The coronation of King Charles: A fresh layer of royal whitewash

This weekend, the British will be asking the world to join in celebrating something they have actively denied to other societies – a sense of their own history.

Cartoon by Patrick Gathara
[Patrick Gathara/Al Jazeera]

The coronation of Britain’s King Charles III this weekend will be presented as steeped in history, a re-enactment and remembrance of ancient traditions and events. For many, the ceremonies and pageantry, with their centuries-old carriages, crowns and even stones, will serve to re-establish a link to the past. However, a central irony will be that the British will be asking the world to join in celebrating something they have actively denied to other societies – a sense of their own history.

The ritual of coronation, perhaps like the monarchy and the king himself, is itself a relic from a vanishing past. Today, the United Kingdom is the only European monarchy to keep such a ceremony. Emerging in Europe at a time when monarchs claimed their rule was legitimised by divine sanction, the central act of the coronation ceremony is the “unction”, the anointing with holy oil signalling conferment of God’s grace upon a ruler.

Before his anointment, Charles III, like his predecessors, will take the Coronation Oath – pared down to reflect the loss of empire. It is the only bit of the ceremony that is actually required by law. Seventy years ago, his mother, Elizabeth II, solemnly promised “to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of [her] Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs”.

At the time, and in the years that followed, few of her subjects outside the UK were ruled “according to their respective laws and customs”. On the African continent, as the late Professor Terence Ranger noted, British colonial administrators had “set about inventing African traditions for Africans”. These subjects were in fact taught that they had no history or achievements, and that the brutal colonial dispossession and occupation was actually for their benefit – that it helped to civilise them.

Africans are still today living with the effects of this loss and reinvention of their history and remaking of their societies. The “tribal” cleavages that distort politics on the continent are almost entirely a legacy of that occupation. “Africa, for the European occupant, was quintessentially tribal’,” wrote the late Professor Crawford Young. “Thus the task of the colonial state was to discover, codify, and map an ethnic geography for their newly conquered domains, according to the premise that the continent was inhabited by ‘tribal man’. This ethnic template, as imagined by the colonizer, became the basis for administrative organization.”

In Kenya, as Timothy Parsons, Professor of African History at Washington University in St. Louis, notes, “faced with a confusing range of fluid ethnicities, [British] colonial officials sought to shift conquered populations into manageable administrative units”. In the process, they linked land to ethnic identity, creating a system that assumed each of these fictional ‘tribes’ had a specific homeland. In effect, the British imposed their ideas of ethnic order, of tribes bounded within district boundaries, and even created an entirely new “traditional” administrative structure in the form of tribal chiefs who were actually state employees. It is thus no coincidence that the British divided Kenya into 41 administrative districts and the country eventually ended up with nearly the same number of official “tribes”.

Further, colonial-era anthropologists and historians, as Dr Christopher Prior asserts, showed little interest in African history, and “were invariably of one mind as to the need for the colonial state to partially overwrite that which they felt was ‘old’ and ‘traditional’”. Thus generations of Africans, cut off from traditional histories through indoctrination in Western schools, grew up imagining that the fictional picture Europeans painted of a tribalised, brutal pre-colonial Africa, full of petty “tribal” conflicts, and chained by the despotism of age-old and unchanging “customs and traditions,” was essentially true. In many ways, the persecution of sexual minorities, often justified using colonial ideas of Africa as populated by “noble savages” instinctively upholding supposedly natural Victorian ideals about sex and needing to be protected from Western corruption, is a direct consequence of the erasure of African history.

The pageantry that will accompany King Charles’ investiture, which is meant to awe through sheer spectacle, is also a reminder of the place to which the British had exalted themselves. In a sense, it was not just the monarch that was ordained as God’s chosen ruler, but the entire nation that had staked for itself a claim as ruler of other nations and peoples. Today, like its monarchy, the UK is a pale shadow of its imperial self, and such displays may provide some level of nostalgic comfort as it struggles against its increasing marginalisation and loss of prestige.

Tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people around the world will undoubtedly also tune in to the live broadcast of the proceedings. But likely for a very different reason. The UK monarchy is probably the world’s longest-running reality show, with a constant cast of dysfunctional individuals, incredible and melodramatic plot twists, as well as sexual drama, corruption and emotional and moral conflicts. The coronation episode is sure to be a hit with the legions of fans.

This reinvention of the monarchy as global entertainment has helped to shield it, and the country it leads, from the more unsavoury bits of its history, such as the links to the slave trade. And certainly, true remembrance of the actions taken by British officials in their monarch’s name in the colonies is made harder by the wholesale and deliberate theft, concealment and destruction of documents.

As the British Empire crumbled, thousands of documents detailing some of its most shameful acts and crimes committed were systematically destroyed, or transferred discretely to the UK and hidden in a secret Foreign Office facility, to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments. The existence of this stolen record, euphemistically called the “migrated archive”, kept at the highly-secure government communications centre at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire, was only officially admitted in 2012 following a lawsuit by Kenyans who were detained and tortured during the Mau Mau Emergency of 1952-1957. In it were documents that showed official complicity in the crimes and prompted the British government to settle out-of-court to avoid the embarrassment of a full trial. The archive, however, is yet to be repatriated to the countries it was taken from at independence. In Kenya’s case, this is despite demanding the return of the documents for over 55 years.

While there will be attempts to show some sensitivity to modern-day issues – the sacred coronation oil will be animal-cruelty free, the King has invited leaders of non-Christian faiths – there will be very little about the ceremony that will address the historical harms, which remain unacknowledged by the monarch. And without that, the ceremony will be little more than a fresh layer of royal whitewash.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.