Queen Elizabeth, who has spent her life hiding 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 the Kenyan government as “spectacularly British”. She was referring to how the corrupt Kenyan state is in many ways re-creating the feudalism that gave birth to monarchies in the UK and across Europe. Speaking to her, another renowned Kenyan intellectual, carnivorous ecologist and conservation writer, Mordecai Ogada, author of The Big Conservation Lie, a treatise on colonialism that still drives the wildlife conservation ‘industry’ in Kenya, said that “royal families were born out of the exploitation of the masses”. He also sees the Kenyan state essentially as an appendage of the British aristocracy.
But for all its association with imperialism and colonialism, the House of Windsor, or as it was known before World War I, before its German roots became a public liability, the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, largely succeeded in navigating above the fray. It morphed into something of an international soap opera of pretty princesses, eccentric – albeit somewhat racist – elderly princes, family feuds in huge ornate palaces, all presided over by an aging matriarch with a single-minded devotion to tradition and duty. . This neatly curated modern fairy tale lacks the tales of 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 the recent decision of Queen Elizabeth II to cut off her second son Andrew must be understood. Although they weren’t the first to lose ‘military affiliations and royal patronages’ – the Queen’s grandson Prince Harry, his wife and his late mother had all been stripped of at least some royal privileges after clashing with family – Andrew’s particular circumstances are telling. The Duke of York’s excommunication follows his failure to persuade a US court to drop a civil suit over allegations of child sexual abuse. The Queen is clearly trying to distance herself and the monarchy from the potential stench of the case, just as she did when he first admitted his association with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. However, it could also be said that she has tried all her life to shun not only the wickedness and misconduct of her children, but also her torrid family history and to maintain the polite image of propriety that she has cultivated since she was 20 years old.
In her famous 21st birthday speech delivered in 1947 from Cape Town, where she accompanied her ailing father George VI on an Imperial visit to South Africa and Rhodesia, the future Queen took up the mission of her grandfather George V , who renamed the family, to recast the monarchy as, in the words of its private secretary, “a living power for good affecting the interests and social welfare of all classes”. She described her future subjects as members of “our great Imperial family” to whose service she would devote her life, refounding the crumbling Empire as a benevolent and free association of self-governing nations – an “ancient” world Commonwealth – with the monarchy as its head.
Yet from the start of her reign, Empire would be more brutal than ever, committing horrific crimes in the very country where she learned of her father’s death – Kenya. Here, the project not only to cling to colonial possessions by brutalizing, torturing, murdering and interning in concentration camps the natives who resisted, but also to cleanse and hide the truth of it, would reach its apogee. It should be noted that she has neither publicly condemned nor apologized for the acts undertaken by her government, on her behalf as Queen, during the Mau Mau emergency. Like the rest of her regime, she was content to see this embarrassing story systematically hidden and destroyed.
This is what she re-enacts with the exclusion of Andrew – although he will apparently still retain some privileges and may retain his role as a “state adviser”, which allows him to take up his official duties if she is indisposed. However, the story can be a stubborn thing and won’t be so easily appeased. In her final years, it was only by fully and openly confronting the horrors of British imperial history and heritage, as well as the part of her family, that she could finally put down her bags and finally walk towards its sunset in peace.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.