65 years ago today, on 6 February 1952, Queen Elizabeth II succeeded to the throne of seven different countries: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as well as Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan and Ceylon.
When King George VI died, his eldest daughter, 25-year old Princess Elizabeth, had just set out on a royal tour of Australia and New Zealand. She was still in Kenya when the news of the King’s death reached her. The following year on 6 June 1953 she was crowned in Westminster Abbey in London.
British monarchs since the time of Queen Victoria, the first Empress of India, had all been Kings and Emperors. But after World War II the British Empire, spanning dominions, protectorates and colonies on all five continents, entered a period of dissolution. One by one new nations gained independence. In 1947 the Empire of India was partitioned and the main part became the Republic of India.
Pakistan became a republic in 1956. So, at the time of her succession, Elizabeth was also Queen of Pakistan. In 1952 the country consisted of both West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh). At the time of partition in 1947, Pakistan was defined as the majority Muslim territories of British India. The flag of Pakistan, adopted in 1947, was inspired by the flag of the All-India Muslim League. Sectarian violence, the Kashmir conflict and other tensions between Pakistan and India led to four wars including the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.
Ceylon only became a republic under the name of Sri Lanka in 1972. A year before Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne, the flag of Ceylon had been changed to include symbols of all three major religious communities on the island. The maroon colour, the lion and the four leaves represent the Sinhalese majority and the Buddhist faith. The orange stripe represents the Sri Lankan Tamils and the Hindu faith. The green stripe represents the Sri Lankan Moors and the Muslim faith.
The Statute of Westminster in 1931 underlined the equal status of the United Kingdom and all of the so-called Dominions, e.g. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. Already at the beginning of the 20th Century the nominal independence of these countries had been established.
South Africa was a monarchy in 1952, having been established in 1910 with the unification of four previous British colonies: the Cape, Natal, Transvaal and the Orange River Colony (the former Oranje Free State). The flag of South Africa between 1928 and 1994 put together the British Union Flag and flags of the former Dutch Boer republics. South Africa became a republic in 1961. Princess Elizabeth had visited the country in 1947 with her parents. Not until the end of Apartheid did she revisit. Elizabeth II, the former Queen of South Africa, was received by Nelson Mandela, the first black South African president in 1995.
Canada, Australia and New Zealand remained monarchies. Today, they are among the 16 independent nations where Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state, represented in everyday constitutional life by a Governor-General. The flags of New Zealand and Australia stem from the 1900s. The flag of Canada was a version of the British Red Ensign until 1965 when the red and white Maple Leaf (or l’Unifolié) was adopted.
The British Empire is no more. In its stead, the Commonwealth of Nations unites 52 independent countries, most of which are former British territories. Elizabeth II is the greatly respected head of this intergovernmental organization, a role she has fulfilled for 65 years.