King Charles III, Africa and the ‘sins of empire’

As his mother is buried after an elaborate funeral ceremony in London on Monday, Africans are asking questions about the new king in relation to the past conduct of the crown in Africa.

Despite the tearful, sorrowful ceremonies, thanksgivings and fond memories borne out of genuine love for the late queen when she died aged 96 on September 9, one thing kept surfacing – a missed opportunity by her to apologise for atrocities committed in the name of the British empire despite her long illustrious interactions with both the great and the good and all those in between on the continent.

Africans have refused to easily forget the wrongs inextricably linked with the colonial project in Africa and how many subjects suffered untold misery at the hands of those who represented the crown as its footsoldiers on the ground.

Although she has been praised in many quarters as the “queen of decolonisation” given the rapid manner with which countries on the continent broke free from the colonial yoke in the 1960s to become independent nations within the Commonwealth, originally a loose association of nations with past colonial ties to Britain, she had never apologised for the atrocities committed in the name of the British empire in Africa.

In death as in life, she will still command a huge fan base across Africa but her non-apologetic stance constitutes a blot in her legacy with Africans, some historians on the continent say.

Firebrand South African politician Julius Malema of the EFF party captured the mood of his country’s citizens perfectly when he issued a statement stating categorically that mourning the queen who symbolised everything about British monarchical bluster abroad during colonialism would be misplaced.

Malema echoed the sentiment of many South Africans and by extension other Africans across the continent when he referred to history to dust off facts about the unbridled violence which attended to the subjugation of what eventually turned out to be British colonies such as South Africa.

Hundreds of thousands of Africans died fighting against British attempts to seize their kingdoms and empires, with historical facts establishing that the conquerors were “knee-deep” in the blood of the conquered by the last decade of the 19th century.

More atrocities followed after Britain subdued countries in West Africa such as Nigeria and Uganda and Kenya in the east of the continent where the start of the queen’s reign witnessed a vicious war of independence by the Mau Mau in the 1950s.

Nigerian historians have regularly recalled the carnage when British troops massacred anti-colonial resistant fighters in what is now the state of Benin and the violence that resulted from the Aba riot of 1929 when women took to the streets in the town of Iloko in eastern Nigeria to demand more rights.

Pa Samba Jow who comes from The Gambia, the last colonial possession of the British which attained statehood in 1965 says it is just natural that Africans are reacting critically about the queen because she led an empire “that did a lot of terrible things”.

Jow based in the US adds that “her death will definitely bring questions about her reign” and that while Africans are allowed to mourn her, others should also be allowed to publicly express their feelings about her as she was not a saint.

”Yes she may have been well dressed and elegant, but that is not enough to whitewash her kingdom’s unapologetic(ally) evil deeds toward her ‘subjects’,“ he points out.

As King Charles III takes over, will he continue from where his mother left off without publicly expressing remorse for the excesses of the British empire in Africa or tread a new path with the continent altogether?

Already there are reasons for hope for the latter given that the new king’s own penchant for acting outside of tradition by voicing his opinion on otherwise sensitive issues that do not necessarily sit well with monarchical tradition is well known and documented.

In a visit to Ghana in 2018, Charles III shocked the monarchical establishment when he described the ills of the transatlantic slave trade to which Britain was a principal participant as atrocious and shameful.

Watchers of the monarchy admitted that Queen Elizabeth would never have done that at the apotheosis of her reign.

In the run-up to the 56-member Commonwealth Summit in Kigali, where he was to represent his then ailing mother earlier this year, he pulled no punches while criticising Britain’s controversial decision to literally offload asylum-seekers to Rwanda with which a deal was reached for this purpose.

By this off-script uttering, Charles had departed from a sacred tradition by British royals to remain neutral in political matters associated with the government.

Perhaps reflecting how far the Commonwealth has come, the summit in Kigali opened with a statement by Charles expressing remorse for what happened during slavery and the resultant political and economic subservience of African nations which were left reeling from its impacts.

The symbolism of this position was not lost on those at the summit where a new spirit spoke to a new world-view which should begin with redefining the role of the Commonwealth which now consists of not just countries of the former British empire, but a few others in Africa like Gabon, Togo, Rwanda and Mozambique never colonised by Britain.

He was quoted saying: “If we are to forge a common future that benefits all our citizens, we too must find new ways to acknowledge our past. Quite simply, this is a conversation whose time has come”.

Much has been read into this statement by Charles III at a time when his mother was still the head of the royal family as queen but it will come as no surprise if people who live in African members of the Commonwealth and beyond begin thinking that there will be more to the new king in Africa than the queen was ever willing to give – an apology which would herald the dawn of a new beginning in Britain’s relations with its former colonies on the continent.


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