resources, stealing jewels and artefacts, one can find the consequences of those actions of the past, even in the present. The demand for not just reparations and formal apology but also the return of the stolen jewels and artefacts by the British during colonisation has become stronger. In India, the demand for the return of the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond has only gained more traction, the same is happening in South Africa over the return of the Great Star of Africa. Similar demands have been made by other former colonies, such as by Egypt for the Rosetta Stone, for the Benin Bronzes by Nigeria, and so on.

Will there be reparations? No.

The British crown has mostly remained silent on the issue of reparation and apology. Recently, Prince William reiterated in Jamaica during his eight-day tour of the region in early 2022, that, “reparations are not part of the government’s approach”. He went on to add that they “feel deep sorrow for the transatlantic slave trade” and they “fully recognise the strong sense of injustice and the legacy of slavery in the most affected parts of the world. [They] also believe that [there is] much to do today and in the future to address the reality of slavery in the UK and around the world.”

Till now there has been no formal apology from the British crown for their colonial legacy. As in the case of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, India too awaits a formal apology. As The New York Times article puts it, “Winston Churchill called the 1919 massacre of Indian protesters “monstrous.” Queen Elizabeth said it was “distressing.” Prime Minister David Cameron went with “deeply shameful.” But did they apologise? Not exactly.”

Although Prince William has made it clear that they do not consider reparations as an approach to be opted for by the government. But, hypothetically, even if they do consider it on moral grounds, they cannot go through with it. Firstly, Britain’s economy is under dire stress for multiple reasons, a few being, Brexit, the pandemic, the Ukraine conflict, and the most recent debacle by the shortest reigning PM Liz Truss who resigned in just six weeks. Secondly, even if we overlook these economical pitfalls, if one goes to look at the amount they owe their former colonies, it is staggering. For instance, research by renowned economist Utsa Patnaik published by the Columbia University Press shows that one can see by “drawing on nearly two centuries of detailed data on tax and trade Britain drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India [alone,] during the period 1765 to 1938.” Now if one goes on to calculate for all the colonies, it will break Britain’s spine.

Now, whether the British monarchy will formally apologise to their former colonies is debatable. But to save the monarchy which is moving quickly toward its decline, apologising might help save face. In the case of whether they will return the looted jewels and artefacts, this might be a possibility, in the near future as they try to keep the monarchy intact. but Britain is economically incapable not just at the moment, but ever, to agree to reparations.

The article has been authored by Ananya Raj Kakoti and Gunwant Singh, scholars of international relations, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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