Andrew Halladay, PhD student, SALC and History
With the passing of Queen Elizabeth II in September, people in Britain and its erstwhile empire have faced three simultaneous questions: how to register the loss of an international icon, whether to embrace an heir with a very different public image, and what both the moment and the future mean for the legacy of British imperialism. Though these questions have particular salience in our postcolonial times, they closely parallel those that emerged in the colonies, and in India especially, upon the death of Elizabeth’s grandfather George V (r. 1910–36). George’s twenty-five–year reign was not nearly as long as Elizabeth’s, but it was no less transitional from an Indian perspective: marking his ascension to the throne with the overtly imperial Delhi Durbar, George died when Indian independence was (in at least some form) a perceived eventuality. In addition to representing the empire of which he was nominal head, he also served throughout his reign as an internationally legible symbol of grandeur and cosmopolitanism, earning him admiration even from many who regarded his government with antipathy. Reactions to George’s death in India, therefore—much like attitudes toward Elizabeth’s passing in former colonies today—reveal a measure of ambivalence, combining sadness for the loss of a popular figure with doubts about how (or whether) the institution he embodied should continue. Drawing on a rich archive that includes public statues honoring the deceased king-emperor, an illustrated Urdu history commemorating his reign, and popular medals marking his successor’s coronation, this paper considers how Indian actors used the death of George V to position themselves at once as subjects who mourned the emperor and as citizens who could now clearly imagine the empire’s end.