How should we remember Queen Elizabeth II and her seventy years on the British throne? Many people have reacted to the glorification of her rule, pointing out the British Royals’ direct connection to the slave trade, Britain’s colonial massacres, and its loot from the colonies. Britain built its wealth on the blood and sweat of people who lost their lands and homes and live in poor countries today. Lest we forget, the slave trade was a monopoly of the British throne: first, in 1660, as the Company of Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa, later converted to the Royal African Company of England. The battle over “free trade” fought by British merchant capital was against this highly lucrative royal monopoly—enslaving people in Africa and selling them to plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean—so that they could participate in it.
According to western accounts, the Age of Discovery, co-terminus with Enlightenment, started it all in the 16th century. Explorers such as Vasco de Gama, Columbus and Magellan went all over the world, discovering new lands. Enlightenment led to the development of reason and science, the basis of the industrial revolution in England. The Industrial Revolution reached Europe and the United States, creating the difference between the wealthy west and the poverty-stricken rest. Slavery, genocide, land expropriation from “natives”, and colonial loot do not enter this sanitised picture of the development of capitalism. Or, if mentioned, these are only projected as marginal to the larger story of the rise of the west.
Actual history is quite different. Chronologically, the Industrial Revolution takes place in the second half of the 18th century. The 16th-17th centuries is when a small handful of western countries reached the Americas, followed by the genocide of its indigenous population and enslaving of the rest. The 16th and 17th centuries also see the rise of the slave trade from Africa to the Caribbean and the Americas. It destroys African society and its economy, what Walter Rodney calls How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The plantation economy—based on slavery in the Caribbean and Continental America—created large-scale commodity production and global markets.
While sugar, the product of the plantations, was the first global commodity, tobacco, coffee, cocoa, and cotton followed. The plantation economy provided commodities for the world market, but let us not forget it was enslaved people who were the most important “commodity”. The slave trade was the major source of European—British, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese—capital. Gerald Horne writes in The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, published in Monthly Review in April 2018: “The enslaved, a peculiar form of capital encased in labour, represented simultaneously the barbarism of the emerging capitalism, along with its productive force.”
Marx characterised it as so-called primitive accumulation and “expropriation”, not accumulation. Capital from the beginning was based on expropriation—robbery, plunder and enslaving of people by force. There was no accumulation in this process. Marx writes that capital was born “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.
The British Royals played a key role in this history of slavery and primitive accumulation. Britain was a second-class power at the beginning of the 17th century. Its transformation was initially based on the slave trade and, later, the sugar plantations in the Caribbean. Its ships and traders emerged as the significant power in the slave trade, holding by the 1680s three-fourths of this “market” in human beings. Of this, the Royal African Company, owned by the British Crown, had a 90% share: the charge for Britain’s domination of the slave trade was led by the British Royals.
Interestingly, the “free trade” slogan under which the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was created was of the British merchant capital seeking abolition of the Royal Monopoly over the slave trade. It was, in other words, the freedom of capital to enslave human beings and trade in them, free of a royal monopoly. It is this capital, created out of slave trade and outright piracy and loot, that funded the industrial revolution.
While Britain finally abolished slavery, it was not the enslaved people but slave-owners who were paid compensation for losing their “property”. The amount paid in 1833 was 40% of Britain’s national budget. And since it was paid through borrowings, United Kingdom citizens paid off this “loan” only in 2015! For us in India, there is another part to the story. As the ex-slaves refused to work on the plantations they had served, they were replaced by indentured labour from India.
To return to the British Royalty, the Crown’s property and portfolio investments are worth 28 billion pounds, making King Charles III one of the wealthiest persons in the United Kingdom. Just his personal property is more than a billion pounds. Even by today’s standards of obscene personal wealth, these are big numbers, particularly as this income is virtually tax-free. The royals are also exempt from death duties.
But as we are not citizens of the United Kingdom, that does not concern us. What does concern us is that in its three-hundred-year history, British colonialism carried out brutal wars, genocide, slavery, and expropriation in its name and under the leadership of the British monarchy. After the industrial revolution, Britain wanted only raw materials from its colonies, not industrial products: the slogan was “not even a nail from the colonies”. All trade from the colonies to other countries had to pass through Britain and pay taxes before re-export. The complement of the industrial revolution in Britain was de-industrialising the colonies, confining them to be producers of raw materials and agricultural products.
Why are we talking about Britain’s colonial past after the death of Queen Elizabeth II? After all, she only saw the last seventy years, when the British colonial empire was liquidated. This is not simply about the past, but that neither the British Crown nor its rulers ever expressed guilt over the brutalities of their empire and its foundations of slavery and genocide. No apology for the empire’s gory history: not even its massacres and mass incarcerations. In Jallianwala Bagh, which Elizabeth II visited in 1997, she called the massacre a “distressing” and “difficult episode”; not even a simple “We are sorry”. Prince Phillip even questioned the number of martyrs.
How do we reconcile the anger that people who suffered from Britain’s colonial empire feel about their leaders making a bee-line to pay homage to the Queen? Does it not shame the memory of Bhagat Singh and many others who laid down their lives in the freedom struggle against the British Crown to lower the national flag to half-mast in her honour?
One can argue all this happened long before she took over the Crown, so we cannot hold her personally responsible for Britain’s colonial history. We should: she, as Queen, represented the British state. It is not Elizabeth, the person people want an apology from, but Elizabeth, the titular head of the British state. That is why Mukoma wa Ngugi, son of Kenya’s world-renowned writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, has said, “If the queen had apologised for slavery, colonialism and neocolonialism and urged the crown to offer reparations for the millions of lives taken in her/their names, then perhaps I would do the human thing and feel bad,” he wrote. “As a Kenyan, I feel nothing. This theatre is absurd.”
Mukoma wa Ngugi was referring to the Mau Mau revolt for land and freedom in which Kenyans were massacred, and 1.5 million were held in brutal concentration camps. It was from 1952-1960: Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952. So very much in her lifetime!