Prince Philip’s divisive 'gaffes' and what they mean for his legacy

Katherine Chatfield
·Columnist
·3-min read

Less than a day after Prince Philip’s death, some people are claiming the Duke’s legacy will be tarred by his racist comments.

However, others believe he was simply a "maverick" whose off-the-cuff comments should be viewed as attempts at humour to put people at ease.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh waves to the crowd from his carriage during the annual Trooping The Colour parade on June 17, 2017 in London, England
Prince Philip waves to the crowd during the annual Trooping The Colour parade on June 17, 2017, in London. Photo: Getty Images.

Controversial comments

Described as making "tactless comments" that "hurt his image" in his New York Times obituary, it’s clear from some of the reactions around the world about his death, that for many, Prince Philip’s "gaffes" were seen not just as tactless, but as damaging.

There’s no doubt the Duke made plenty of controversial comments during his royal tenure. He was once forced to issue a public apology after he said a messy fuse box at an electronics factory looked "as though it was put in by an Indian."

Other controversial comments from the Duke include him asking an Indigenous leader in Queensland if "you still throw spears at each other?" and commenting at a reception to honour 400 influential British Indians that "there’s a lot of your family here tonight," to an executive named Atul Patel.

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The Duke of Edinburgh talks to Aboriginal performers after watching a culture show at Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park, Cairns, Queensland, Australia. The Duke surprised the aborigines when he asked them
At a culture show at Tjapukai Aboriginal Culture Park in Cairns in 2002, the Duke was overheard asking Indigenous performers, "Do you still throw spears at each other?" Photo: Getty Images.

In 1986, on a trip to China, Prince Philip’s comments were so ill-received they caused a national scandal. He told a British student in China, "If you stay here much longer, you will go home with slitty eyes," and then went on to comment that "if it has four legs and is not a chair, has wings and is not an aeroplane, or swims and is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it."

Prince Philip always denied he was racist. He claimed he was simply a master in "Dontopedalogy, [which] is the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it, a science which I have practised for a good many years."

His remarks have been regularly defended by others too, with people claiming he was simply a product of his times. At the Duke’s 90th birthday, former British Prime Minister David Cameron remarked that "humour is a great part of British life and we thank the duke for his unique contribution."

In recent years, the Duke has been celebrated for his outstanding contribution to royal life, after attending 20,000 royal engagements and supporting the Queen for over 70 years.

His quips had started to become softened by time, through a generational lens. However, the recent accusations of racism within the royal family from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, have brought many of the Duke’s comments to the fore.

Although the Sussexes made it clear the Duke wasn’t behind the questions about “how brown Archie’s skin would be,” it’s reminded people of the inherent racism behind palace doors.

Whether you see Prince Philip as someone who simply liked to crack a joke, or as the product of a colonising institution, it’s clear his legacy will not be straightforward.

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