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William and Kate’s royal tour put the offensive in charm offensive

This year’s tour echoes past imperial visits, which highlighted fissures instead of winning people over.

Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, take part in a parade in Kingston, Jamaica, on March 24, riding in the same vehicle used by Queen Elizabeth II during her trip to the island in 1962. (Rudolph Brown/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, recently completed a royal tour of Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean. Stops in Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas were meant to be sites for photo ops, playing soccer, beating drums and spreading goodwill.

But before the tour even got started, Indigenous groups in Belize protested a planned visit and critics highlighted the high costs of the tour with concerns over who would pay. As the tour continued, communities demanded reparations and an apology for slavery. Press coverage described the trip as a “charm offensive” that was mostly offensive as cringeworthy photos seemed to highlight racial disparities rather than harmony. William’s speech expressing “profound sorrow” about slavery was called “tone deaf” and “unacceptable” by Jamaican protesters. Efforts to remove the British Crown as head of state in these countries, as Barbados did last year, took on greater urgency.

Americans used to seeing the royals portrayed by a fawning press that highlights Catherine’s style and William’s awkwardness might be surprised to see them embroiled in politics. But past royal tours have also cast light on the vast inequities of empire. Far from smoothing over the edges of conflict, royal tours have revealed deep cracks in the facade of the British Empire as they turned into moments of discord, becoming turning points in the history of decolonization.

In the aftermath of World War I, the British Empire was the largest it had ever been. When the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) visited the crown colony of India in 1921 for a ceremonial visit, he came to express gratitude for Indian service in World War I. He arrived as the confident representative of a vast global empire.

He was greeted by empty streets and closed doors. Mumbai shops closed, students boycotted a ceremony at the Hindu University conferring an honorary degree on him and parade routes in the city then known as Allahabad remained quiet. When the prince reached Chennai, then known as Madras, an organized boycott of his visit ended in violence.

Opposition to British colonial rule had heated up in response to the Amritsar massacre in 1919, when British troops fired on a crowd and killed close to 400 people. Growing resentment over the sacrifices made by India during World War I coalesced with Mohandas K. Gandhi’s noncooperation movement, not to mention anger at the steep cost of the royal visit paid for by the Indian government.

Gandhi turned down a meeting with the prince before being arrested for sedition on charges related to the protests and sentenced to six years in prison. The prince’s visit had the opposite of its intended effect of bringing India closer to Britain. In fact, the visit showed how mass protests combined with events that garnered media coverage could gain global attention. When Gandhi organized and led the Salt March in 1930, he encouraged the foreign press, which covered it extensively. India would gain its independence in 1947.

Soon, decolonization of Britain’s African empire began; Ghana (formerly Gold Coast) gained its independence from Britain in 1957. But in the early 1950s, the end of empire did not seem inevitable at all, especially in Kenya, a settler colony that was home to 29,000 Europeans.

In February 1952, Queen Elizabeth II was famously traveling in Kenya on tour when her father, King George VI, unexpectedly died. On the day of his death, she was staying at a country lodge called Treetops in the Aberdares mountains, where she and her husband, Prince Philip, stayed in a room perched above a watering hole where they could observe wild animals. This unusual location became part of a myth about Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne and the saying about a “princess who went up a tree and came down a queen.”

But the fairy tale-like descriptions of Elizabeth’s trip to Kenya belie the fact that a movement to end British colonialism was brewing in Kenya. Efforts to reform empire through peaceful protest in Kenya had been halted in 1922, when moderate nationalist Harry Thuku was arrested and some of his supporters killed at a protest. Thuku’s activism targeted low wages, land grievances and the detested kipande (a metal box holding documents African men were required to wear around their necks).

After World War II, a new secret group emerged that would become known as the Mau Mau. This group was initially formed by a small group of militants based in Nairobi who centered their complaints on the land dispossession of the Kikuyu people. Unlike the reform-minded movement of Thuku, the Mau Mau were armed and determined to rid Kenya of British rule.

In early October 1952, the Mau Mau made a bold and public attack with the assassination of a well-known Kikuyu chief, Waruhiu wa Kungu, a conservative collaborator of the British. Just days later, Gov. Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency as the British government took extreme measures to repress the movement. Over seven years, Kenya was engulfed in both an anti-colonial uprising and a civil war. The Mau Mau attacked government posts and some settler homes, but most significantly they waged war against other Kikuyu loyalists. The British used draconian methods widely against Kikuyu civilians, not just the Mau Mau, including detention camps and torture. Even as the Mau Mau were defeated in 1960, Kenya still gained its independence in 1963.

The story of Elizabeth’s visit to Kenya is rarely linked to the Mau Mau. Yet the royal visit occurred as the Mau Mau were building their membership through an oath of allegiance, acquiring weapons and committing arson attacks as early as January 1952. Violence broke out on a wider scale shortly after she left and continued to overshadow the early days of her reign.

The Aberdares forest where Treetops is located became the site where the Mau Mau’s military wing, the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, built their camps. Treetops was burned to the ground during the emergency, probably by Mau Mau fighters. One of the hotel staff members who personally served Elizabeth and Philip as a porter and guide joined the Mau Mau as a cook and weapons scout. The dissonance between royal safari and armed insurrection could not be greater, and they occurred within months of each other. The fact that the harmonious royal visit was nothing more than an illusion was put in stark relief as Kenya exploded in violence.

When Kenya gained independence in 1963, it became a member of the Commonwealth as a sovereign nation and within a year established the president of Kenya as head of state in the 1964 constitution. Many other former colonies retained the queen as monarch and official head of state, albeit with no power.

Over time, some countries moved to remove the British monarch from even a symbolic role. Barbados followed the lead of Guyana (1970), Trinidad and Tobago (1976), Dominica (1978) and Mauritius (1992). Jamaica and Australia are considering the change as well. The countries on the recent royal tour are all Commonwealth realms, meaning the queen is their head of state.

Will and Kate’s tour was at once a celebration of the queen’s jubilee and an attempt to generate goodwill that could preserve the role of the British head of state in these countries.

But by the end of the current royal tour, voices in opposition to the monarchy had only grown. William issued a closing statement that conceded that the future of the Commonwealth may well mean members choosing someone else to “lead its family in the future.” William’s tone was far more conciliatory than that of past leaders of empire, but he made no mention of reparations.