The muted truth in King Charles visit to State House

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

There was a subtle sense of nostalgia in every step King Charles and his wife Queen Camilla took at State House on Tuesday, the first day of their State visit to Kenya.

Beyond the majesty and royalty that echoed with each step, there was the symbolism. But the ground they stepped on was also a stark reminder of the rich history the two nations share.

Before the house on the hill became the official residence of the President of Kenya, it served as the official residence of the Governor of British East Africa at a time when Kenya was a colony within the British Empire.

For the monarch, therefore, State House is a relic of her long-reigning influence that shaped the country's future. For Kenyans, it is the home of the first family. And as a former British colony, the grounds on which the royal couple walked yesterday - even planting trees, inspecting a mounted guard of honour and receiving a ceremonial welcome, complete with a red carpet and a 21-gun salute from the Kenyan Navy - are in many ways a gem.

The gleaming white of the State House, a stark contrast to the red brick of Buckingham Palace at 10 Downing Street in London, was a sentimental symbol of an indelible colonial past.

"His Majesty will take time during the visit to deepen his understanding of the injustices suffered by the people of Kenya during that period," Chris Fitzgerald, the King's deputy private secretary, told journalists at an earlier briefing on the state visit.

Built in 1907, State House, formerly known as Government House, served as the official residence of the colonial authority's top representative in the colony.

According to historians, it was the residence of the Prime Minister from independence until 12 December 1964, when Kenya became a republic. Since the abolition of the post of Prime Minister, it has been the official residence of the President.

The King yesterday visited the house that once housed the most senior representative of the Empire in its former protectorate - Lord Howick of Glendale, formerly Sir Evelyn Baring.

From 1952 to 1959, Sir Baring was Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Kenya and Chairman of the East African High Commission.

On 20 October 1952, Governor Baring declared a state of emergency. The British would later carry out a mass arrest of Jomo Kenyatta and 180 other suspected Mau leaders in Nairobi.Undated photographs show Evelyn Baring, as Governor of Kenya in the early 1950s, inviting President Kenyatta to State House.

With the organisers and Buckingham Palace carefully choosing the venues the couple will visit on their first official trip to the former colony, history will certainly hang heavily over the King's visit.

The State House is therefore as important to the royals as any other place they plan to visit in the land of the rising sun.

A lover and self-proclaimed aficionado of Kenya's lush safaris, King Charles III is not a "new visitor". This is his fourth official visit to the former protectorate of the British Empire.As he touches down at JKIA, it is clear that he is sentimentally reminiscing about the adventures of his youth in Kenya's various national parks.  He is at home.

A place he has set foot in before. However, there's no public record of him ever setting foot in the house on the hill during his previous visits.

This visit alone is as special as a compass to a captain lost at sea. The place that once housed the British Governor is now the official residence of the visiting President.

Accompanying the King to State House, Camilla wore an "Anna Valentine white crepe silk dress with a diamond oyster brooch that belonged to Queen Elizabeth," according to the High Commission.

Like the royal couple, many dignitaries have come and gone from the House on the Hill. As colonisers, the royal family has had its share of the bad, the good and the ugly, some of it embarrassing, some of it pleasantly intriguing.

Queen Mary's son, Edward, Prince of Wales, was embarrassed in 1928 by a Nairobi socialite who later became Lady Delamere, in an episode at Nairobi's Muthaiga Club recounted by Karen Blixen.

"Lady Delamere behaved scandalously at dinner, I thought; she bombarded the Prince of Wales with large pieces of bread... and finished by lunging at him, overturning his chair and rolling him around on the floor."

There was also the other unconfirmed story of sex in the bush with a Nairobi socialite, Beryl Markham, wrote historian John Kamau. The incidents led to the royal kingdom banning socialites and divorcees from Nairobi's State House.

"By then, Nairobi had earned a reputation as a carefree colony of aristocrats, rogues and uncouth settlers. It was feared that the peasants of Nairobi might turn up at the royal dinner in their dressing gowns and pyjamas. So the future king, then Prince of Wales, instructed the governor as to how the guests should dress," says Mr Kamau.

The house on the hill is a stark reminder of the intertwined nature of the residence, which has retained its lustre over the centuries.