King Charles meets Kenya veterans after admitting colonial abuses

King Charles III and Queen Camilla meet veteran Samwel Nthigai Mburia during a visit to the Kariokor War Cemetery in Nairobi on November 1, 2023.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru | Nation Media Group

King Charles III met Kenyan veterans of World World II on Wednesday, after acknowledging there was "no excuse" for colonial-era abuses during Britain's rule of the East African country.

Charles said he wished to "deepen my own understanding of these wrongs" during his four-day state visit to Kenya with Queen Camilla, but also to bolster "a modern partnership of equals facing today's challenges".

There have been widespread calls for Charles to formally apologise to a country Britain violently ruled for decades before Kenya's hard-fought independence in 1963.

On his first day in Nairobi on Tuesday, the 74-year-old British head of state said the "wrongdoings of the past are a cause of the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret", but stopped short of an apology. 

"There were abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence committed against Kenyans as they waged... a painful struggle for independence and sovereignty. And for that, there can be no excuse," he told a state banquet.

"None of this can change the past but by addressing our history with honesty and openness, we can perhaps demonstrate the strength of our friendship today, and in so doing, we can I hope continue to build an ever-closer bond for the years ahead."

Charles has previously made three official visits to Kenya, but this is his first tour of an African and Commonwealth nation since becoming king last year upon the death of his mother Queen Elizabeth II.

'Feared retribution'

On Wednesday, Charles and Camilla visited a war cemetery in Nairobi to honour Africans who died for Britain in two world wars, laying a wreath in front of their graves before meeting Kenyan veterans, some in wheelchairs. 

"I hope we can do something special for you," Charles told one of the veterans as he handed out medals to the former soldiers, part of a British initiative to belatedly recognise the contribution of non-European forces to the war effort.

One veteran, Samweli Mburia, who said he was over 100 years old, told AFP he had originally received a medal during colonial rule but got rid of it because he "feared retribution" from independence fighters.

"There were a lot of people who were not happy we... fought in the war," said Mburia, who served in Egypt, Ethiopia and Myanmar.

On Tuesday, Charles and his host President William Ruto laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Uhuru Gardens, a site steeped in Kenyan history.

It was there that Kenya's independence was declared at midnight on December 12, 1963, with the national flag replacing the Union flag.

The gardens were built on the site of a camp where British colonial authorities detained suspected Mau Mau guerrillas during the suppression of their 1952-1960 uprising.

'Uncomfortable truths'

The so-called "Emergency" period was one of the bloodiest insurgencies of the British empire and at least 10,000 people -- mainly from the Kikuyu tribe -- were killed, although some put the true figures much higher.

Tens of thousands more were rounded up and detained without trial in camps where reports of executions, torture and vicious beatings were common.

Ruto said the Emergency "intensified the worst excesses of colonial impunity", and called the British response to Kenya's quest for self-determination "monstrous in its cruelty".

But he welcomed Charles' "courage and readiness to shed light on uncomfortable truths".

"Facing the Empire's dark past," was the headline in The Standard newspaper on Wednesday.

The Star said in an editorial that demands for reparations were "unrealistic", adding: "What can King Charles fix today?"

But it did suggest the monarch could help in the return of artefacts including the skull of a revered tribal leader who led a bloody resistance movement against colonial rule more than a century ago.

Kenya is where Queen Elizabeth -- then a princess -- learned in 1952 of the death of her father, King George VI, marking the start of her historic 70-year reign.

Charles said the country had "long held such special meaning for my family", underscoring his mother's "particular affection" for the country and its people.

The royal programme in Nairobi and the port city of Mombasa is also focusing on efforts to tackle climate change, as well as support for creative arts, technology and youth.