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Queen's death renews calls for the monarchy to reckon with Britain's colonial past

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The death of Queen Elizabeth is a moment for some countries to decide if they really want a King Charles. There is, of course, a Commonwealth of Nations, countries attached to the United Kingdom, in many cases by a history of colonialism. And within that Commonwealth is a smaller group, the Commonwealth of Realms (ph), 14 other countries that still recognize the British monarch as their own sovereign.

A Martinez found that some countries are debating this question. He spoke with Natasha Lightfoot, who is at Columbia University and wrote a book about Antigua called "Troubling Freedom."

NATASHA LIGHTFOOT: It's possibly the outpouring of grief and calls for respect and dignity that tend to suggest whitewashing of the queen's legacy and essentially trying to paper over any sort of critical responses to what the queen's life signified in her time as monarch.

A MARTINEZ, BYLINE: Queen Elizabeth ruled over the waning years of the British Empire. How can the monarchy disassociate itself from its colonial past, with most members being former colonies of the British Empire?

LIGHTFOOT: That would probably be a difficult prospect, given that for much of the colonized world, the monarchy has been the symbol of land theft, human resource theft. It would take some form of apologizing. And the problem with apologizing is that such an apology could become a legal basis for lawsuits for reparatory justice, and that would probably end up costing the British Treasury millions, if not trillions of pounds. So I don't think the work that really needs to be done to atone for the atrocities of the colonial past will probably be engaged with under the new monarch.

MARTINEZ: So in a strange way, professor, it almost sounds as if for the monarchy, for King Charles, it's almost better as if he does not address it and just move forward.

LIGHTFOOT: Well, better for him, but is it better for the millions of people around the world who have suffered under the weight of British colonialism? It's actually quite worse for them because the result in many of these places has been pretty clear signs of underdevelopment, climate insecurity, economic insecurity. There's no way to really disconnect colonialism from all of this. And certainly, the queen's passing has become this important moment, trying to push past the idea that the monarchy is just merely symbolic and that there are real political and material consequences to this kind of political setup.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. King Charles is now the head of state for these nations in the Commonwealth. Is having someone with the title of king in 2022 just out of step with the times?

LIGHTFOOT: Well, certainly. There are many Caribbean nations inclusive of places like Trinidad and Tobago or Guyana or Dominica in the 1970s and, most recently last year, Barbados, who have taken the monarchy off of their paperwork but remain in the Commonwealth. Remaining a constitutional monarchy means that your independence is a bit fraught. It's burdened with the shadow of the monarchy still in the background.

MARTINEZ: You know, I asked you that, professor, because it just seems strange that someone is the head of state for a nation where it's probably fair to say, at the very least, that it might be a stretch to think that he shares some of these nations' cultural values or customs.

LIGHTFOOT: Not just the cultural values and customs, but certainly the burden of taking care of the responsibilities of the state. There's definitely going to be a lot of distance, not just culturally, but also politically and economically, between what the current role is of the British monarch and what the prime ministers of these nations actually have to do on a daily basis.

MARTINEZ: For the nations that are former colonies who are in the Commonwealth right now, what do they get out of this?

LIGHTFOOT: The Commonwealth, as a collective of former colonized nations, represents a kind of strength-in-numbers approach. To postcolonial statecraft, it fosters collective trade agreements. It, you know, encourages collective climate solutions. But it should be said that these member countries, as a conglomerate of mostly developing nations, need these collective solutions provided by the Commonwealth in part because of the centuries of extractive colonialism. So it's a very circular thing, right? The Commonwealth is a dues-paying organization. So nations do not get these benefits simply by dint of having been a British colony.

MARTINEZ: How do you think it might evolve now under King Charles?

LIGHTFOOT: That remains to be seen. It depends on how King Charles approaches his sense of what the British monarchy's responsibility is to the former colonies. What we've seen of King Charles' previous outreach as prince did not quite seem altogether radical as well, right?

MARTINEZ: And I know Antigua's going to have a referendum on this. How do you expect that they'll try to move forward on that?

LIGHTFOOT: Well, the island of Antigua and Barbuda - they've been independent for 42 years, preceded by roughly 350 years of British colonialism. So the imbalance is clear. To get the referendum to a place where it actually succeeds, it would take these ongoing conversations. The story of decolonization in the British-held Caribbean was one where all of these islands had very similar constitutions. They were basically cookie-cutter, and they were often devised largely by the British, in negotiation with some small amounts of leadership coming from each of the territories in the Caribbean. There's a real sense that independence needs to get under way by potentially attending to lots of different elements of these constitutions, and so not just the head of state issue, but multiple other issues.

MARTINEZ: That's Natasha Lightfoot, associate professor at Columbia University.

Professor, thank you.

LIGHTFOOT: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TUNDE JEGEDE'S "LES EAUX: THE ESSENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.