For nearly a century she was part of a family that had once ruled over large chunks of the globe. Aaron Smale reflects on the passing of someone else’s grandmother after losing his own.
Last week Queen Elizabeth II died at her residence at Balmoral. She was 96.
Last month my grandmother, Pearl Sinclair, died in a rest home in Gore. She was 96.
So passes an era, one the most famous woman in the world, the other known only to a few but still treasured.
The end of any life of that length demands a period of reflection. I was going through photos of my Nan from the 1970s not long before she died and realised she had the same hair-do as the Queen. She also had a Corgi dog at one point. It dawned on me that my Nan had revered and imitated the Queen, even though she wasn’t a monarchist.
The Queen ascended the throne before the era of modern celebrity. Elvis was still a poor truck-driver in Memphis. Hollywood was at the beginning of its golden era. Humans have an innate habit of imitating those at the top of the social ladder, however that ladder is constructed. And in my Nana’s day the person who was indisputably at the top of the ladder was the Queen. She was the measure of fashion and how a woman of her age should look and behave. Even though Britain began to lose some of its social influence as New Zealand was pulled into the cultural and economic orbit of America, the Queen represented our almost infantile attachment to the British Empire and the lingering residue of that other British era and monarch, Victorian. We couldn’t let it go because to do so would be like flipping the bird at your Nana.
Māori have more than a few reasons to diss the monarchy (the legend of Dun Mihaka giving the Queen the one-bum salute is apparently apocryphal but the sight of a Māori man exposing his naked backside is a ceremonial greeting the monarch would have found memorable and, perhaps, amusing. I'd love to know what Prince Phillip's take was). But even Māori are still somehow attached to the aura of the British rangatira who represented the promise of the Treaty of Waitangi. Queen Victoria gave her word - at least one of her thousands of her underlings did anyway - which must count for something.
Born in the same year the Queen and my Nan had grown up and gone through life in parallel universes that were also distantly connected. Their early lives spanned some of the most momentous events of the 20th century and in their latter days they witnessed the upheavals of the 21st. One of those changes that we now take for granted is the mass-media that beamed people like the Queen onto screens in our living rooms and now in our pockets.
If my Nan mimicked the Queen’s style, she also managed to demonstrate some of her more intangible qualities but in her own way and for different reasons. The Queen – and she needs no other name – has and will continue to be hailed for her stability, her reliability, her sense of duty. So too, my Nan. Despite living through several personal tragedies, including the death of her first husband in a bulldozer accident, she was the most cheerful optimistic person I’ve ever known. She was always there and always reliable, whatever life threw at her. The loss of her only child, my mother, three years ago was one last cruel blow for a woman who had suffered too many. And yet she faced that loss with dignity and responded with gratitude for her daughter’s life. She'd had so much sugar on her porridge she didn't know how to be bitter.
It’s easy to think that those born in their era were built of sterner stuff, that theirs was an age of tradition and certainty. But their personal strengths were forged in era of deep and ongoing uncertainty. My Nan would regale me with stories I’d heard hundreds of times before and my eyes would glaze over or I’d take the mickey by giving a running commentary. But in more recent years I wish I’d taken more notice. Those stories were from another time and that history and those who lived through it were slipping away. That history spanning the best part of a century saw some of the most tumultuous events that humanity has every known.
They both grew up during the Depression, although it goes without saying that my Nana’s experience as a girl in Whanganui was somewhat different from the Queen’s. Then there was WWII. My Nan’s first husband fought in that conflict as did many men of his generation from across the British Empire. It was an experience and trauma that unified them in a global club. The women who married them were indirectly and directly affected by the horrors their men had witnessed and brought home. The British claimed the victory over Nazism as some kind of proof and confirmation of their greatness even though it was the Americans and Russians who finally crushed Hitler’s regime. What the English claim as their finest hour was in fact their final hour at the pinnacle of world power. They needed to be rescued.
One of the things the Queen represented was this continuity with the past, which has many facets to it. For more than half of the 182 years since Māori signed a treaty with the British Crown, Queen Elizabeth II has been a member of the royal family. It was her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose name was on the Treaty of Waitangi. Queen Elizabeth II cannot be held personally accountable for what went wrong after it was signed, but during her reign there was a definite shift in the understanding of that relationship.
Her political views were famously inscrutable but there were clues that perhaps provide a glimpse. Her friendship with Nelson Mandela was one. And her willingness to personally deliver the Crown’s apology to Tainui for the invasion and confiscation of the Land Wars was another. She didn’t have to make that apology in person – it could have been handled by the Governor General. But she did and the significance and symbolism of her personal involvement shouldn’t be underestimated. Although it was to Tainui, it was effectively directed to Māori as a whole through the Māori Queen. Because it was the first such settlement it set in motion an official recognition that something had to change. Because her authority was delegated to the New Zealand Government, it was up to them about how to give effect to that settlement process. But by personally delivering that apology she was directly acknowledging that the promise made on her family’s behalf had been breached.
