Queen’s Platinum Jubilee: A collective misremembering of empire

Patrick Gathara

In his 1886 Gothic novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson tells the tale of Dr Henry Jekyll, wealthy, well-born, and highly respected, who develops a potion that enables him to separate his evil desires from the control of his good self, thus giving rise to the grotesque and deformed Edward Hyde. Jekyll believes that he can receive the pleasure that both parts of his being crave without each being encumbered by the demands of the other.

Watching media coverage of festivities marking Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee – 70 years since she acceded to the throne – I could not help feeling that the British state had achieved something similar. The pomp and circumstance surrounding the celebrations, from the marching troops to beacons lit around the world, were undoubtedly reminiscent of the long-faded glories of the empire, which today are personified by the queen and her family. However, the memory of the horrors that empire visited on millions around the globe – where, to borrow Jekyll’s description of his alter-ego Hyde, “evil … had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay” – was almost completely absent from the telling.

It was during a visit to Kenya in February 1952 that she learned of her father’s death and became queen. She and her husband, Prince Philip, had almost skipped that leg of their imperial tour given that the colony was already in the early stages of the armed Kenya Land and Freedom Army peasant rebellion that the world would come to know as the Mau Mau uprising. The romanticised tale of the girl who went up a tree a princess and descended a queen tends to ignore the circumstances she was thrust into as well as the death, torture, brutalisation and dispossession of Kenyans that would mark the first decade of her reign. Needless to say, little of that made it into the Platinum Jubilee brochure.

A large part of the international media seemed to obsess over the reactions of four-year-old Prince Louis to the Royal Air Force (RAF) flypast, his facial expressions drawing “howls of delight and amusement from the watching crowd”. In November 1953, nearly two years into Elizabeth’s reign, my father would have been about the same age as Prince Louis. I doubt many journalists would spend any time imagining his reactions over the next 20 months as RAF planes flew over the concentration camps into which the British had forced 1.5 million people and dropped nearly six million bombs on Kenyans demanding their land and freedom. I imagine they would have been very different.

Little ink will be spilled on another feature of Elizabeth II’s reign – Operation Legacy, the systematic attempt to erase and distort the truth about the colonial enterprise through the wide-scale theft, destruction and doctoring of documents as the wind of change swept her empire away. In 2013, after a group of elderly Kenyans sued the United Kingdom, the Foreign Office was forced to admit it had illegally hidden more than one million colonial-era documents that should have been declassified. To date, these documents remain in the UK and are yet to be repatriated to the colonies they were stolen from.

Meant to spare the British government the embarrassment and liability for the atrocities and crimes committed during the colonial era, the existence of the archive was hidden not just from Kenyans, but from the British people, many of whom retain a romanticised version of the empire as a benevolent undertaking and remain deeply ignorant of its inhumanity.

The queen today is the Dr Jekyll to the UK’s Mr Hyde – encapsulating the glory and benevolence of the empire with the evil separated out. Neither she nor her descendants have deigned to acknowledge, apologise and seek to make amends for the horrors visited upon Kenyans in her name. The $25 million grudgingly paid out to 5,000 Mau Mau veterans in 2013 was a pittance compared to the violence and dispossession suffered (remember 190 years ago the country used 40 percent of its national budget to compensate slave owners – not slaves – following the abolition of slavery), and the British government continues to deny liability for the sins of the colonial administration, in effect arguing that Kenyans had inherited the culpability for their own oppression. The murmurs of “regret” at the atrocities thus fall far short of an apology. More importantly, there has been no effort made to find and punish the people who committed the atrocities, even though some may still be alive.

Some may argue that as a constitutional monarch, she wields little power over the decisions made and actions carried out in her name. However, by choosing to stay silent while she and her family continue to enjoy the fruits of oppression, she has effectively displayed either astounding moral cowardice or quietly endorsed those actions and decisions.

Her Platinum Jubilee is a call to a collective misremembering of her imperial past and the violence and misery the state she heads and represents has wrought in the world. But like Jekyll, the supply of carefully crafted falsehoods keeping the Hyde-bound truth at bay is running out. Around the world, as evidenced by the protests during recent royal tours of the Caribbean and the determination expressed by those nations to rid themselves of the queen as head of state, the demand for an acknowledgement of the truth and for justice is building steam. If the UK persists in trying to hide from its dark past, it risks its international reputation and standing being consumed by it.

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