King Charles has acknowledged the more “painful aspects” of Britain’s relationship with Kenya, rounding out the first day of his state visit with a historic speech notable for its contrition over colonial injustices.
The monarch delivered the speech on Tuesday (31 October) at a state banquet held for him and Queen Camilla, as they embarked on a four-day state visit – a trip which threatened to be eclipsed by debate surrounding colonial-era abuses.
“If I may say so, it is particularly special to be able to return to this extraordinary country in the 60th year of your Independence,” he said. “It means a great deal to my wife and myself that, in our coronation year, our first state visit to a Commonwealth country should bring us here, to Kenya.
“We both take considerable pride in renewing the ties with Kenya, a country that has long held such special meaning for my family,” he added.
Charles continued: “However we must also acknowledge the most painful times of our long, complex relationship. The wrongdoings of the past are a cause of the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret.
“They were abhorrent, 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.”
The pair were met with a guard of honour and a 21-gun salute as they arrived in a rainy Nairobi, with Kenyan president Dr William Ruto and first lady Rachel Ruto greeted the royal couple at the State House in the capital.
The trip to Kenya is Charles’s first state visit to a Commonwealth nation as the head of the institution, after he succeeded his late mother Queen Elizabeth II as Britain’s monarch in September 2022.
According to a statement posted on the royal family’s website, the visit will “celebrate the warm relationship” between the two countries and “the strong and dynamic partnership they continue to forge”.
However, the announcement of the trip sparked a furore last month, with NGOs and activists calling on Britain’s new king to “offer [a] full and unconditional apology and commit to effective reparations” to victims of human rights abuses that occurred during the nearly 70 years of British colonisation.
On Sunday (29 October), the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) wrote an open letter to King Charles, highlighting the atrocities committed against “Kenya’s freedom fighters” during the bloody Mau Mau uprising that led to a state of emergency being imposed in the country from 1952 until 1960.
The KHRC has said that 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured and maimed during the Mau Mau rebellion, which was led by Kikuyu fighters, with a further 160,000 people detained during the crackdown by British authorities.
According to The Daily Telegraph, 1.2 million Kenyans were forcibly resettled during the emergency.
Buckingham Palace said the King and Queen will “acknowledge the more painful aspects” of the countries’ shared history, and that the King will spend some time during the trip “deepening his understanding of the wrongs suffered in this period by the people of Kenya”.
Over the years, Kenya has always held a special significance to the royal family, with the country also becoming an important ally to Britain in the years after it gained independence. Queen Elizabeth II was informed of her father King George VI’s death during a visit to the country with Prince Philip in 1952, marking the beginning of her 70-year reign as Britain’s queen.
Later, Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton during their 2011 holiday at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy near Mount Kenya, with the founder of Lewa later telling the BBC: “Kenya has always been very close to Prince William’s heart. He’s been coming here for many years. He loves it.”
Charles has visited Kenya three times before, including in 1971 when he met the nation’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta.
His latest visit will be a test of diplomacy – and, some argue, will “set the tone” for his reign, with Caroline Elkins, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a book about the Mau Mau uprising and a Harvard professor of history, telling The Daily Telegraph: “There is one word that he really needs to say – sorry. We are sorry.
“That is what needs to come, he needs to do that. This happened on his mother’s watch,” she added.
However, the British high commissioner to Kenya, Neil Wigan, recently explained the challenges that offering an unconditional apology in any context might present.
During a radio interview on Kenya’s Spice FM earlier this month, Mr Wigan said: “An apology starts to take you to a difficult legal territory, and the settlement we made was out of court, so it showed our sincerity and openness in recognising the abuses that were committed. That is the route we chose and accepted to the Mau Mau Veterans Association.”
Mr Wigan was referring to the 2009 Mau Mau High Court case, brought against the British government by solicitors representing 5,000 Kenyans with claims of abuse and suffering endured during the mutiny.
In 2013, the government settled the case out of court, agreeing to pay £19.9m in compensation to the claimants. As part of the terms of the settlement agreement, the UK also agreed to fund a memorial dedicated to the victims, which is located in Nairobi’s Uhuru Gardens.
On the first day of the royal couple’s visit to Kenya, the Instagram account for the royal family shared a picture of the King and Queen standing alongside Kenya’s president and first lady, taken ahead of a “busy day of engagements”.
After bilateral meetings, they are expected to attend a state banquet at the State House in the Kenyan national capital.
Charles’s other engagements include visiting the site of the declaration of Kenya’s independence, and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, where the couple will lay a wreath. He will also head to the United Nations office in Nairobi to learn about its environmental programmes, and attend a technology showcase to celebrate the Kenyan entrepreneurs propelling the country’s tech industry.
Meanwhile, Camilla on Tuesday travelled to the Eastlands Library in Nairobi, where she met the founders of Book Bunk – a charity that works to restore the country’s public libraries. She is expected to join Charles for their tour of a new museum dedicated to Kenya’s history.