She was not just a woman, but high-born. Above that, she was a royal. Not just a royal but a blue-blood on a peacock throne. More than that, she was the queen of England. And being that, she was the first queen of the world.
But since Queen Elizabeth II passed on, so many other hearts have stopped. Low and high in society from beggar to chief. So many tears and eulogies that only their families, locals and hospitals shed and hear. They are, however, puny tragedies tucked inside the sackcloth for the queen. Even in death, Queen Elizabeth II flogs the commoner. As Shakespeare wrote, “When beggars die, there are no comets seen. The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.”
The whole world is paying what many call respects. When the mourners say it, their faces tremble and their voices swoon, and it comes across more like veneration. If you look at the pilgrimages, the long queues, solemn and patient, it is not just respect, not just veneration, but adoration. It is her worshipful majesty. They are not just there to say good night to their queen. It is as though it is a religious rite, not a moment for obsequies, but a time to bow and mumble words, private like a prayer. Even reporters are calling it vigil, as though an evocation of the women waiting for the Lord Jesus to reawaken.
When was the last time anyone gathered like that for a god, or for a spirit from on high? In the words of Russian poet Mayakovsky “There is no one more alive” today than the queen. The Russian poet penned those lines for Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, when the whole of Russia quaked over the passing of their revolutionary.
When I saw the Elizabethan pilgrimages, Mayakovsky’s poem came vaguely to mind. I had last read it in 1989 when I was a reporter with the African Concord. I read only an extract quoted at the end of a big tome of a biography on the Russian avatar. I quickly searched for it in my library. No dice. Someone again must have filched it away. Google rescued it.
The poet objected to deifying his hero. Just like this essayist does today even as her last journey begins from the blush of dawn.
In Africa, we have made gods out of men and women. In Yorubaland, we know of the fiery Ogun and Sango, of Yemoja, et al. They live as legends but die as gods. People saw Awo in the moon. In Europe though, legends cannot transform into deities. They are too materialist for that, even if they follow celebrities like worshippers without the mystical. They secularise the sacred like in Achebe’s Arrow of God. As Mayakovsky writes, “no sagas, no epics, no myths/ all extinct.”
Yet, the West still elevates the woman and want to deprive us of the chance to humanise her. They want to defang her of all sins. It is like a scene in Aristophanes play, The Acharnians when a pacifist takes all the parphenalia of Euripides’ tragic plays, including the rags. So the playwright is no longer a man of tragedy. He is free of all sins. But we remember though that Queen Elizabeth was of the Windsor stock, that she was the second Elizabeth on the throne, that she rode on a carriage of gold that can cure poverty, if liquidated, in parts of the world, that her family made us die or scream as slaves in their plantation, that she mounted a handsome wealth based on black blood and treasure. Our red blood rarefied her blue.
She never apologised for her forbears and our forbearance. Nor do we want apologies. She loved the Commonwealth, especially the games. It was the classic mea culpa of England, a tranquiliser to dull us to the tyrannies of colonialism. We play together, win medals together and even cherish the illusion of beating their athletes. What a revenge, eh? There is a well in Badagry that local chiefs made for the whites so our ancestors drank from it before their journey of no return. Any slaves who slaked a thirst with the water forgot their pain and forswore any protest against the white man’s savagery. Anyone can visit it today.
The BOS of Lagos, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu has remodelled the whole museum, an awakening that we should take our history seriously. The Badagry well of meekness is like the Commonwealth, a lie of an institution to salve the white conscience, like Mary Slessor teaching us to love our twins after her folks exploited Christ to subvert our harmonies.
Count me out of the obsequies. She was a nice woman, but not nice enough for me. She was stately, polished and exuded grandeur. Our ancestors guaranteed her a life of the debonair. She presided over enough wealth to be nice. She might have asked the kingdom to give them back, in substantial amount into a trust but not to the thieving African governments.
The Commonwealth could turn the trust to build roads, schools, scholarships, hospitals and create business opportunities. That is the only pardon we want. Not the meretricious glory of an obsequy. Not the pageant of dignitaries she received every other day to soothe her conscience. This soothing of conscience has been here for long. My teacher of blessed memory, Professor B. O. Oloruntimehin stated that, “the abolition of slave trade was an act of enlightened self-interest by the Europeans to give the Africans a new role in the international economic system.” They didn’t abolish it as penance but as a cynical overhaul of international commerce. We now gave them raw materials for their industrial magnificence. After all, they sent the missionaries to help them continue slavery with a godly face, so as to soften the negroes to conform. Joseph Conrad called them “messengers of the might within the land, bearers of the spark from the sacred fire…” in his fraught classic Heart of Darkness.
Their writers did same their own mea culpa, including the elegant Jane Austen in her novels Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. In fact, Mansfield Park was a tribute to the Chief Justice Mansfield, who ruled in 1772 against continuing slavery on English soil. Charlotte Bronte also haunts us with the slave woman’s cry from the attic in her novel Jane Eyre, a visceral decibel that inspired another novel, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.
They can celebrate Elizabeth but they should remember M.K.O. Abiola, who saw through the haughty mist and called for reparations. The royals have money they can never spend. Royal ethics forbids any conspicuous consumption or the owambe vanity. They just watch their money grow, while the source of their abundance suffers. No excuse for our bad leadership over the years. But what is our is ours. Barclays Bank apologised. The Church of England has apologised for encouraging the rape and rapine of slavery by saying blacks had no soul. Yet, they encouraged missionaries like Slessor to teach the gospel. To win souls that didn’t exist? What hypocrisy.
So, while what Mayakovsky describes as “the honeyed incense of homage and publicity” goes on, they should not blind us to her essential humanity and the whited sepulchre of the monarchy.
NB: Sam Omatseye is a respected columnist with The Nation Newspaper.