Even, or especially, amidst the outpouring of grief over her death at 96, it’s worth remembering that for seven decades Elizabeth II has played colonial good cop, bad cop of the British imperial machine – while he was Her Majesty’s Troops who were sent to undermine and reshape Guyana’s pre-independence political leadership for over a decade, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, this is Her Majesty herself who came down to “grant” independence in 1966.
In his lifetime alone, the brutal oppression of the British Empire in Guyana was striking in itself, although nowhere near what was happening elsewhere at the time. In 1948, for example, five sugar workers were massacred for protesting against labor exploitation at Enmore Estate. No episode of Netflix’s polished biographical drama “The Crown,” chronicling his early life and rise to the throne, has ever referenced the incident or them, let alone their names – Rambarran, Pooran, Lallabagie Kissoon, Surujballi and Harry.
In 1954, two years after her accession to the throne, a young poet and independence activist was imprisoned for six months, along with a young political leader, for the crime of seeking self-determination for the country from the shackles of Her Majesty’s exploitative imperial empire. Powerful. That young political leader was Dr Cheddi Jagan, and that poet, himself just a year younger than the then 27-year-old monarch, was Martin Carter. Meanwhile, Her Royal Majesty would send what was effectively a military occupying force, British troops who would remain in the colony for most of the decade before independence. This era was to inspire Carter’s famous poem, the one we make our children recite without educating them on all the historical context from which it comes:
“It’s dark time, my love,
All around the earth, brown beetles crawl.
The bright sun is hidden in the sky
The red flowers bow their heads in awful sorrow.
It’s dark time, my love,
It’s the season of oppression, dark metal and tears.
It’s the festival of guns, the carnival of misery.
Everywhere the faces of the men are tense and anxious.
Who comes to walk in the dark night?
What steel boot tramples the slender grass?
It’s the man of death, my love, the strange invader
Watch you sleep and aim for your dream.
Of course, even after independence, the British companies whose foundations were rooted in slavery and colonial exploitation – Bookers and Sandbach Parker – would continue to control not only our national sugar industry, but also corollary companies like the auto sales and household appliances, for at least the next ten years. years until GuySuCo was nationalized, at significant cost to the new post-independence state, in 1976.
While it is the machinations of Her Majesty’s government that will help keep the post-independence dictatorship in power for 28 years, in accordance with the “demands” of Cold War geopolitics, it is Her Majesty herself who will again here in 1994, two years after our first free and fair post-independence elections and three years after the effective end of the Cold War, to address our Parliament to offer it ‘the highest level blessing for the return to full representative government” and “the UK’s fullest support for the consolidation and deepening of the democratic process”.
The nobility of British royalty is a myth, surviving for the past seventy years as the PR hallmark of a faded empire seeking to clothe its history of atrocity in modern fable, starring Elizabeth II as an ostensible moral center.
Elizabeth II was no more the moral center providing remedial action when British troops invaded Guyana in 1954 and locked up Jagan and Martin Carter, than she was the moral center providing remedial action when the British government there is barely ten years old, began deporting and otherwise treating as second-class citizens the Windrush, Caribbean migrants who had invaded Britain in the post-war years and who were welcomed with open arms to fill Her Majesty’s labor shortages, but only recently discovered that they were not in fact the full British citizens they believed themselves to be after decades of living and building the country.
Borges wrote that “fame is a form of misunderstanding, perhaps the worst”. Who among those who profess grief can truly remember her from a single heroic intervention, an inspiring declaration, a precise act that was not an artifice of imperial machinery? The most real things to emerge from his monarchy are the family scandals that spilled over and tainted by it, and which over time were deftly retouched (or Photoshopped, to keep the modern metaphor) away from his official portrayal. And this portrait was the mask she willingly provided to disguise the grotesque face of British foreign policy, particularly in the late colonial era and beyond.
As Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff wrote in her detailed and excoriating essay in the September 8 New York Times titled “Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire”:
“By design as much as by accident of his long life, his presence as head of state and head of the Commonwealth, an association of Britain and her former colonies, set a stubborn traditionalist front over decades of violent upheavals. As such, the Queen has helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be sufficiently recognized.
To be clear, I don’t recommend that we approach Elizabeth’s death with a reinvigorated sense of animosity against the historic crimes of the empire she embodied. I say that we as a people must perceive her and the machinery she represented minus the veil of compromised history and deliberate mis-education that has constantly been lifted over our eyes, a veil that whitewashed these crimes of empire and gave us the image of an increasingly motherly old woman whose place in history is tied only to awkward family feuds and a shaking of gloved hands before putting on that proverbial stiff upper lip in times of supposed crisis in the “Kingdom”. We have been fed a carefully curated image of teacups, crumpets, bows and corgis when what exists was actually built on blood and injustice.
We must recognize this, and within the ecosystem of colonial history and its contemporary consequences, we must adjust our vision inward. This embodiment, for us, exists in the old Indo-Guyanese cancutter who lived through the backbreaking labor and brutal administration of his empire’s colonial exploitation, but who endured and gave his children and grandchildren the ability to strive for something greater through generations, education and elevation, and who can without resentment look upon the royal family whose wealth has been snatched from their sweat and that of their ancestors, and still maintain their sentiment of calm. This embodiment exists in the former colonial-era civil servant, who as a young Afro-Guyanese woman, just two generations out of slavery under the British Empire, was subjected to years and years of flippant, soul-crushing racism and willful professional outsourcing. development and exploitation, which saw firsthand the “brown beetles” (British army vehicles) sent here to sow terror simply because the people wanted self-determination, but which has always been committed body and soul to build both a family and a newly independent nation through economic crisis and critical shortages so that this cane cutter’s grandson and granddaughter can meet, fall in love and start a business , a family and a life together.
It is this ability to survive and to emerge from overwhelming circumstances – from exploitation, racism, terror and human slaughter – with basic dignity and a will to accomplishment, which is true nobility, not a hereditary throne of wealth and privilege built on perpetuating and profiting from these same injustices.