Why Nearly All the King’s Realms Want to Say Goodbye and Good Riddance
The era of warm, wave-and-smile relations between the British monarchy and its distant realms has come to an end. Many of the former colonies that still formally swear allegiance to King Charles III are accelerating efforts to cut ties with the crown and demanding restitution and a deeper reckoning with the empire that the royal family has come to represent.
Jamaica is moving rapidly toward a referendum that would remove King Charles as the nation’s head of state, with a reform committee meeting regularly on the verdant grounds where colonial rulers and slave owners once lived. Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Bahamas and nearly every other country with similar systems of constitutional monarchy have also signaled support for becoming republics completely independent of Britain in the years to come.
The chorus of calls for British apologies, reparations and repatriation — of everything from India’s Kohinoor diamond to sculptures from Benin and Easter Island — has also grown louder, placing the new king in a vexing position. Charles represents nearly 1,000 years of unbroken royal lineage; he also now stands on a volatile fault line between Britain, where much of that history tends to be romanticized, and a group of forthright former colonies demanding that he confront the harsh realities of his country’s imperial past.
“There is a growing gap between Britain’s perception of its own empire and how it’s perceived everywhere else,” said William Dalrymple, a prominent historian of British India. “And that gap keeps growing.”
For countries still constitutionally joined to the crown, Charles’s coronation arrived with little fanfare, and some cringing discomfort.
These nations are but a remnant. In the wave of decolonization that followed World War II, dozens of independent countries climbed out from under British rule, including India, Pakistan and Nigeria. During Elizabeth’s seven-decade reign, which began in 1952, 17 former colonies left the monarchy’s embrace to become republics — in most cases, with a president replacing the queen as head of state, usually in the ceremonial role previously played by the monarch (India) or with stronger executive powers (Kenya).
The 14 nations yet to do so stretch from Australia and Papua New Guinea to Canada and Jamaica. In some places that call the new 74-year-old sovereign their king, like the Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, there seems to be little interest in severing royal bonds. Oaths of allegiance have already been switched from queen to king in the courtrooms of remote capitals where wigs are still worn as if in 1680s London.
But for many royal subjects in faraway places, words like “his majesty” and “royal” — as in the Royal Australian Air Force — roll less easily off the tongue now that Britain is less dominant on the global stage, and now that the monarch is no longer Queen Elizabeth II, who often seemed as irreplaceable as Big Ben.
A few governments have already endorsed a soft fade. Quebec passed a law in December that made the oath of allegiance to the king optional for lawmakers. Australia also recently announced that its new five-dollar note would replace the portrait of Elizabeth not with Charles but with imagery celebrating the country’s Indigenous heritage.
But for critics of monarchy and empire, these are baby steps when bold leaps are needed.
Nova Peris, an Aboriginal Australian Olympian and former politician who is a leader of the Australian Republic Movement, which aims to replace the British monarch with an Australian head of state, is one of many calling for a deeper reckoning with the past.
English settlers justified seizing Australia by declaring it “terra nullius” — a Latin term for “land belonging to no one.” It was a slur used to justify dispossession, and the impact still lingers. No treaty has ever been signed between the Australian government and Aboriginal nations.
Later this year, Australians will vote on a referendum that would give Indigenous Australians an advisory role in policies affecting their communities. And polls show that many hope a vote on becoming a republic will be next, arguing it would tilt the nation more toward its neighbors in Asia and help unify Australia’s increasingly multicultural population.
“Monarchy is all about entrenched privilege, about rule by kings and queens over and above the Australian people,” Ms. Peris said. “It has no place in a democracy.”
In Jamaica, the process of separation from “Mother England” is further along, and more imbued with demands for restitution.
The Caribbean island was a center of the trans-Atlantic slave trade; Jamaican leaders began calling for reparations from Britain a few years ago, along with many other countries in the region. After Queen Elizabeth died in September, Jamaica’s prime minister announced that his government would seek to change the constitution and make Jamaica a republic.
In March, a committee of lawmakers and international experts started gathering in Kingston to work out the details.
Richard Albert, a committee member and the director of constitutional studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said that at the first meeting, the gravity of the moment clarified the challenges ahead. The group now meets regularly to discuss what question to ask voters in the referendum, what role the Jamaican head of state would play, and what other changes might follow becoming a republic.
“There’s a sense of national duty and pride,” Mr. Albert said. “It’s the idea that the country wants to exercise self-determination to celebrate its cultural heritage, and to plant a flag to say: We are an independent sovereign state.”
Many Jamaicans have said they hope becoming a republic would lead to broader changes, with schools, courts and other institutions stepping away from quiet respect for British traditions and instead including more candid accounts of crimes committed by colonizers swearing loyalty to the British crown.
On the campus of the University of the West Indies on a recent afternoon, many students described Charles as an unknown, distant figure — almost a cardboard cutout from the past.
“The monarchy is something that should just stay in England,” said Tamoy Campbell, who is studying law. “For us to move forward as a nation, it’s important that we break away from those ties, to charter our own destiny, our future and our goals”
Charles has said he does not object to such pursuits. Last June, at a meeting of the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 54 nations, almost all of which were once under British rule, he declared that any constitutional connection to his family “depends solely on the decision of each member state.”
He also noted that the group’s roots “go deep into the most painful period of our history.”
Last month, in a statement from Buckingham Palace, he signaled support for deeper research into the royal family’s connections to slavery through the royal archives. Historians welcomed the move.
“That’s quite a new step because the archives are private archives,” said Robert Aldrich, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Sydney and co-author of “The Ends of Empire: The Last Colonies Revisited.”
But how much can or will the king actually rectify?
“He’s constrained,” Professor Aldrich said. “He must say and do only what is approved by the British government.”
British laws bar state-owned institutions from returning plundered artifacts. Even an apology for slavery would raise questions about whether the government, the royal family or businesses owed compensation, and it may be politically impossible. The families of some Kenyan victims of colonial abuse are instead trying to sue the British government in the European Court of Human Rights.
“There is still a widespread sense of pride in Britain about an empire that is perceived as being a good and progressive force that brought railways, cricket and democracy to half the world,” Mr. Dalrymple said. “And there’s very little awareness in Britain of the pile of skulls over which that was rolled.” But there are hints of a shift. Books critical of British rule, such as “Empireland” by Sathnam Sanghera, a British journalist born to Indian Punjabi parents, have become best-sellers. Mr. Dalrymple’s book “The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company” will soon become a big-budget television series that he has compared to “Game of Thrones.”
For Charles, that means the realms he rules over may all soon become even more engaged with a sharper version of the history his family helped shape. And with that, his reign may be judged more critically than his mother’s ever was — by British elites who believe much of their wealth came from their benign civilizing of a grateful world, and by former colonies that bear the scars of imperial violence and want their loot and patrimony returned.
“There is friction now in a way that there simply wasn’t as recently as five or 10 years ago,” Mr. Dalrymple said. “Within Britain, there’s a whole lot of stuff that we don’t know and that we haven’t come to terms with.”
Camille Williams contributed reporting from Kingston, Jamaica.
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