Addressing the past - GulfToday

Addressing the past

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


King Charles III and Queen Camilla.

During this week’s visit to Kenya, King Charles III has had to navigate between the British government’s determination that he should focus on UK-Kenya trade and his personal desire to address his country’s ugly slave trading and colonial legacies.

Kenyan President William Ruto invited the king and Queen Camilla for the visit ahead of December’s celebrations for 60 years of independence from Britain. The visit was Charles’ first journey to a Commonwealth country since becoming monarch last September.

Charles has an affection for Kenya. As crown prince he paid an official visit to the country in 1971, when he toured with Princess Anne and met the country’s first President Jomo Kenyata, Britain’s former adversary. He made other official visits in 1978 and 1987 and he and the queen have made multiple private visits. During a 1977 private visit, the prince had another meeting with Kenyatta at the presidential residence.

During this four-day stay which began on Tuesday and concludes today the couple toured a new Kenyan history museum, visited the site where Kenya declared independence, and laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Uhuru Gardens. The king also had the opportunity to discuss issues which interest him: climate change, youth employment, and sustainable development with the government and parliament.

He reiterated Britain’s commitment to a defence agreement reached two years ago for cooperation on counterterrorism and permits British soldiers to train in Kenya.

Ahead of an earlier visit to the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and of Barbados, the king opened the royal archives to researchers studying the monarchy’s involvement in the slave trade which he called an “appalling atrocity.” The late Queen Elizabeth II did not address this issue, leaving it up her son Charles III and his son Prince William.

The slave trade took place during the 16th-19th centuries. European traders bought slaves in West Africa and transported them to the Americas where they were sold and worked on cotton, coffee, sugar, and cocoa plantations and in mines, construction, and households as domestic servants.

The Stuart monarchs (1603-1707) sponsored, financed, and profited from slave trade. In 1660 Charles II granted a royal charter to the entity which became the Royal African Company (RAC) and his successors grew wealthy from this investment.

In April this year, a Guardian article broke the monarchy’s silence over its connection with the slave trade. This became formalised in 1689 when King Willian III (1609-1702) received £1,000 in shares in the RAC in exchange for a monopoly on the trade conferred earlier by royal charter. The king became governor of the RAC which, David Conn, the author of the article, reported, «..transported 186,827 enslaved people, including almost 24,000 children, to the Americas. More than 38,000 people died during the journeys.

The Duke of Clarence, son of King George III (1760-1820), was a supporter of the lucrative slave trade while the king’s nephew, the Duke of Gloucester, was a key figure in the campaign to end slavery and cooperated with leading abolitionists, including William Wilberforce who is revered as the champion of the drive to end slavery.

In 1807, parliament adopted the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act which fined captains of ships carrying slaves and in 1833 passed Slavery Abolition Act which freed all slaves in the British Empire. British pressure on other countries ended the slave trade from Africa.

Paradoxically, the abolition campaign and the commitment to root out slavery propelled the European conquest and colonization of Africa. Britain began colonising Kenya in 1895, annexed the territory in 1920, and declared it a British crown colony in 1923. From the outset of British rule, the fertile Kenyan Highlands and Rift Valley were reserved for white farmers who established large coffee plantations which employed African tribal labour. A 2021 UN report revealed that half a million Kenyans were attacked, held in camps, and driven from western lands taken over by white colonists. Further ethnic cleansing from other rich agricultural land prompted resistance from tribesmen.

Early in the 20th century an anti-colonial movement emerged and was suppressed by the authorities. Kenya was a major strategic asset in Africa. Britain used Kenya as a military base during the first and second world wars and was determined to remain in the country. As its colonial empire crumbled, British used mass arrests and severe torture against revolutionaries when the Mau Mau rebellion took place between 1952-1956. During the state of emergency, 160,000 Kenyans were arrested, 90,0000 tortured or maimed, and 11,000 killed. While the uprising failed, the British were compelled to curb the white colonists and grant the Africans their demands until Kenya became self-governing between 1963-1964 and gained independence in December 1964.

Although Britain bought land held by white colonists, most of whom left Kenya, huge tea and pineapple plantations continue to be owned and operated by British citizens whose presence has aroused resentment among landless local people. Veteran human rights activist Koigi Wamwere was quoted by the Associated Press as arguing that this “injustice should be corrected.” Kenyans and Britons “cannot move forward until [Britons} apologise, offer reparations, and return the land they stole.” Unfortunately, Charles – who is head of state not government – does not have the authority to offer either.

In 2013, Britain tried to make partial amends to Kenyans who suffered during the emergency. In response to a legal suit lodged by a group of elderly Kenyans who were tortured during Britain’s rule, Britain granted $30 million in compensation to be distributed among 5,000 claimants over human rights abuses and to construct a memorial for victims of torture. While regretting that abuses took place, Britain has not admitted responsibility or liability, a practice of some but not all ex-colonial regimes.

Photo: TNS

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