As a person she generated respect and affection, even from people who had no time for the monarchy. People who met her or knew her found her to be a nice old lady who was astute and possessed a quick wit. But what she represented and how the institution of the British monarchy and the British Empire were regarded changed irrevocably in her long lifetime. In her person she inspired nostalgia, at least amongst the English, for a lost era. But that has been part of the problem. Nostalgia is a bad guide to history and an even worse guide to the future. The British Empire was not cosy and benign like your Nana.
The respect the Queen had as a person in one sense shielded the institution of the monarchy from the full blast of history’s judgment. The brutalities and injustices of colonisation and slavery that still shape global inequities today were hard to lay at the feet of a person who reminded you of your Nana.
But if you want to talk about continuity the two Elizabeths that occupied the British throne bookended the British Empire at its most powerful and abusive. Queen Elizabeth I and her immediate successors kicked off both slavery and colonisation. She gave her blessing to the East India Company and the British colonisation of the Americas got its start during her reign. The Royal African Company was launched by one of her successors to kidnap Africans and sell them into slavery and became the biggest operator in that ghastly trade, which is some feat when you’re competing with the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French who have gained their own wealth on a similar basis. That trade would not have been possible however if it weren’t for the theft of indigenous lands in the American colonies that became the United States and Caribbean islands like Jamaica. When Britain did abolish slavery it compensated the slave-owners for their loss of property, not slaves for their loss of liberty.
Britain only became great and capitalism only got its jumpstart because of this kind of theft and brutality. The industrial revolution that catapulted Britain into wealth and global domination was only possible because of cotton grown and harvested on an industrial scale by millions of enslaved African Americans. Then there’s Britain’s shitty behaviour in China, India and the Middle East. As I write this I’m looking at a couple of bookshelves full of that history and it will continue to be written. But increasingly the authors aren’t just descendants of those who benefited from Empire but those who were on the receiving end of it. Māori stand at the end of a very long queue in their experience of colonisation. Those experiences are increasingly being given a long overdue place in the telling of that story.
Queen Elizabeth II’s reign came at the end of the British Empire’s dominance, inheriting it at a high point while also witnessing its collapse. In her twilight years and even earlier she saw a backlash and resentment at what that Empire stood for. She would sometimes tentatively acknowledge this complicated and ugly history – as she did in the apology to Tainui – but how far should she go? As the Queen she was also a figurehead for the British state. If she had said too much about that history it risked opening the British state up to some kind of moral or legal liability, something she was probably constrained by advisors and convention from doing. If Britain were to pay reparations to victims of its crimes rather than slaveowners it would be bankrupt overnight. While British people can sometimes be shamelessly ignorant of the British Empire’s history, it’s likely the Queen was a lot more aware that her family’s legacy was far more complicated.
The Queen’s coronation represented a fresh start but it also represented the end point of something. In the years following her coronation colonised peoples were no longer willing to tolerate being subjugated to the rule of a distant monarch. They threw off the British yoke in outbreaks of violence that was met with further violence and repression, which reshaped the global political map. The certitude of the British Empire gave way to the new superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union who were locked in a potentially deadly stand-off. Elvis lost his throne to the Beatles and the Baby Boomers defied their parents and reshaped everything.
The passing of a family member who makes it into their 90s is not only the loss of a loved-one, it is the loss of a deep and living connection to the past. My Nan’s life influenced me in ways I can’t even describe and while her passing was hardly a surprise, nothing could prepare me for the shock of her not being in the world. After all, she’d been in the world for nearly a century. That grief is still very raw, so the Queen’s passing only underlined it.
But that personal grief is a slightly odd vantage point to be watching the outpouring of grief for the Queen across the globe. Only her family really knew her and only they are grieving the loss of a person who had been an intimate part of their lives. Everyone else’s reaction says more about the version of the narrative they’ve inherited regarding that elusive myth and harsh reality called the British Empire. For many British people their narrative is tinged with nostalgia and pride and a heavy dose of defensiveness. Others have a completely different narrative that is less flattering. People’s reactions to the Queen’s passing are not so much about a person but what she symbolised to them.
God defend the Queen, the British sing in their national anthem. Now the Queen’s presence is no longer around to defend and glorify Britain’s narrative about itself, which, ironically, was something she achieved by her reticence and quiet aura.
Perhaps that’s really what the British are now grieving the loss of and secretly fear. The narrative they have constructed and believed about themselves is over. The British Empire was hollowed out long ago while its encrusted myths have lingered. But the diminutive lady who has been propping up those myths is now gone.