The British Monarchy’s legacy is violence, and their role is a mirage designed to conceal that violence.
By Nylah Burton
It’s no secret that people love British royalty, and our TV shows and movies reflect that. Through productions like Netflix’s The Crown and The King, Showtimes’ The Tudors, The King’s Speech, The Queen, and Diana, our Anglophiliac entertainment industry obsesses over the British monarchy and the families/individuals who represent this violent institution. In these shows, the monarchy is often imbued with an overtly spiritual significance, a concept derived from the absolutist political philosophy of the divine right of Kings.
However, Season 3 of Netflix’s series, The Crown, indulges in this line of thinking quite often, its depiction of the British Royal Family’s relationship to Wales — a colonized country that is part of the United Kingdom — makes a strong case for both the abolishment of the British monarchy and the distribution of reparations for colonized people.
This is likely unintentional. After all, it is more profitable to allow people to indulge in their fantasies about European royalty rather than present them with a full-throated denunciation of European royalty.
But as a descendant of colonized and enslaved people, whose deaths and oppression built the foundation the British monarchy stands on, I cannot help but see The Crown through this lens.
Surprisingly, this season grapples with the British Royal Family’s role in colonialism head-on, by giving us two episodes focused on Wales. Wales may be part of the United Kingdom, but Welsh people have their own distinct cultural and political identity, an identity that is jeopardized by their lack of independence.
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That lack of independence has had fatal consequences. In one episode, Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) is pressured to visit Aberfan, Wales after government mismanagement led to a mining disaster that caused the deaths of 144 people, including 116 children. In the episode, the people of Aberfan rail against the elected government, monarchy, and the lack of care that led to the deaths of their children.
At first, Elizabeth, who is not Welsh, insists that her presence there isn’t necessary. Her advisors implore her to go, saying that if the people see that she cares, if she manages to eke out a tear, then that display of emotion and maternalism will dissipate Welsh anti-monarchist views and assuage Welsh anger.
This infantilizing stance has defined Elizabeth — who is known for her struggles with publicly expressing emotion — throughout her 66-year66 year reign. In fact, in the movie The Queen, the entire plot revolves around the idea that anti-monarchist sentiment will be quieted only by Elizabeth showing emotion after Princess Diana’s death.
This idea reduces desires for liberation and legitimate concerns about the efficacy and economy of the monarchy to cries from petulant children, whose deepest wish is to be embraced by their queenly mother figure.
But Elizabeth has little of substance to offer colonized people, except platitudes and ritual. It’s a reality that Princess Margeret (Helena Bonham Carter) states bluntly in the last episode, “We paper over the cracks. And if what we do is loud and grand and confident enough, no one will notice that all around us it’s fallen apart. That’s the point of us.” This is something that colonized people all over the world recognize, that the monarchy is functionally useless at best and violent at worst.
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In another episode, Elizabeth’s son Prince Charles is sent to a Welsh university (University College of Wales in Aberystwyth) for a term. The idea is that sending Charles (the Prince of Wales, although he is not Welsh) to the colonized country to learn the language will help quiet the growing movement for independence. This again is reductive and demeaning, implying that Welsh people don’t desire freedom as much as they desire for the royal family to visit more often.
During his trip, Prince Charles is shown grappling with the idea that he should not, in fact, be Prince of Wales at all, as Wales deserves autonomy. When he says that the Welsh and the British have fought together for centuries, his teacher responds, “Welshmen have historically bled for the conquests of your Crown, and why, one might ask? For what?”
It’s a rare depiction of royal self-awareness. However, one cannot ignore the fact that Charles is still the Prince of Wales, and that the Welsh are still fighting for their freedom. Just this year, the independence organization AUOB Cymru held three marches, all of which were attended by thousands of people. They plan to continue those marches in 2020.
While much attention — deservedly so — was paid to Wales in this series, British colonization of Black, Brown, and Indigenous nations, like my family’s country of Jamaica, were ignored. I suspect this is because viewers find it easier to watch functionally white people as victims of colonization, because they can erase the racialized violence of colonialism. It’s predictable, yet disappointing to see them treat the Welsh people with respect while ignoring or even celebrating (in the case of Lord Mountbatten and Burma) the violence that the British Empire inflicted on others.
However, even still, The Crown’s depiction of the Royal Family’s relationship to Wales inadvertently makes a strong case both against the monarchy and for reparations for colonized people.
Because it’s not enough to be against the Royal Family. We have to see the harm that they have caused, as an institution. And we don’t have to look far. They’re a family with Nazi ties, racist members, and another senior member implicated in a pedophile ring.
Simply put, the British Royal Family should no longer exist as an institution, because their existence is predicated on the oppression of Black and Indigenous people in the Americas and in Africa, the oppression of South Asian people, the oppression of the Irish, the Welsh, and the Scots, and more. Their legacy is violence, and their role is a mirage designed to conceal that violence. Their victims deserve freedom and reparations.
Nylah Burton is Denver-based writer with bylines in New York Magazine, ESSENCE, Bustle, and The Nation. You can follow her on Twitter, at @yumcoconutmilk.