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The complicated history of the British commonwealth


The queen reigned through many global upheavals, including the end of the British Empire. And as some critics have pointed out, remembrances may not feel complete without acknowledging the impact of British colonialism, especially on countries in Africa and in the Caribbean. Matthew J. Smith is a professor of history at University College London and director of the school's Center for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MATTHEW J SMITH: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Briefly remind us what the relationship was between the U.K. and the Commonwealth of Nations when the queen began her reign 70-plus years ago.

SMITH: Yes. Well, by then, most of the islands in the Caribbean were still colonies. In fact, there were just very few that were fully independent. By the next decade, though, when she would have been in her first decade of her reign, you began to see some very powerful stirrings that would manifest in independence in many of the islands by then. So she came to the throne at a period of remarkable transition in the Commonwealth Caribbean.

SHAPIRO: And can you tell us about some notable instances of violence against anti-colonial movements during the queen's reign?

SMITH: Much of the sorts of associations with violence that have happened outside the Caribbean region, particularly in parts of Africa, which are very well-known. Perhaps a pronounced example which has been well-documented has been the case of the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya that were fighting for independence there. But, you know, much of these sorts of struggles may not all have involved armed conflict, but they did involve very sort of guided and a heavy hand by the British colonial powers at the time. It may not have had explicit violence, but it had scars nonetheless that were borne by many people during that transition.

SHAPIRO: Do you think the queen did enough in her lifetime to acknowledge or to repair the harm that was done to people in these countries?

SMITH: I think the queen was quite well aware of it. One of the things that's striking about Queen Elizabeth to me is how worldly she seemed to have been, how knowledgeable she seemed to have been. But at the same time, she had a commitment to her job, and her job was a reigning monarch of Britain. And that came with all sorts of historical sort of, you know, aspects to it, antecedents that she very much supported because that was her job to support it.

SHAPIRO: How does the range of reactions that we've seen to her death reflect the queen's place in the history of the British Empire and the nations that it colonized?

SMITH: I think it reflects it very powerfully, and I think it reflects very strongly the sorts of contradictions within these former colonial states between what it means to be attached to Britain and what it means to be independent. The transition that she reigned over, where - that question between, what is your attachment to Britishness, and what is the new sense of nationalism? What should that look like? And the tension that emerges within it is a tension to elevate, instead, Africa and the Black ancestors who were enslaved by the same colonial forces that were being revered in these other quarters.

SHAPIRO: You have roots in Jamaica and have said that you've noticed a generational divide in how people there perceive Queen Elizabeth. What does that look like?

SMITH: I remember as a child seeing on television the marriage of then-Prince Charles, now King Charles III, and Princess Diana and being sort of told this is a major event but feeling personally alienated as someone who is of a post-colonial generation from seeing how that has any real impact on the life I had in Jamaica as a Jamaican. But I do see that there are sectors of these societies that feel very strongly that attachment, and there are other sectors that are very resistant to it. Both have come out now, as they have during the period of the queen's jubilee back in June, and began to demand apologies for slavery, demand reparations and reparative justice to descendants of the formerly enslaved persons of these islands whose hard labor and oppression was done without freedom - forced - that built, in many ways, a lot of the wealth of the British Empire.

SHAPIRO: So what do you think this transition ultimately is going to mean for the monarchy and its relationship with the countries that it still has these ties to around the world?

SMITH: It's a remarkable period of reflection, and it should be. That's a reflection that needs to be had at the local levels, not just state leaders but the populations themselves. What does it mean to still have - and these are the countries that were - that maintain these ties to the queen. Has the time come now for that to be fully abrogated and for this sense of independence to be fully realized?

SHAPIRO: Matthew J. Smith is a professor of history at University College London and director of the school's Center for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery. Thank you very much.

SMITH: My pleasure.


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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.