Charles’ inherits’ Commonwealth: how will he deal with British colonial past?

When 25-year-old Elizabeth ascended the throne in 1953, the heavy state crown rested on her head and the royal scepter lay in her hand. The two items, part of the British crown jewels, are back in the spotlight after her death.

The royal accessories are decorated with diamonds from the Cullinan. This largest uncut diamond in the world was found at the beginning of the last century in South Africa, then a British colony.

โ€œThe stone was stolen from South Africa in 1905 and is now worth 400 million. Nearly 75,000 South Africans could go to school for a year,โ€ said a tweet last night. The message was shared tens of thousands of times.

Elizabeth inherited an empire that was crumbling. Remains of it form the Commonwealth of Nations (the former British Commonwealth). Almost all of the 54 countries are former colonies.

Elizabeth saw it as her lifes work to keep the Commonwealth together. But the decolonization was unstoppable: all African countries became independent during her kingship.

The importance she attached to the Commonwealth was a tradition of her father, says former correspondent Hieke Jippes. โ€œThe Commonwealth is a leftover British Empire. She inherited it from her father, to whom it was very dear. He saw it as a family of nations, who had said goodbye to their relationship of authority with England, but attached to it as a kind of motherland.โ€

โ€œWe all grew up with her,โ€ residents of Commonwealth countries respond:

Elizabeth was seen as an important factor that held the Commonwealth together. The question is whether Charles will be able to do this. Jippes thinks so.

โ€œIt was Elizabeths great wish that Charles would take over the presidency of the Commonwealth.โ€ The nations agreed to this under the express reservation that it would not become a hereditary function.

According to Jippes, this does not mean that Charles is loved by the Member States. โ€œTo please the queen, they agreed to it. Some reproach him for never really interfering. Caribbean and African countries felt that he was more attracted to the Arab countries. It was found that Charles treated them with contempt.โ€


Last day, attention was also paid to Britains impact on the world. โ€œBehind British imperialism lies a history of violence,โ€ wrote American history professor Maya Jasanoff (Harvard University) in The New York Times.

Jasanoff points, among other things, to Kenya, where the independence movement was severely suppressed in the 1950s. England was guilty of torturing thousands of Kenyans. And in Cyprus, British troops tortured Cypriot civilians who picked up arms to expel the British.

โ€œWe will probably never know what the Queen knew about the crimes committed in her name,โ€ Jasanoff writes. โ€œBut we should not romanticize her eraโ€.

How to go further below Charles?

In recent years, pressure has increased on London to acknowledge the violent side of history. In 2013, tortured rebels in then British Kenya were compensated, and Cyprus followed in 2019.

In response to Elizabeths death, African, Caribbean and Asian heads of state expressed their condolences. But there were also reports online about residents of former colonies celebrating.

How Charles will relate to the UKs colonial history is the question. He already made a cross in June. โ€œThe roots of our contemporary collaboration date back to the most painful period of our history,โ€ he said in a speech to the Commonwealth.

โ€œThe suffering of so many is my heart,โ€ he continued. โ€œIm still trying to broaden my personal knowledge of the ongoing impact of slavery.โ€

โ€œConciliatory Gestureโ€

Skeptics will see an attempt at self-preservation in it. โ€œBut Charles has tried to make a conciliatory gesture,โ€ says Jippes. โ€œIn light of the global discussion about slavery, he will have to do things differently. He seems willing to engage in that conversationโ€.

The legacy of British imperialism was not yet on the Commonwealths agenda. That may change under Charles, he himself suggested earlier. โ€œIf we want to face a common future, we need to find ways to recognize our past. The time is now right for that conversationโ€.