by Alvin Masarira | 12 September 2022 |
As I write this article, I am traveling across the African continent on a trip that has taken me from Southern Africa to the beautiful East African country of Ethiopia, then across the continent to Ghana (in West Africa) and then to the small nation of Liberia.
I was in Port Buchanan in Liberia when I saw on television the news of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II. God allowed her to live a very long life. Since her coronation at the age of 27 in 1953, she became the longest reigning British monarch in history. There are very few living people today, who have known any other British monarch.
Although there are hundreds if not thousands of monarchs in the world, the British monarchy is the best known. Millions of people travel to London every year to see, among other things, Buckingham Palace. The personal lives of the members of the British royals seem to be part of our lives. They are like our neighbors down the street.
Those who are old enough remember the dream wedding of the then Prince (now King) Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in July 1981. It was every young girl’s dream wedding then, billed as the “wedding of the century.” Many shed tears when Lady Diana died in a horrific car crash in a tunnel in Paris in 1997. We remember the somber funeral service on 6 September 1997, and the images of Prince Phillip, Prince Charles, Prince William, Prince Harry and Earl Charles Spencer walking behind the casket. The pop star Elton John, who was Diana’s friend, sang “Candle in the Wind/Goodbye England’s Rose”.
We have watched the drama and intrigue of the royals in the public media over the years. We have seen the young princes, William and Harry, grow to become men, and we have watched their weddings live-streamed on television.
But in all this, the constant has been the Queen herself. She seems to have been the one holding this family—indeed, the monarchy—together. Even in her old age, she somehow appeared to have everything under control. For some reason we believed she would outlive all of us and live forever. Although her death shouldn’t have surprised us—she was, after all, 96 years old—it still evoked an outpouring of grief, as many felt like they had lost a member of their own family.
In my travels to London, I have also seen Buckingham Palace. I have never seen a member of the royal family, not even from a distance, but still the Queen felt like someone I knew. It is believed that after 70 years in public view she may be one of the most photographed persons in the history of photography.
Slavery & poverty
In Liberia I was reminded of the history of this poor nation of about 5.1 million people. Liberia was established in 1847 by and for former African slaves whose ancestors had been forcefully shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas. When slavery was finally abolished (against much resistance from slave owners) some of the slaves wanted to return to Africa. An arrangement was made to take them to the sparsely populated area in West Africa that is now Liberia. The connection between Liberia and the United States is still evident when one travels across the country today. The Liberian flag is similar to the United States flag, and there is strong identification with the United States. A good proportion of Liberians identify themselves as descendants of former slaves, in contrast to those who are descendants of native Liberians who were not taken as slaves.
The challenges and the poverty seen in Liberia today can be traced back to slavery and its subsequent effects. We don’t have photos or films that were made during that period to show what it was like when slaves were being taken to America and the lives they lived there; the movies we see today are based on written historical records, but the brutality and evil of the slave trade can hardly be exaggerated.
Colonization accompanied slavery. In the 17th to 19th centuries, European nations had gone on a rampage to colonize the world. Europeans acted as though whatever territories in the world they reached and occupied became subject colonies of the countries the colonizers came from. In whatever land they set foot, they would use military force to subdue resistance from the rightful owners and inhabitants, and declare the land theirs.
No European power was as active in the colonization process as Great Britain. They colonized much of the African continent, North America, and the Far East (e.g. India).
Please remember that all of this was in the name of the monarchy. All the British colonies became subject to the British monarch, and the monarchy had authority to take whatever they wanted to or for England. That which could not be moved but was deemed valuable, such as land, was given to European settlers by force. The locals (we so called “natives”) weren’t asked for our permission.
Vast quantities of gold, diamonds, industrial minerals, timber and precious items were shipped to Europe to build European industry and create its vast wealth. It is believed there is more African gold stored in Europe than exists in Africa itself. The crown jewels have the largest gem-quality diamond ever found in Africa. It was discovered in 1905 and—contrary to the public narrative—that diamond which is worth $2 billion was sold for a small amount and then gifted to King Edward VII for his birthday in 1907.
It should be noted that this transaction was between the European settlers and their masters in Europe. This is typical of how colonies were treated by the colonial masters.
