British Asians reflect on Empire before King Charles’s coronation

Decades after the end of the British Empire, many Britons of South Asian heritage are still grappling with the monarchical legacy.

King Charles
King Charles III follows the hearse with the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II [File: Jon Super/Pool via Reuters]

Glasgow, United Kingdom – The coronation of King Charles III – and his wife, Camilla, the queen consort – will, on the face of it, reflect a modern Britain entirely at ease with itself – and its past.

Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders will for the first-time feature in the centuries-old ceremony at London’s Westminster Abbey.

Among those in attendance will be the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak – the first British Asian and Hindu to hold Britain’s top job – and Humza Yousaf, the newly-elected first minister of Scotland and first-ever Muslim head of government of any Western democracy.

But behind the pomp and pageantry, questions about the monarchy’s ties to Britain’s (often bloody) colonial past and its days of Empire will remain, not least among the UK’s large British-Asian population.

“Absolutely not,” responded Aamir Darr, a bookseller from England, when Al Jazeera asked the Pakistan-born 62-year-old if he would be watching the coverage of the coronation on television on May 6.

“If [King] Charles wants to indulge in this, then it should come out of his own pocket,” stated the founder of the Multicultural Bookshop in Bradford – a city which hosts the second-largest Asian community in England and Wales.

“We’re in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis where people can barely put food on the table. During Ramadan, for the last couple of years in Bradford, I know people who couldn’t put food on the table for them and their families.”

For Darr, the upcoming investiture of Charles as Britain’s new head of state, following the death last year of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, jars especially with the ongoing controversy over the UK’s colonial past.

Britain Royals Funeral
The coffin of Queen Elizabeth is carried out of Westminster Abbey on the day of her state funeral and burial, in London [File: Hannah Mckay/Pool Photo via AP]

The British Empire

During this era, when, according to popular parlance, the sun never set on the British Empire, Britain’s monarchy amassed great wealth and power through the country’s plunder of colonies in such regions as the Indian subcontinent.

Indeed, during her 70-year reign – “in whose name unspeakable acts were undertaken even after the formal end of colonialism” – Queen Elizabeth II was, before her death in September 2022, the most recent custodian of Britain’s crown jewels, among them the 105-carat Indian Kohinoor diamond, which was gifted to Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century after being seized by the British East Indian Company.

“The British monarchy, as the core political establishment of overseas British power in the era of colonial expansion, was very much at the centre of the colonial experience, its expression and forms of power,” William Gould, a professor of Indian history at the University of Leeds in England, told Al Jazeera.

“More broadly, the maintenance of Britain’s larger international dominance, including for at least two centuries, its involvement in the slave trade, was sanctioned by the Crown which, through the granting of monopolies and shares, often also directly profited from that trade.”

Decades after the end of the British Empire, which lasted from the 17th to the 20th century, many Britons of South Asian heritage are still grappling with this monarchical legacy. And as the coronation approaches, many are reassessing what it means to be a British-Asian – and how to engage with coronation day itself.

“I was brought up [in England] with [South Asian] grandparents who had a lot of respect for the royal family – my grandmother was a true royalist and held the queen in very high esteem,” said a London-based head teacher of Sri Lankan descent, who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.

“My grandparents felt that Britain offered them and their children great opportunities, specifically in education,” she said.

“I think now, years later, my family and I understand more of the negative impacts of what happened, so we have mixed feelings. The idea that the royal family gained much of their wealth through colonisation sits uncomfortably next to our own family’s personal gain in moving to Britain.”

Yet, such concerns will, she said, not prevent her from turning coronation day into an excuse to socialise with family and friends, despite her own growing misgivings about an institution that, for her, is today associated “more with memories of my grandparents and remembrance of my childhood”.

“My parents’ street will be having a coronation street party,” she added.

“Since COVID times, our neighbourhood has become better acquainted and connected, and for me, this gathering will be more about spending time with our nearby friends, who so lovingly looked out for each other in 2020.”

But just like Aamir Darr, other British residents of South Asian stock will be giving coronation day a wide berth.

Gauri Raje was born in Mumbai, India in 1971, but today lives in Argyllshire, a sweeping county located on Scotland’s stunning west coast.

The Scottish-Indian storyteller, educator and workshop facilitator told Al Jazeera that the “outdated … pomp and wealth and symbolic pageantry” of the upcoming coronation is not a spectacle that she will be tuning in for.

“I suppose in terms of historical justice I have mixed feelings about the monarchy, and its relationship to India. There’s still a lot of reparations, and a lot of apologies to be made [from the monarchy],” she said.

Gauri Raje
Gauri Raje was born in Mumbai, India in 1971, but today lives in Argyllshire [Courtesy: Gauri Raje]

But no member of the royal family has ever formally apologised for its institution’s role in Britain’s controversial past.

Last month, however, King Charles, who, like his mother before him, also heads the so-called Commonwealth, which includes among its members, Nigeria, India and Pakistan, signalled his intention to aid an independent study exploring the British monarchy’s past relationship with the transatlantic slave trade.

Yet, said Professor Gould, the facts can never be changed: not least that “most Britons … with Commonwealth backgrounds, [have a] history of connection to the UK [that] developed out of a history of colonial domination, accompanied … by instances of violence” all of which was carried out in the name of the British monarchy.

And, for many Britons with South Asian heritage, and even those Britons without, no amount of coronation day celebrations can ever alter that.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies