Elizabeth II and the true story of the empire for which she stood

Elizabeth II and the true story of the empire for which she stood


Queen Elizabeth II succeeded her father, King George VI, in February of 1952. 

A few months later, in September of that year, British authorities in Wales executed an innocent man who had migrated to Britain from what was then the British East African colony of Somaliland. 

The man’s name was Mahmood Mattan, and he had been a sailor and worker in a steel foundry in Wales. He had married a white, Welsh woman, Laura Williams, also a factory worker, at a time when interracial marriage was not widely accepted in the UK. The couple faced considerable abuse.

A court in South Wales convicted Mattan of murder, in essence, because he was the same race as the person who actually committed the crime, the true killer of shop clerk Lily Volpert. 

The onetime sailor was almost helpless to defend himself. He did not speak much English, and his own court-appointed barrister described him as “half child of nature, half semi-civilized savage.”

Mahmood Mattan did not have much chance in a British court of 70 years ago. His case – which was dispatched rapidly, with a mere six months between the short trial and the execution – attracted little attention at the time.

In a different era, four and a half decades after UK justice had blithely sanctioned the hanging of an innocent man, a British court of appeal overturned Mattan’s conviction and awarded over £700 thousand in compensation to his family. That would be the equivalent of well over $2 million Canadian today. 

This year, 2022, five days before Elizabeth II died, the South Wales police finally apologized for their part in this miscarriage of justice.

The case of Mahmood Mattan forms alternate bookends to the official story of Elizabeth II’s 70-year term of office. This version is a story not only of selfless, lifelong service. It is also one of racism, colonialism and brutality – and of justice delayed far too long. 

Princess Elizabeth at Treetops in Kenya

In 1952, only a few erstwhile British colonies had achieved independence. 

There were the white countries of course, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa (which was majority black and brown, but with a whites-only government), and, as of the late 1940s, India, Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka. 

But the rest of the empire remained under British control. That included Malaysia and Singapore in Asia, plus the many African and Caribbean colonies, home to tens of millions of people.

This writer started attending Barclay School, in the immigrant, working-class Montreal neighbourhood of Park Extension, seven months after Elizabeth acceded to the throne. The school was part of Montreal’s Protestant, English-language system.  

At the time, maps in our school proudly showed huge swaths of the globe coloured in the red of the British empire. Each day, we pledged allegiance to the Union Jack, the empire, and the Queen, right after we had recited the Lord’s Prayer.

A good many of our teachers were enthusiastic royalists and British imperialists. They took special pride in the fact that sailors, soldiers, merchants and missionaries from those tiny isles in the North Atlantic had succeeded in conquering large parts of the world.

In October of the first year of Elizabeth II’s reign, Evelyn Baring, Governor of the then-British colony of Kenya, declared a state of emergency. He was responding to the uprising led by the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA), popularly known as the Mau-Mau rebellion.

The KLFA’s actions were in response to more than half a century of what amounted to British theft of land Africans had farmed for centuries.  

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries British colonial forces seized about 7 million acres of fertile Kenyan land, much of it in what would become known as the “White Highlands,” and handed it over to white settlers. The people they described as “Natives” were then encouraged to become wage labourers.

The KLFA fighters wanted to reclaim that land, and were not averse to using force to achieve that end. The British response was more than merely forceful. In the halls of Westminster, there was no talk back then about finding a middle ground, of seeking a peaceful path to Kenyan self-government.

British authorities in the East African colony conducted mass arrests and consigned tens of thousands to camps, which one Kenyan jurist later compared to Nazi concentration camps.

Early in 1952, when her father died and as the turmoil in Kenya was reaching a boil, then-Princess Elizabeth happened to be in Kenya. She and her husband were at the exclusive Treetops resort, where guests lodge in comfortable cabins built literally in the trees, overlooking the nearby savannah and forest. 

Retrospective news features and the partly fictional TV mini-series The Crown depict the new Queen in Kenya in 1952. Very few, however, make mention of the massive uprising happening there.