The Queen & colonials
The death of Queen Elizabeth II is indeed a sad event for her family members and friends. It is the loss of a mother, a grandmother, a great grandmother, a mother-in-law, a friend, and someone who was dear to the hearts of many. From that perspective, we all feel the pain of those directly affected by it. Those who believe in God the Comforter should pray that the family and friends be comforted. It is evident from the many who laid flowers at the fence of Buckingham Palace, from the sad faces of little children who adored the Queen like their own granny, from the great outpouring of emotions by the many British citizens and friends across the globe, that many need comforting. She appeared to be a sweet lady, someone who appeared to remain above the political fray although constitutionally she had power to appoint political leaders of Britain.
However, there are millions across the world who CNN and BBC will never interview in front of running cameras, many across Africa, India, the Americas and other parts of the world, for whom the Queen as head of the British Empire epitomized an empire that exploited, colonized, brutalized and impoverished their homelands.
The effects of that are still felt today: the uneven distribution of global wealth between North and South can be traced to the period of the 16th to the 20th centuries when imperial powers like Great Britain ravaged the world at will. Even after the end of the political colonization, with the political independence of many countries in the 20th century, the imbalances caused by colonization remain. In many poor countries the erstwhile colonial masters still have the levers of power in their hands.
Without ignoring the misrule and corruption by many African or Asian political leaders in their own nations, the impact of colonialism was tremendous; the seeds sown in that era have been bearing fruit for centuries and decades. It is therefore no surprise that many in these parts of the world are conflicted. Of course, kind people are saddened on a personal level for her family and friends; but they are ambivalent or even hostile on an institutional level.
In the days to come there will be pomp and ceremony, a nation in mourning, flags flying at half mast, changes to many official systems, protocols and procedures. For example, the famous red Royal mailboxes in Great Britain have the symbol “ER” on them, standing for “Elizabeth Regina”. Some wonder whether all these thousands of boxes need to be replaced with new ones reflecting the new monarch. Titles will change: from Prince of Wales to King Charles III, then from Prince William to Prince of Wales as he becomes heir to the throne.
As some people watch this, they are reminded that this empire was built on the back of slavery, colonialism, exploitation, and brutal force, and they were on the receiving end of it. Again, on a personal level, they are indeed sad about the death of the Queen. But at an institutional level they are conflicted: how can one separate the person of Queen Elizabeth from the institution, given that over the decades, she herself had become an institution? That is a difficult question indeed.
Colonialism & faith
Queen Elizabeth was the Head of the Church of England, and so she was close to the global Christian church. Like the Pope in Catholicism, she could be a church leader for life. It is tempting for the rest of Christianity to see her from that perspective and mourn her as a lost spiritual leader.
Queen Elizabeth might have attended church services regularly and even read or quoted Scripture, but the system she led cannot be exonerated from the harm it did to the global architecture. Therefore, when world Christian leaders issue statements or messages of condolence, they must be careful not to speak from a Euro-centric perspective and ignore how the British Empire, epitomized by the Queen, was viewed by the many nations in the South based on their own lived experiences.
As I traverse many parts of Africa and see relics of the colonial era and the challenges many of these nations face, I am conflicted as a Christian about the role of colonialism. Colonialism came together with the missionary expeditions. From a Southern African perspective, one struggles to separate the British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes from the missionary David Livingstone.
There is a mystery that surrounds the workings of God in bringing the good news of salvation, His love for all humanity as demonstrated on the cross of calvary. But from a colonial perspective, Christian mission is closely linked and associated with the brutality of colonial powers like the British Empire. To try and understand that is likely to take eternity, but suffice to say that the Church needs to grapple with and have an ongoing conversation on the link between European colonialism and Christian mission.
Of course, the European missionaries did not do themselves a favor by often behaving like colonialists in their dealings with the so-called “natives”. In many cases they exhibited similar characteristics and attitudes towards the locals.
The Christian Church is growing fastest in the global South. Therefore when world church leaders speak about the death of Queen Elizabeth, they should be cognizant that their message might not resonate with many of their world members in the once-colonized parts of the world.
With the Queen’s death, the British national anthem (one of the most recognizable in the world) will change—a small change on the surface, but in reality, a very significant one: it will now be “God save the King”.
This is a hopeful sentiment, because of course this king who now heads a world power needs to be saved by God. I put my faith in the King of Kings, who Himself is God. As someone said, all earthly kings are born princes and may later become kings, but King Jesus is eternal. Indeed, one day “the kingdom of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord” (Revelation 11:15). And there is no national anthem of His Kingdom praying that He be saved, because “All authority in heaven and on earth is vested in Him”.
Alvin Masarira is originally from Zimbabwe, and is a structural engineering consultant based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He and his wife, Limakatso, a medical doctor, have three children.