In Kenya, King Charles Will ‘Walk a Tightrope’ on Britain’s Past


When King Charles III travels to Kenya this week, it will be a journey steeped in family memory for Britain’s new monarch: In 1952, his mother, Elizabeth, had just spent the night at Treetops, a remote Kenyan game-viewing lodge, when she learned of the death of her father, George VI, which thrust her onto the throne.

But Charles has no plans for a sentimental pilgrimage to Treetops. The hotel has fallen into disrepair in recent years, and it is redolent of the kind of white, colonial, safari glamour that the king would do well to avoid on his first visit to a former British colony since he succeeded his mother last year.

History will hang heavily over the king’s visit, in any event. Buckingham Palace said Charles “would acknowledge the more painful aspects of the U.K. and Kenya’s shared history,” specifically Britain’s brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion from 1952 to 1960, which left tens of thousands of people dead.

Royal visits to former colonies have long been delicate, but in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter movement, they have become fraught. Protesters and local government officials regularly demand apologies and sometimes reparations for colonial-era abuses, including economic exploitation and Britain’s role in the slave trade.

The palace has declined to say whether Charles will apologize for Britain’s crackdown on the Mau Mau rebellion, and such a gesture would be complicated because it could open the British government to calls for compensation. But even a less formal expression of regret would reverberate widely, not only in Kenya but also across other countries that once formed the necklace of Britain’s empire.

“He’s walking a tightrope,” said Nic Cheeseman, a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. “He wants to say something strong enough to show that he gets it, but not so strong that it opens him to calls for more reparations.”

The words used by Charles could be a template for royal visits to other former colonies. “A lot of the tensions and challenges the king will face will be replicated in other countries,” Professor Cheesman said.

Above all, the palace is trying to avoid the public relations donnybrook of last year’s Caribbean tour by Prince William and his wife, Catherine. The lingering image was one of William, in a white dress uniform, riding in the same open-top Land Rover that had carried the queen and Prince Philip in 1962. To some Jamaicans, it was a caricature of a colonial proconsul inspecting his troops.

In trips to Barbados and Canada when he was the Prince of Wales, Charles spoke candidly and regretfully about the injustices of Britain’s colonial rule. He has struck a tone of equanimity about the fact that former colonies, like Barbados, have thrown off the British monarch as their head of state.

“The benefit of long life brings me the experience that arrangements such as these can change, calmly and without rancor,” Charles said last year at a gathering of leaders of Commonwealth countries in Rwanda.

The palace moved swiftly last November when a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth repeatedly queried a guest at a royal reception, who was Black and was born in Britain, about where she came from. The lady-in-waiting, Susan Hussey, was removed from the staff, and the palace arranged a meeting with the guest, Ngozi Fulani, at which Ms. Hussey apologized to her face-to-face.

“Charles has already revealed that he possesses a much more nuanced understanding of the legacies of empire than was the case with his predecessor,” said Ed Owens, a royal historian, who recently published a book, “After Elizabeth: Can the Monarchy Save Itself?”

But a more nuanced understanding of these issues does not necessarily make his job easier. The queen, too, made gestures to the past: In 1997, she paid her respects at the site of the Amritsar massacre in India, where British troops opened fire on a peaceful protest in 1919. In 2011, she visited Croke Park in Dublin, where soldiers shot spectators at a Gaelic football game in 1920, during the Irish war of independence.

The queen did not speak about these atrocities with the candor of Charles, but she was widely revered in the former empire, dating back to her visit to Treetops in the 1950s. So resentment over Britain’s colonial legacy rarely translated into attacks on her personally — a luxury that her son so far does not enjoy.

In Kenya, descendants of slain Mau Mau leaders are calling on Charles to offer a formal apology for Britain’s actions during the period known as the Emergency. And villagers in central Kenya are seizing on his visit to demand compensation for a devastating fire ignited by British troops during a military training exercise in 2021.

Palace officials said the king would meet with the families of those affected by Britain’s actions, though they have not offered details. Several experts on the royal family said they were doubtful that Charles would apologize, not least because that could open the door to demands for further financial reparations.

“As a constitutional monarch, King Charles acts on the advice of his government and will not issue a formal apology without discussing the implications of this decision with the prime minister,” said Carolyn Harris, a history instructor at the University of Toronto who has written widely about European monarchies.

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, she noted, formally apologized this past summer for the Dutch role in slavery. (The Dutch king and queen last week visited South Africa, where Indigenous groups also want a direct apology and reparations for colonial atrocities.) King Philippe of Belgium expressed regret for the violence and exploitation that took place in its African colony, the Belgian Congo, but he stopped short of a formal apology, Ms. Harris said.

Britain paid about 20 million pounds ($24 million) to those who suffered during the Kenya Emergency, and it erected a memorial to the victims. But Kenyans have long nursed suspicions about Britain’s willingness to reckon fully with the past, particularly after the British government claimed to have lost documents that chronicled the human-rights abuses of the colonial administration.

“One of the lenses through which Kenyans view the U.K. is: ‘Have you been honest with us? Why haven’t you done more to compensate us?’” Professor Cheeseman said.

Still, Kenya’s president, William Ruto, invited Charles and his wife, Queen Camilla, to visit, and both sides have an incentive to make the trip a success. Britain is eager to maintain its influence in Kenya: It is a major economic donor to the country, in addition to training troops there. Mr. Ruto, who was elected in 2022 and is struggling with a debt crisis, is eager to showcase his drawing power.

For Charles, too, the trip is a chance to demonstrate back home that the monarch can still be an effective agent of “soft power” for Britain. He won praise this year for visits to Germany, where he switched seamlessly from English to German in a speech to the Parliament, and France, where he drew crowds in a stroll on the Champs-Élysées with President Emmanuel Macron.

To some critics, though, it is all about public relations. “Nothing the king is going to say is going to change the past,” said Kehinde Andrews, a professor of Black studies at Birmingham City University.

What would make a difference? “He could go back to Treetops and give up his crown,” Professor Andrews said with a chuckle.



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