Commonwealth marks loss of figurehead, link to the past

LONDON (AFP): As Britain mourned the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Friday, a string of dominions, realms and former colonies marked the loss of a shared figurehead and an irreplaceable link to a quickly fading era.

Although she was 96 years old, the queen’s death came as an emotional jolt felt from Africa to the Pacific.

“Papua New Guineans from the mountains, valleys and coasts rose up this morning to the news that our Queen has been taken to rest by God,” Prime Minister James Marape told his nation.

“We fondly call her ‘Mama Queen'”, he said, in just one of dozens of emotive tributes that poured in from countries once coloured pink on maps.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had been reading ominous news about her monarch’s ill health before going to bed.

A “police officer shone a torch into my room at around 10 to five this morning… I knew immediately what it meant”.

“I am profoundly sad,” she added, fondly recalling conversations about bringing up children in the public spotlight.

On the other side of the Pacific, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the queen would “forever remain an important part” of Canada’s history, adding personal memories that moved beyond stuffy declarations.

“She was one of my favourite people in the world,” he said. “I will so miss those chats.”

Most of Britain’s former colonies have transformed utterly since a fresh-faced Elizabeth Windsor ascended to the throne in 1953.

At that time, India’s population was about 380 million — versus 1.4 billion today — British forces were brutally suppressing Kenya’s Mau Mau revolt, and New Zealand subject Edmund Hillary was making the first successful ascent of Mount Everest with his under-recognised Nepalese partner Tenzing Norgay.

For some, Elizabeth II represented one of the few remaining links to a sepia era of empire, to “the old country”, to an intertwined history or the shared sacrifice of a savage world war.

India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi recalled Elizabeth II showing him a hand-spun handkerchief gifted to her by independence hero Mahatma Gandhi at her wedding.

“I will always cherish that gesture,” he wrote on Twitter. “She personified dignity and decency in public life. Pained by her demise.”

– ‘Can’t be replaced’ –

Elizabeth II’s death inevitably raised questions about whether bonds forcibly formed by colonisation and sustained by the diminutive monarch’s charisma can endure.

The queen had been a “driving force” in the Commonwealth, said Harsh V Pant, professor of international relations at King’s India Institute in London.

The bloc of 56 countries — most former British colonies — spans Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific, and includes 15 realms where Elizabeth II was still head of state.

“So what happens to that Commonwealth now? Will it survive going forward?” asked Pant.

In Sydney, 20-year-old Maya Munro said the queen was both an “incredible figurehead” and an exemplar, particularly for women.

But, like many young Australians, she imagines “a very different role” for the monarchy going forward.

“I think the queen was the monarchy for such a long time. And she brought it so much respect and history and honour,” she said.

“I think it’s just it plays a different role in our lives these days. Maybe we’re moving away from the monarchy now.”

In the New Zealand capital Wellington, 50-year-old Warwick Murray said “politicians come and go, but someone like Queen Elizabeth can’t be replaced”.

“The fact she was above politics and could really rally positivity means that I have a deep admiration for her.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese — an avowed republican — sought to deflect questions about the future head of state as he declared 10 days of mourning.

Instead, he paid tribute to Queen Elizabeth’s “timeless decency”, saying her death marked the “end of an era”.

“An historic reign and a long life devoted to duty, family, faith and service has come to an end,” he said.

“Today is a day for one issue, and one issue only, which is to pay tribute.”

Even in places where the legacy of British colonialism is still raw, leaders focused on the attributes of the woman, rather than the baggage of her role.

“The story of modern Nigeria will never be complete without a chapter on Queen Elizabeth II, a towering global personality and an outstanding leader,” said President Muhammadu Buhari.

In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta said she was “a towering icon of selfless service to humanity”, while president-elect William Ruto said her leadership of the Commonwealth was “admirable”.

The president of Zimbabwe, which withdrew from the Commonwealth in 2003 after its suspension over human rights concerns and endured decades of frosty relations with its former colonial ruler, offered his sympathies to the British public.

“May she rest in peace,” wrote President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Her death was also lamented as far away as the Cook Islands, where a condolence book will be open for the public to sign before being sent to Buckingham Palace.

The islands’ Prime Minister Mark Brown declared “The Queen is dead, long live the King.”