The language of coloniality

This week Buckingham Palace announced that King Charles was supporting research into the royal family’s links to the transatlantic slave trade. This is along the lines of investigating any links between America and lunar exploration. It’s bleeding obvious and the stuff of history books, novels and films, and in the case of the latter -living memory for most of us. Of course, the moon landings don’t carry the shame of the colonisation and enslavement of peoples. It’s this shame that has allowed for this trick of the mind where people talk of the monarchy as both integral to the British Empire, and therefore colonialism and slavery, and yet, at the same time separate from the Empire when it comes to the well-documented atrocities and the financial gains that still exist today.

What’s going on here I think can be found in understanding the terms colonialism and coloniality. The withdrawal of European countries from their colonies represented the end of colonialism, the political and economic structures enforced by the colonisers to govern and exploit the colonised. But that wasn’t the true end of it. Sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel explained back in 2011 that ‘we have come out of a period of global colonialism to enter a period of global coloniality.’ In contrast to colonialism, coloniality refers to the hegemonic ways of thinking, doing and being that show power of one group over another even if the colonial governments are no longer in force. Coloniality has its roots in colonialism but is far more subtle and is disguised in the language of progress, modernization and development – I’m paraphrasing here from an insightful article I read recently by Pinky Makoe (2022), a sociolinguistic studying coloniality in education in South Africa.

Here’s an example of coloniality at work. A recent article in Nature pointed out how biological species have been traditionally named after persons, real and fictional. ‘Eponyms typically reflect benefactors, dignitaries, officials, the author’s family members and colleagues, or well-known cultural figure’ at the time of their so-called ‘discovery’ by westerners. This point is illustrated in the names given to animal and plant species in the continent of Africa, a strong majority were named after British men, followed by German men, followed by French men, followed by Belgium men – you get the idea. The fact that these names stayed in place for so long points to the coloniality that remained long after the colonisers were gone. The article was about the drive to replace these names, these relics of colonialism, by adopting the names used by local people where these species can be found.

At least we are talking about coloniality – in concept, where we are not using the word. This idea has finally come out of the shadows of academia and is making its way into the popular press. I guess I shouldn’t be too hard of King Charles. His ‘bold’ announcement is a step in the right direction and in its naivety is only trying to fit into popular thinking.

Surreal royale

Not surprising, but a shock all the same. You know what I’m talking about. I’ll spare you yet another panegyric on the life of the Queen. I’m also not going to argue the case of the Queen’s role in the last decades of empire or what type of monarch King Charles III is likely to be. Saturated by these stories, I can only offer my account of these last few days from smalltown England.

Early Thursday evening while the news of the death of the monarch was being announced, I was in a video call with a language partner talking about the Queen’s failing health and the news that royals were heading to Balmoral. The end was soon for the tiny frail queen – or was it really? We speculated. At the end of the call, I returned to an article – deadline looming. A couple of hours had passed before I sat at the dining table with the television on. There was only one story, and unusually no one to talk to about it. My David was in France painting window frames in our apartment, leaving me in England by myself with the BBC broadcasters dressed in black. I was taking it in as if I were in a dream, where I’m usually by myself, uncertain about what will happen next.

Friday morning. The newspapers all flogged their special issues on the Queen, full of articles written months, if not years, earlier. I noticed that children were still going to school, the little ones skipping and talking as they walked past our house. The clocks had not stopped, and the world had not gone silent (to paraphrase Auden). I checked my emails as a local councillor and realized that I had been sent a message the day before saying that Operation London Bridge was in effect (code for the Queen has died). The email was sent at 16.09, and according to the media, the Prime Minister was notified at 16.30 by the Chancellor, a quick whisper as they sat in Parliament. Why would I – someone who deals with ward residents’ complaints about rubbish collection and potholes – be given this news before the PM? This cannot be real.

Saturday is market day in Ely. The high street and Market Square are bustling as per usual. But not usual – a strange heaviness fills the air. People are conversing in pairs and small groups, but I’m not hearing any light-hearted intonations or laughs. Others like me walk in silence from shop to shop, noticing the occasional placard or window display about the Queen. My internal dialogue is in the present tense. I want to be in the moments that I know are historical, memorable.

Sunday, and the dream continued as I seemed to be rousing, thinking less about what had happened and more about what is to come. I had been summoned to a ceremony outside of Ely Cathedral. The Proclamation of the Accession of His Majesty King Charles III took place in cities across the country. I was there as an ‘official guest.’ As required, I wore black (even black bra and panties) and donned a black rosette that I had been allocated. In my official role, I said, ‘God save the King’ and three ‘hoorays’ on cue. That woke me up. What followed was more real than dream. I sang the national anthem of God and gracious King, recalling my American childhood where the same tune was sung to ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee.’ Life moves on.

View of the Proclamation from where I stood.