Imperial nostalgia as King Charles III visits

Britain's King Charles III during the ceremonial welcome at State House in Nairobi on October 31, 2023. 

The charm, magic and wonder of royalty will always be dazzling to most people, even if only vestiges of it remain.

There was a whiff of empire and faint traces of old aristocratic England when King Charles III and Queen Camilla landed on Kenyan soil on Tuesday, October 31, 2023: the royal gravitas, the gun salutes, the hurried feet of aides hitting the ground and the list of things befitting a king, one after another — each like a new orchestra section joining a symphony in a drawn-out, lowering, and double-bassed slow tempo.

Away from the dull skies and the half-heartedness of London’s rain, he landed in warm Nairobi weather looking bright.

He put his best foot forward in his charm offensive as he tried a few Swahili words. It was a good attempt even though in some words, one could hear a distinctly British set of inflections.

However, as he spoke the few words in Swahili, probably an acute intimacy passed between him and his listeners.

One human to another. The syllables sounded heavy to the ear. As heavy as petals drooping with rain.

His host, President Ruto, was jovial in his usual burst of unflagging energy as the day exploded like a rainbow — into a dazzling spectrum of colours in a day of glamour that belonged in the business end of a fairytale.

One of the reasons for his visit was to understand the complicated relationship between Britain and its former colonies.

In a state dinner on Tuesday night, King Charles said, “The wrongdoings of the past are a cause of the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret”. King Charles’ trip couldn’t avoid the history of the British empire.

The empire must have hung like a silent hallucination over every conversation. And he was like one playing a battered violin no one is listening to, the melancholy notes vibrating through the belly of the nation.

Even though only a façade remains, and King Charles III is arguably king over an empire in ruins, the story of Britain is a fascinating one — of how a relatively small island nation sometimes considered a backwater in the past, created the largest empire in history. It’s the story of the rise, stagnation and fall of empire — like a car crash in slow motion.

There was a time when the king of the sprawling British empire was like a king over the world.

However, that empire has faded away like a long-vanished chorus, now dim to us, the song having floated into inaudible distance — the sound unheeded and almost unheard in a world dominated by the United States of America, China, and other emerging economies.

History has caught glimpses of Britain’s greatness here and there, like flashbacks in a sad movie. And then, it was over, and already a distant memory.

King Charles’ life has some real Shakespearean drama. Shakespeare was always fascinated by powerplay, politics, royalty, and empires.

There are several ways King Charles’ life echoes Shakespeare’s characters. First, the life of King Charles mirrors in some ways the life of Shakespeare’s King Lear, who is an aging British monarch who has made the decision of dividing his kingdom among his children.

Like King Lear, King Charles is also an aging British monarch (King Charles is 74). King Charles also has heirs who will inherit him. Prince Harry left the royal family so there may not be any contest for the throne. Prince William (who is, in any case, older) is in line to be king.

Second, another aspect found in Shakespeare’s works that’s also in King Charles’ life is the aspect of star-crossed lovers: couples who just can't seem to make their relationship work. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare depicts Romeo and Juliet as star-crossed lovers.

In a way, though in different circumstances and in another age, King (then Prince) Charles couldn’t make his relationship work with Princess Diana — they were arguably star-crossed lovers. The relationship ended in heartbreak and later, Princes Diana died in a road accident.

And of course, Shakespeare had a lot to say about the king as a human being. After King Richard is removed from power by the rebel Bolingbroke in a coup, King Richard says (in the play Richard II): “My crown I am, but still my griefs are mine. You may my glories and my state depose but not my griefs; still am I king of those.” No one could take his griefs (he is king of those).

The task King Charles has is great. Even as he tours Kenya and other commonwealth countries to build ties, it reminds us of another Shakespearean character, King Henry IV from still another play (Henry IV) who says, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”.

However, King Charles can take comfort from the fact that, though Britain may not be the superpower it was many years ago, it still influences world affairs from football to the use of English in many places.

And maybe, a country can influence world affairs without policing the world using the wrecking power of arms. As Anthony Lewis once wrote in the New York Times, “Perhaps it is even possible to make a mark on the world by moderation and rationality and decency — British qualities that antedate imperial power”.

- The writer is a book publisher based in Nairobi. [email protected]