Charles says ‘no excuses’, but offers no apology

Britain’s King Charles was in Kenya this week and while he acknowledged colonial atrocities that occurred in the east African country, did not offer the apology Kenyans were expecting. FILE REUTERS/Toby Melville

Britain’s King Charles was in Kenya this week and while he acknowledged colonial atrocities that occurred in the east African country, did not offer the apology Kenyans were expecting. FILE REUTERS/Toby Melville

Published Nov 5, 2023


Nairobi — In his first public remarks as monarch on colonial atrocities, during his first visit as king to a Commonwealth country, King Charles III said there were “no excuses” for the “abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans” during their struggle for independence from Britain.

But he did not offer the full apology that many people in Kenya have called for.

Speaking at a state banquet on Tuesday, Charles hewed closely to the British government line, saying he felt “the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret” for the wrongdoings of the past. He steered clear of any language that might open a broader conversation about reparations.

Kenya, which is marking the 60th anniversary of its independence, was a relatively safe choice for Charles’s first Commonwealth trip. It has a warmer relationship with the UK than do some other former colonies.

Nonetheless, Britain, like other former colonial powers, is in a period of reckoning, and the king has been under pressure to address the legacy of decades of British rule in East Africa.

British-Kenyan relations at the “official level are very good”, said Nicholas Westcott, a professor of diplomacy at SOAS University of London and former director of the Royal African Society, but “that’s not to say there’s not some difficult issues that go back to the colonial period”.

The front cover of a weekly magazine in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s most popular newspaper, carried a picture of Charles with the headline: “The Dark Past”.

There have been calls for Charles to acknowledge the violent suppression carried out by British authorities in Kenya during the early reign of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II.

In the 1950s, British officials responded to the Mau Mau revolt – a movement to reclaim land and independence – with a brutal crackdown on the broader population. Thousands were killed and significant numbers imprisoned and tortured, including Hussein Onyango Obama, President Barack Obama’s grandfather.

His family said he was beaten by his British captors, who would “squeeze his testicles with metal rods”.

A woman holds British flags as people wait for the arrival of Britain’s King Charles and Queen Camilla at the Kariokor Commonwealth War graves cemetery, in Nairobi, Kenya, November 1, 2023. REUTERS/Phil Noble

In 2013, Britain expressed its “sincere regret” for human rights abuses during that time. A British court also awarded more than 5000 Kenyans a payout of about $24 million.

As a constitutional monarch, Charles takes his cues from the British government and would not be expected to go beyond what the government has said. At the same time, as a new king, he seems to want to convey that he is personally sensitive to the issue.

“Drafting royal speeches requires a deft hand and delicate ear,” Westcott said.

During the state banquet on Tuesday, Charles told assembled guests: “We must also acknowledge the most painful times of our long and complex relationship. The wrongdoings of the past are the cause of the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret.”

He added: “It matters greatly to me that I should deepen my own understanding of these wrongs.”

But some Kenyans said this trip would be the perfect moment for Charles to go beyond statements of regret.

“We need a national apology for the atrocities meted to the African black people in Kenya,” said Evelyn Kimathi, the daughter of a renowned field marshal who fought the British colonial authorities in the 1950s.

Her father, Dedan Kimathi, was hanged by the British in 1957, the family said, but they don’t know what happened to his body and have been trying to find his grave.

Another point of contention: Kenya’s Pokomo people have reiterated their calls for the return of a drum, the ngadji, the source of power and pride for their distinct ethnic group. It has resided in the British Museum for more than a century.

Makorani-a-Mungase VII, the current Pokomo king, said he would appreciate a king-to-king audience, which is not on the official schedule. He considered “gate-crashing one of the events”, he said, but then concluded that “the king of the Pokomo cannot clamour to go and see the king of the British. We did it before and we cannot do it that way. The last time we did it, they took our ngadji away.”

During his four-day visit, Charles spent time in Nairobi, the capital, and Mombasa, a coastal city. The British royals visited a new museum dedicated to Kenya’s history. As he has on previous state visits, Charles carved out time to take part in events that highlight his interest in the environment, including meeting with the activist Wanjira Mathai and visiting an urban farm.

But it will be his comments on the atrocities of the past that will be watched most closely.

Dutch King Willem-Alexander apologised this year for the role of his country and his family in the slave trade. On a recent trip to South Africa, he visited Cape Town’s Slave Lodge, where Dutch colonists once enslaved thousands of Africans and Asians.

Charles, by contrast, hasn’t apologised for the monarchy’s role in slavery or the uglier parts of Britain's colonial past. While still a prince, he went only as far as to express “my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many” and to signal support for research on the monarchy’s historical links to slavery.

When The Washington Post published evidence that the British crown was branded onto the bodies of enslaved people traded in the Americas, the palace said in a statement: “This is an issue that His Majesty takes profoundly seriously.”

Charles will be hoping his trip goes better than last year’s Caribbean tour by Prince William and Catherine, Princess of Wales. That trip was widely seen as a PR disaster, marred by protests along the way. Critics decried photos of Kate shaking hands with children through a wired fence and of the couple, dressed in white, in an open-top Land Rover, which some said harked back to Britain’s colonial past.

Some Kenyans interviewed by The Post this week said it was time to move on.

“What is the point of always reminding people of the past?” said George Mburu, 31, a motorcycle taxi operator in Nairobi.

“The British give money, they support projects, they are sad about what they did. Why can’t we just work together for a better future?”

He added that he was hoping to catch a glimpse of the royals, perhaps when their motorcade passed through the streets of Nairobi.

Mary Mwangi, 29, a trader in Nairobi, said he viewed the royal visit like that of any other head of state.

“These people come to Kenya every day, but it does not make a difference to our lives,” she said.

“Many of us are not keen on the past, we are more interested in how we can make money and feed our children.”