Mayor London Breed last week invited the San Francisco community to join in mourning for Queen Elizabeth:
San Francisco joins the British community in our city and region to grieve the passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. We welcome the public to City Hall to honor the Queen’s lasting legacy and to sign the City’s Condolence Book that will be sent to the British Consulate General in San Francisco. The Queen’s leadership and dedication to public service over the last seven decades has left a lasting legacy that rose above politics. The Queen saw the world not only through the eyes of a Monarch, but as one who understood that unity was in the best interest of the people she represented and served. Our thoughts are with her family and the people of the United Kingdom.” Visitors are invited to sign their condolence messages in City Hall’s Fourth Floor South Gallery on Friday, September 9, 2022 between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
I did not go and write a condolence message.
I understand that the queen was respected widely for her decency and dignity. She was, by all accounts, a far better member of the royal family than many of her relatives. I learned long ago the Latin phrase, de mortuis nil nisi bonum, of the dead let nothing but good be said.
But Queen Elizabeth was the titular head of state of a country that, during her reign, was part of a brutal, racist, colonial system that destroyed the lives of millions of people who suffered under it. And not once has she or anyone in the royal family owned up to it or apologized.
The British Empire still existed, in many ways, when she became queen, and she was very much a part of it. Seven decades later, when one of her grandkids dared marry a Black woman, her house, under her control, created such a racist atmosphere that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle had to leave.
From a piece in The New York Times, which filled its front page with fawning tributes but did allow a little back-of-the-book dissent:
Queen Elizabeth II would never be an empress in name — the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947 stripped away that title — but she inherited and sustained an imperial monarchy by assuming the title of head of the Commonwealth. “The Commonwealth bears no resemblance to the empires of the past,” she insisted in her Christmas Day message of 1953. Its history suggested otherwise. Initially imagined as a consortium of the “white” settler colonies (championed by the South African premier Jan Smuts), the Commonwealth had its origins in a racist and paternalistic conception of British rule as a form of tutelage. In photographs from Commonwealth leaders’ conferences, the white queen sits front and center among dozens of mostly nonwhite premiers, like a matriarch flanked by her offspring. …What you would never know from the pictures — which is partly their point — is the violence that lies behind them. In 1948 the colonial governor of Malaya declared a state of emergency to fight communist guerrillas, and British troops used counterinsurgency tactics the Americans would emulate in Vietnam. In 1952 the governor of Kenya imposed a state of emergency to suppress an anticolonial movement known as Mau Mau, under which the British rounded up tens of thousands of Kenyans into detention camps and subjected them to brutal, systematized torture. In Cyprus in 1955 and Aden, Yemen, in 1963, British governors again declared states of emergency to contend with anticolonial attacks; again they tortured civilians. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Troubles brought the dynamics of emergency to the United Kingdom.
I grew up in an Irish Catholic family, and my parents had friends in Ireland. “The Troubles” is a mild, disarming name for a period of brutal British repression of people who happened to have been born into a different religion (not that different, really, but it was a huge political deal, which was really economic) in Northern Ireland.
I wore a button for Bobby Sands, the IRA leader who died in a hunger strike in the notorious H Block of HM Prison Maze. I joined some 5,000 people who protested the queen’s visit to SF in 1983—a wide range of activists from very different communities and parts of the world, all of whom had suffered from British imperialism.
King Charles III will not, I suspect, have anything to say about the fact that his entire family’s wealth, estimated at $28 billion, comes from violently exploiting the lives and resources of others.
I mean no disrespect to the dead, or to the many millions who are mourning the queen. But I won’t be signing Mayor Breed’s condolence book. Sorry.