King Charles has apologised for British atrocities in Kenya. Should he do more?
King Charles III is wrapping up a state visit to Kenya. It is his first trip as king to Africa, as well as to a member-state of the Commonwealth of Nations. The visit is replete with symbolism; his late mother, Queen Elizabeth, learnt of her father’s death while in Kenya.
The king’s itinerary included such fluffy staples as a state dinner; a visit to a new museum commemorating Kenya’s independence; an appearance at a co-working space that hosts many representatives of Kenya’s vibrant tech sector; and a trip to a local farmers market, from which he got some vegetables for a hospital.
Nevertheless, and quite predictably, a substantial proportion of the commentary around the royal visit has focused on the darker aspects of Britain’s colonial legacy. The New York Times put emphasis, for instance, on a call by some Kenyans for the king to apologise for atrocities committed against members of the Mau Mau, an armed insurrection against British colonial government; some, like the United Kingdom’s High Commissioner to Kenya, tried to downplay these calls.
Unfortunately, as has become the norm, the whole conversation is unnecessarily simplistic. Perhaps it’s because most commentators take regular humans for fools, who are unable to consider matters from multiple perspectives. The truth is that, as with most things, opinions about Britain’s colonial legacy in Kenya don’t have to go either of two ways. We can, with reason, hold multiple opinions.
Yes, the British colonial administration visited brutality on some members and sympathisers of the Mau Mau and then hid the evidence. But the uprising itself was also quite brutal. In a rejoinder to a popular book on Britain’s atrocities against the Mau Mau, Kenya’s foremost historian, Bethwell Ogot, listed the Mau Mau’s crimes: “decapitation and general mutilation of civilians, torture before murder, bodies bound up in sacks and dropped in wells, burning the victims alive, gouging out of eyes, splitting open the stomachs of pregnant women.”
And though Britain has gone as far as compensating 5,228 Mau Mau veterans who were brutalised by the colonial administration – it took a court case, sure, but at least there was a court to petition – the Mau Mau never so much acknowledged their crimes. Its claim to the moral high ground is taken for granted.
Yes, the Brits colonised Kenya. But they didn’t just loot the country. No one has done the accounting, but it’s highly likely that the colonial project lost Britain money. For instance, the Uganda Railway – which arguably created Kenya – was built at a loss, and operated at a loss for decades; it was so expensive and so impractical that it was nicknamed the Lunatic Express by a member of the British Parliament.
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Yes, the Brits imposed foreign rule on native Africans. But aside from commercial interests, one of the main goals of their colonial conquest was to stamp out the Arab Slave Trade – which transferred more East Africans to the Middle East than the Atlantic Slave Trade did West Africans to the Americas, and over a much longer period. And they did stop that evil trade.
But there are no calls for the Omanis, Saudis and Iranians to compensate Kenyans for the considerable historical trauma they inflicted on our people. Looked at from this perspective, the Brits were just the last in a long line of invaders, and so they have the misfortune of bearing all the blame for crimes their predecessors committed with impunity. The others are shielded by a convenient historical amnesia.
If this seems like an apologia for colonialism, it’s perhaps because the conversation has swung so much in the other direction, that any attempt to rebalance it will necessarily seem like one. I am not an apologist for colonialism, and never will be. I value my freedom, and the freedom of my fellow Kenyans, too much for that to be my considered position.
Consider me, instead, an apologist for historical realism. Kenya has now been independent for about as long as it was under British rule. Colonialism is in the past, and we must see it for what it was: a thoroughly human adventure, with all the complexity that that entails. And, instead of mindlessly limiting our conversation to apportioning blame, perhaps we should focus more on making sure that its worst aspects are not repeated, especially by our own hand.
I don’t think I can put it much better than Roseline Wesonga, a 52-year-old Kenyan woman who spoke to The Telegraph on the side-lines of the king’s visit to Kenya’s new independence museum: “Things happen in life. But we say, ‘okay, lessons learned, we move on.’”
That said, there are things the King can do. It certainly wouldn’t hurt for him to nudge the British Museum to return the ngadji, the sacred drum of the Pokomo tribe. It’s adding no value to the British people by gathering dust in a warehouse in East London.
Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.
Image: screenshot CNN
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