The coronation of Britain’s King Charles III this weekend will be presented as steeped in history, a reenactment and remembrance of ancient traditions and events. For many, the ceremonies and pageantry, with their ancient carriages, crowns and even stones, will serve to restore the link with the past. A central irony, however, will be that the British will be asking the world to come together to celebrate something they have actively denied other societies: a sense of their own history.
The rite of coronation, perhaps like the monarchy and the king himself, is itself a vestige of a vanishing past. Today, the United Kingdom is the only European monarchy to hold such a ceremony. Emerging in Europe at a time when monarchs claimed their rule was legitimized by divine approval, the central act of the coronation ceremony is the “anointing”, the anointing with holy oil that signifies the transfer of God’s grace to a ruler.
Before his anointing, Charles III, like his predecessors, will take the coronation oath – scaled down to reflect the loss of the empire. It is the only part of the ceremony that is required by law. Seventy years ago, his mother, Elizabeth II, solemnly pledged “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 areas belonging to or pertaining to any of them, in accordance with their respective laws and customs”.
At that time, and in the years that followed, few of its 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 been “inventing African traditions for Africans”. In fact, these subjects were taught that they had no history or achievements, and that the brutal colonial dispossession and occupation was actually to their advantage – that it helped to civilize them.
Africans are still living with the consequences of this loss and of reinventing their history and reshaping their societies. The “tribal” cleavages that distort politics on the continent are almost entirely a legacy of that occupation. “Africa was typically tribal to the European occupiers,” wrote the late Professor Crawford Young. “So the task of the colonial state was to discover, codify and map an ethnic geography for their newly conquered domains, assuming that the continent was inhabited by ‘tribal man’. This ethnic template, as devised by the colonizer, became the basis for administrative organization.
In Kenya, as Timothy Parsons, professor of African history at Washington University in St. Louis, points out, “faced with a bewildering array of shifting ethnicities, [British] colonial officials tried to transform the conquered populations into manageable administrative units.” In doing so, they linked country 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 confined within district boundaries, and even created an entirely new “traditional” administrative structure in the form of chieftains who were actually employees of the state. It is therefore no coincidence that the British divided Kenya into 41 administrative districts and the country ended up with almost the same number of official “tribes”.
Furthermore, colonial-era anthropologists and historians, as Dr. Christopher Prior claims, showed little interest in African history and “were invariably united on the need for the colonial state to preserve what they believed to be ‘ancient’ and ‘ancient’. was partially overwritten. traditional'”. Thus, generations of Africans, cut off from traditional histories by indoctrination in Western schools, grew up thinking that the fictional picture Europeans painted of a tribal, ruthless pre-colonial Africa, full of petty “tribal” conflicts and shackled by the despotism of the time. -old and immutable ‘customs and traditions’ were essentially true. In many ways, the persecution of sexual minorities, often justified by the use of colonial ideas of Africa as populated by “noble savages” who instinctively uphold supposedly natural Victorian ideals about sex and need to be protected from Western corruption, is a direct result of the erasure of African history.
The pageantry that will accompany the investiture of King Charles, which is intended to inspire awe through sheer spectacle, is also a reminder of the place to which the British had risen. In a sense, it was not just the monarch who was appointed as God’s chosen ruler, but the entire nation that had made a claim for itself as ruler over other nations and peoples. Today, like its monarchy, the UK is a pale shadow of its imperial self, and such displays can provide a measure of nostalgic solace as it grapples with its increasing marginalization and loss of prestige.
Tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of people around the world will no doubt also tune in to the live broadcast of the proceedings. But probably for a completely different reason. The British Monarchy is probably the world’s longest-running reality show, featuring a constant cast of dysfunctional individuals, unbelievable and melodramatic plot twists, as well as sexual drama, corruption, and emotional and moral conflict. The coronation episode is sure to be a hit with the legions of fans.
This reinvention of the monarchy as global entertainment has helped protect it, and the country it leads, from the more unsavory parts of its history, such as its ties to the slave trade. And certainly, the true memory of the actions taken by British officials in the name of their monarch in the colonies is complicated by the large-scale and willful theft, concealment and destruction of documents.
As the British Empire disintegrated, thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful deeds and crimes committed were systematically destroyed or discreetly transferred to the UK and hidden in a secret Foreign Office facility, to avoid falling into the hands of fall of post-independence governments. . The existence of this stolen record, euphemistically dubbed the “migrated archive”, held at the highly secured government communications center at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire, was only officially admitted in 2012 following a court case by Kenyans detained and tortured during the Mau Mau. Emergency of 1952-1957. It contained documents proving official complicity in the crimes and prompting the British government to settle out of court to avoid the embarrassment of a full trial. However, the archive has yet to be repatriated to the countries from which it was taken at independence. In the case of Kenya, this is despite the fact that the documents have been returned for more than 55 years.
While efforts will be made to show some sensitivity to contemporary issues – the sacred coronation oil will be cruelty-free, the king has invited leaders of non-Christian religions – little attention will be paid during the ceremony to the historical damage not caused by the frost is acknowledged. And without it, the ceremony is little more than a fresh coat of royal whitewash.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.