Queen Elizabeth, who spent a life time hiding away the brutality and violence of the monarchy, is now doing the same with her disgraced son.
Kenyan academic, activist and public intellectual, Dr Wandia Njoya, recently described Kenya’s government as being “spectacularly British”. She was referring to how the corrupt Kenyan state in many ways re-enacts the feudalism that gave rise to the monarchies in the UK and across Europe. Speaking with her, another noted Kenyan intellectual, carnivore ecologist and conservation writer Mordecai Ogada, author of, The Big Conservation Lie, a treatise on the colonialism that still drives the wildlife conservation “industry” in Kenya, says “royal families grew out of the exploitation of the masses”. He also sees the Kenyan state essentially as an appendage of the UK aristocracy.
But for all its association with imperialism and colonialism, the House of Windsor, or as it was known prior to World War I, before its German roots became a public liability, the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, has largely managed to sail above the fray. It has converted itself into something of an international soap opera of lovely princesses, eccentric – if somewhat racist – elderly princes, family feuds in massive ornate palaces, all of it presided over by an ageing matriarch with a single-minded devotion to tradition and duty. Missing from this carefully curated modern-day fairy tale are the narratives spun by Dr Njoya and Dr Ogada, or indeed any mention of the brutality, death, dispossession and rape at home and abroad that were, and to a large extent continue to be, the defining characteristics of imperial rule and its legacy.
It is in this context that Queen Elizabeth II’s recent decision to cut off her second son Andrew, should be understood. Though hardly the first to lose “military affiliations and Royal patronages” – the queen’s grandson, Prince Harry, his wife and his late mom had all been stripped of at least some royal privileges after falling afoul of the family – Andrew’s particular circumstances are telling. The duke of York’s excommunication comes on the back of his failure to persuade a US court to drop a civil lawsuit pertaining to child sexual abuse allegations. The queen is clearly attempting to distance herself and the monarchy from the potential stench from the case, just as she had done when he had first admitted his association with the convicted sex offender, Jeffrey Epstein. However, it could also be said that she has been trying her whole life to run away, not just from her children’s villainy and misconduct, but from her family’s torrid history and to maintain the burnished image of propriety she has cultivated since her 20s.
In her famous 21st birthday speech delivered in 1947 from Cape Town, where she was accompanying her ailing father George VI on an imperial visit to South Africa and Rhodesia, the soon-to-be-queen took up the mission of her grandfather George V, who renamed the family, to recast the monarchy as, in the words of his private secretary, “a living power for good affecting the interests and social wellbeing of all classes”. She described her future subjects as members of “our great imperial family” to whose service she would devote her life, recasting the crumbling Empire as a benevolent and free association of self-governing nations – an “ancient” worldwide commonwealth – with the monarchy as its head.
Yet, from the start of her reign, Empire would be as brutal as ever, committing horrendous crimes in the very country where she would learn of her father’s death – Kenya. Here, the project not just to hang on to colonial possessions by brutalising, torturing, murdering and interning in concentration camps the natives who resisted, but also to sanitise and hide the truth of it, would reach its apogee. It is noteworthy that she has neither publicly condemned nor apologised for the acts undertaken by her government, in her name as queen, during the Mau Mau Emergency. Like the rest of her regime, she was content to see this embarrassing history systematically hidden and destroyed.
It is this that she is re-enacting with the shutting out of Andrew – though he will still apparently retain a few privileges and will get to keep his role as “counsellor of state”, which allows him to take up her official duties if she is indisposed. However, history can be a stubborn thing and will not be as easily appeased. In her final years, it is only by fully and openly confronting the horrors of British imperial history and legacy, as well as her family’s part in it, that she can finally lay down the baggage and eventually walk into her sunset in peace.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.