‘Carolus Tertius Rex’: A distant Monarch in our complex identity

King Charles III.

King Charles III. There is a lot of “et cetera” to Charles III than being King of Britain. Among the long list of titles conferred upon him, he is King, that is, Head of State of Australia, New Zealand and many other countries, including, most relevantly to us, Canada.

Photo credit: AFP

A ritual of unequalled pomp, glamour and splendour is taking place in London today. King “Charles the Third of England, Scotland, Wales “et cetera” is being invested and crowned.

We shall come to that “et cetera” in a moment. Those whom I taught writing know how much I dislike that Latin tag, under normal circumstances.

These, however, are not normal circumstances. We are talking of a once-in-a-lifetime event. Only a few of us lucky “longevitors” were there when it last happened, in 1952, when Queen Elizabeth the Second was crowned.

So, I am eagerly joining you and others who love significant drama to follow the investiture and coronation of the King. It is being televised and streamed live on hundreds of media channels and watched by millions, if not billions, of viewers. 

As I regale you with these anticipations, however, I am mentally looking over my shoulder. I know that my teachers, Profs Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo, may be either heckling me or indulgently smiling at me, their wayward student. I seem to be stubbornly persisting in colonial fascination, despite their strenuous efforts to decolonise my mind. I humbly admit my shortcomings but with an excuse.

Here, indeed, is where the “et cetera” in King Charles III’s titles come in. I agree and believe, with my teachers, that we should not be unnecessarily obsessed with foreign affairs, especially those who colonised us. This, however, should not lead to our burying our heads in the sand and pretending that our self-liberation from them means discarding every thread of influence that our historical contact with them had on us and on our culture and societies.

There is, for example, a lot of “et cetera” to Charles III than being King of Britain. Among the long list of titles conferred upon him (some in Latin, the language of power and “serious” communication when the kingdom was established more than a thousand years ago), he is King, that is, Head of State of Australia, New Zealand and many other countries, including, most relevantly to us, Canada.

This last one, as you know, is an increasingly popular destination for immigrants from Kenya and East Africa as a whole. This is in addition to the fact that Britain has a large immigrant population with East African roots, including their current Prime Minister, Mr Rishi Sunak.

Societal implications

These people, including some of my nearest and dearest relatives, are not only residents of Britain. They are British. I cannot afford to be indifferent to what is happening in Britain, all in the name of decolonising my mind. I may not like the history of British enslavement, colonisation and exploitation of our countries, but that history has had implications for our society and our culture that we cannot erase at the stroke of a pen or the press of a button.

The most obvious impact of British contact with us is, of course, language. I need no elaborate illustration of this impact beyond what we are doing now, communicating in English. You know my strong support for Kiswahili and our other African languages, including my home language, Luganda, in which I have been writing and publishing since the 1960s.

But I have no vision of a total “purge” of (the “King’s”) English from East African society within my lifetime. In the old “KUT” (Kenya, Uganda Tanzania) East Africa region, for example, I think Tanzania alone has succeeded in mainstreaming an African language in all its operations, although that has not meant their discarding of English.

One may note in passing that one important reason why we are not in a hurry to discard English is the realisation that it connects us to many other countries whose main language of international communication is English. The United States, which severed British connections centuries ago, after a bitter conflict, but kept the English language, is a good example.

Incidentally, the Americans are avid admirers of things British, including the accent (which includes the Kenyan one) and, of course, royalty. Those who have been following the Prince Harry-Meghan Markle saga will remember.

But let us turn briefly to the phenomenon of the (British) Commonwealth. By virtue of his accession to the British throne, Charles III becomes Head of the Commonwealth. This has, since the establishment of the Commonwealth, been the tradition of its leadership. I guess it may be amended to make the Headship either elective or rotating, but this has, so far, not happened.

I remember my Dar es Salaam teacher, the late Grant Kamenju, vehemently denouncing the Commonwealth as an imperialist relic of British colonial domination. This was at a conference of the Association of Commonwealth Language and Literature Studies (ACLALS) at Makerere in 1974.

The Commonwealth, however, and its many agencies and activities have kept running uninterrupted. Many of us have done or are doing our higher studies on Commonwealth scholarships. What intrigues me is that countries that had no colonial links, like Rwanda, Mozambique and Namibia, keep joining the Commonwealth.

Finally, apart from being “D.G. (Dei Gratia) Rex”, King by the Grace of God, as the Latin formalities have it, Charles III is also “F.D. (Fidei Defensor)”, Defender of the Faith, as all British monarchs have been since the days of Henry V in the sixteenth century.

The faith implied is, of course, the Christian Anglican faith (although the title was given to Henry V by Pope Leo X, for his apparent support of Catholicism, in Henry’s pre-reformation days).

The problem for King Charles III will be which “faith” to defend in today’s highly pluralistic British society. Nevertheless, the King remains the Supreme “Governor” of the Church of England, with the power to appoint the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual Head. The international Anglican Communion, including that in East Africa, regardless of their differences with Canterbury, cannot rightfully ignore the newly-crowned King.

I will not be singing “God Save the King”, but I will be listening to its strains.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]