The Monarchy in Kenya: King Charles III and the Reparations Debate – Australian Institute of International Affairs
King Charles III has been positively met in Kenya, despite a renewed reparations movement in the country. While the slave trade has been long abandoned, its history lives on strongly in the former colonial countries.
Even a royal as savvy and professional as King Charles III must have felt a trifle apprehensive as he flew from London to Nairobi last week for his first state visit to a Commonwealth country since becoming monarch. He was prepped to confront, face-to-face, the government and people of Kenya who are seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in reparations for the “sins of the fathers” committed during Britain’s colonial era. Also potentially stressful – and brave – was a private meeting with the family of the Kenyan leader of the rebel Mau Mau movement who was hanged by the British authorities. It turned out, however, to be a formal but civilised occasion. The family did not repeat their calls for reparations and, afterwards, the minister told Kenyan media that the encounter by a member of the Royal family with the descendants of one of the many Kenyans executed by the British had been an “atonement.” It was an historic encounter – the first opportunity for the King to hear first-hand accounts of Kenyans involved in the fight for independence in the 1950s and 1960s, and significantly the president of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association was also present.
While the King’s five-day state visit with Queen Camilla involved the usual wining and dining, and visits to monuments and businesses, the issue of the legacy of empire was clearly very much in mind. King Charles was effusive in his repentance, speaking of the “abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence” committed by the British against Kenyans during their fight for independence. The monarch made the comments in a speech, delivered during a banquet held in his honour. Addressing president William Ruto, the king declared that:
The wrongdoings of the past are a cause of the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret. … There were abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans as they waged, as you said at the United Nations, a painful struggle for independence and sovereignty – and for that, there can be no excuse.
In coming back to Kenya, it matters greatly to me that I should deepen my own understanding of these wrongs, and that I meet some of those whose lives and communities were so grievously affected. … None of this can change the past. But by addressing our history with honesty and openness we can, perhaps, demonstrate the strength of our friendship today. And, in so doing, we can, I hope, continue to build an ever-closer bond for the years ahead.
King Charles stopped short of agreeing to a request from president Ruto and from human rights groups to make a formal apology, although Mr Ruto conceded that the monarch had shown “exemplary courage” in shedding light on “uncomfortable truths.” Clearly, the monarch had been briefed by the Foreign Office and government ministers never to use the words, “We are sorry.” It is apparent that King Charles is personally sorry about what happened during the struggle for independence and he conveyed a sense of apology despite the absence of the word.
The King’s official position is understandable given that the issue of reparations for the wrongs carried out not only by Britain but by other European colonial powers is still very much alive, made the more so by the publication and widespread distribution of a report by the University of the West Indies that focuses on the transatlantic slave trade. The report is being promoted by a leading United Nations judge, Patrick Robinson, who presided over the high-profile trial of the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, and is urging the UK to change its policy on slavery reparations. Mr Robinson raised the issue with the British government three months ago at an event organised by the mayor of London to mark UNESCO’s Day for Remembering the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Abolition. At the time, Robinson told The Guardian newspaper that the United Kingdom “cannot continue to ignore the greatest atrocity, signifying man’s inhumanity to man” and that the UK “will not be able to resist [the] movement towards the payment of reparations: it is required by history and it is required by law.”
Since then, the Sunak government has shown no inclination to respond, but the University of the West Indies report has put out some startling figures. The study estimates that US$24 trillion dollars are owed by the UK alone in reparations to 14 countries in which transatlantic slavery was practised over a period of some 400 years between the 16th and 19th centuries. There is wide disagreement about how many slaves were affected, but UNESCO – which describes the slave trade as “the biggest tragedy in the history of humanity” – has estimated that approximately 17 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic during those years. Of course, the reparation numbers calculated by the authors of the UWI report border on fantasy; they are not being taken seriously by former European colonial powers. For example, the US$24 trillion that Britain is claimed to owe in reparations, amounts to 104 times the current annual budget of the National Health Service and 348 times the cost (£55.5 billion) of the UK defence budget in the current financial year. No wonder Downing Street’s legal advisers are insisting that there be no official apology.
Moreover, the issue of reparations goes beyond the slave trade, central though that is. For example, many African countries, like Kenya, claim they have been damaged by acts of oppression during colonial rule. While the Kenyans and other countries claiming reparations are considering court action, it is far from clear which international jurisdiction, if any, would hear their claims. A variety of defences, led by expensive lawyers, would be mounted by former colonial powers. Britain, for example, would argue that the Westminster parliament brought its slave trade to an end with the passing of the Slave Trade Abolition Act of 1807, making it illegal to engage in the slave trade throughout the British colonies. Another line of defence might involve gathering evidence as to the extent to which post-colonial leaders, particularly in Africa, may have contributed to under-developed and regressive societies.
Collecting the evidence of wrongdoings poses a further challenge. Many of those actively engaged in the slave trade were leaders or executives in the largest companies and institutions of the time. The first British company to engage in the slave trade was the Royal African Company, in which the Royal family of the time had a financial interest, which was given a monopoly in trading by King Charles II. Corporations, museums, universities, and others are now taking stock of the extent to which they benefited from the slave trade through donations, bequests, and other means. The Trevelyans, a British aristocratic family, recently made a £100,000 reparation payment to the people of Grenada and publicly apologised for its ownership of more than 1,000 enslaved Africans who worked on their sugar plantations.
When all is said and done, it is sad that King Charles’ first excursion into the big wide world since succeeding his more cautious mother to the throne, though bold and brave, provoked so little debate in Britain or Europe. Nonetheless, as King Charles plans further visits to the Commonwealth and beyond, he will have been encouraged by his experience in Kenya and emboldened, perhaps, to point to past injustices where he sees them. A visit to Australia should hold more than passing interest.
Colin Chapman FAIIA is a writer, broadcaster, public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017. Colin is editor at large with Australian Outlook.
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