Kenya and most other British African colonies would in due course attain independence, starting with Ghana in 1957 and Nigeria in 1960. 

As head of the British Commonwealth, the Queen showed salutary loyalty to those countries that had shed the yoke of colonial rule. 

Sanctions on South Africa and royal service in the war against Hitler

Elizabeth II even sided with the non-white Commonwealth nations (and Canada’s Brian Mulroney) in 1986, when they voted to impose sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime. (In 1961, Canadian PM John Diefenbaker had been the only leader of a “white” country to join the majority in booting South Africa out of the Commonwealth.)

At the 1986 Commonwealth conference, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher obstinately opposed any sanctions on the apartheid nation. But Mulroney and the Queen’s staff deftly worked to come up with wording both Thatcher and the rest of the Commonwealth could accept.

The British monarch’s interest in this question is one historians will have a field day analyzing. 

Was she deeply concerned with human rights – in which case, we can legitimately ask, what took her so long? 

Or did Elizabeth II simply want to keep the Commonwealth going as a viable organization? 

Did the Queen understand that while the white countries would not leave in solidarity with South Africa, the non-white countries very well might leave, if the organization she headed failed to act against apartheid?

Regardless of her motives, the late Queen’s stand on apartheid might have been her finest hour. It is rivaled only by her parents’ and her and her sister’s courage and steadfastness during the frightening days of World War II. 

Much of Europe, including France, Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, had fallen to Hitler’s tyranny. Britain – with Canada and the rest of the Commonwealth – stood virtually alone against the Nazis’ thirst for world domination. 

In the U.S. before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour late in 1941, there were loud voices wishing Britain ill and predicting its defeat. And Britain itself had its share of defeatists and Nazi sympathizers, including Elizabeth’s uncle David, the former king Edward VIII.

The royal family rejected offers to ship them to safety across the Atlantic to this country, Canada. They stayed to face the blitz and anything else the enemy threw at them together with the rest of the people.

The then-Princess Elizabeth was only a teenager, but she did her part. Even those of us who believe in candidly telling the whole truth about the horrors of empire and colonialism must recognize that contribution.

The Royal Proclamation of 1763

Many Indigenous leaders in Canada have talked in recent days about their special relationship with the British Crown. 

They refer to the treaties, all engaged by the government in the name of the Crown, and, especially, to the Royal Proclamation of 1763. 

That Proclamation was part of the British government’s effort to consolidate the empire’s gains at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War with the French. 

With the goal of winning the allegiance of Indigenous groups throughout North America, the Royal Proclamation states that settlers may not seize, occupy or exploit so-called native land without treaties freely agreed to by the Indigenous inhabitants or legal purchases of that land. 

Canada’s Constitution Act of 1982 affirms the Royal Proclamation and the various treaties with Indigenous groups that followed it. 

It would be a mistake, however, to think George III, the king who issued the Proclamation, had any sort of principled commitment to Indigenous rights

The 18th century king’s main interests, and that of the British government, were geopolitical. They wanted to counter their French rivals, who still had a considerable presence in North America. 

Nonetheless, the fact of the treaties and the Royal Proclamation underscores how constitutionally difficult it would be to abolish the monarchy in Canada. 

The Canadian constitution (as amended in 1982) states that all ten provinces and the federal government must agree if we are to abolish the monarchy and replace it with another institution.

Indigenous assent to such a change would not be a formal requirement, but it would be a de facto and moral one. 

So, we are stuck with the monarchy, like it or not, until, perhaps, the British themselves decide to ditch it. (In the UK they could abolish the monarchy with a simple act of parliament.)

Why then should we in Canada take this moment to consider the institution of the monarchy in its fuller context?

Well, for the last week or so we have been collectively entranced by the enormous ceremonial solemnity involved in bidding adieu to our longest reigning monarch.

But even as we do say goodbye, we can also remind ourselves of the deep and ineluctable connections between the Crown and the unvarnished history of – to use the phrase some of us recited each day in school – “the empire for which it stands”.



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