The late Queen Elizabeth II acceded to the throne while in the British colony of Kenya in 1952. It was in that year, too, that the colonial government began a brutal crackdown on the Mau Mau, an armed pro-independence movement, ushering in a period Kenyan primary school textbooks still refer to simply as the “State of Emergency.”
By the time it ended, in 1960, British officers and their local allies had killed thousands and committed over a million to concentration camps, where many were tortured. They then destroyed all records and pretended it hadn’t happened. It was not until 2013, after years of campaigns by the survivors of the terror, that the British government admitted fault and offered a formal apology and monetary restitution.
My country isn’t alone in having a strong connection with the mixed legacy of the British colonial empire, and the woman who once embodied it. I therefore understand the temptation, to which many gave in upon the announcement of the queen’s death, to insult her memory over the sins of that empire.
Nevertheless, I am not of one mind with those who piled aboard the flog-a-dead-queen train. Not so much because it was in bad taste or because there’s very little to be gained from speaking ill of the dead, but rather because I think the inspiration behind the growing global clamour for so-called decolonisation, is intellectually bankrupt.
The decolonisation narrative is part of a package with a lot of arcane concepts that have become prevalent talking points in left-leaning academic and activist circles, like gender fluidity, white privilege and critical race theory. Like those other concepts, it cannot stand the withering gaze of logic, and so relies, for its defence, upon a thick web of obfuscation.
To the extent that it makes sense to me, the decolonisation movement seeks to recognise, uproot and replace all the vestiges of European colonialism. It is powered by the belief that the remnant structures of colonialism, whatever form they may take, and wherever they may manifest, perpetuate the injustices of that era, and must therefore be dismantled.
In some ways, this movement evokes the earlier narrative around neo-colonialism, the term by which the leaders of newly-independent African countries described the attempts, real or imagined, of their former colonial rulers to exert control over the destinies of their countries.
However, decolonisation rests on much shakier foundations. For one, it isn’t nearly as precise. For one, it is too broad, addressing itself to a problem that ostensibly extends to every aspect of modern life, making up for its lack of precision with the convenience of universalising statements.
While it correctly notes that the echoes of colonialism yet endure, it misdiagnoses the whole lot as an unendurable evil, and then proposes solutions for it that are likely to cause even more rancour. It doesn’t allow room for dialogue that isn’t poisoned by assertions of naked power; only it seeks to reverse that power dynamic.
Additionally, in its single-minded quest for pure justice, the movement casts nuance aside and tramples over even the appearance of truth. For instance, though it’s peddlers correctly accuse the British Empire of engaging in the brutal trans-Atlantic slave trade, they downplay, or just ignore outright, the role the same empire then played, at great cost in lives and treasure, in snuffing out that trade.
While they correctly note that the British Empire looted treasures and resources from the colonies, they forget to mention that, had they not been colonised, many of those territories would still be backward realms inhabited by warring natives and ravaged by disease and ignorance; the loss of treasure wasn’t entirely uncompensated. In the case of colonies like the one that became Kenya, Britain likely spent more money than it got out.
I could bring up more examples, but I suppose you get the point.
I often write of the mistakes the West has made, and continues to make, in its engagement with Africa. I do it, not because I think the West should cease engaging with Africa, nor even to imply we cannot accept anything other than an endless stream of apologies before absolving modern Westerners of the sins of their ancestors, but rather because I believe any relationship should be open to improvement. We have a lot to learn in how to deal with one another, and we can only do so properly in an environment of open, good faith dialogue.
Of course, I do not write from a position of superiority. I too have taken part in lynchings of the dead, like when I wrote of the evils perpetrated by Kenya’s second president, who died in 2020. To write about dead public figures is to pit propriety against respect for the truth, and it is quite difficult to get the balance right. To write about anything human is to navigate a beautiful meadow dotted with mines.
However, I at least recognise that that balance must be sought, that it is rarely the case that the crimes with which we associate people are sufficient to describe them, and that even in criticism, we must never forget that it is humans of whom we speak. Most importantly, though, I know I am not alone in this conviction.
The State of Emergency in the Kenya Colony ended in 1960. The blood had yet to clot on the wounds when, three years later, Kenya gained independence. Incredibly, the new country’s leaders, who had dedicated their lives to ending British colonial rule, requested Queen Elizabeth II to become their new head of state.
They did it, not because they had forgotten those ignominious eight years, but rather because they were willing to see beyond that episode. And so, Queen Elizabeth, who had headed the empire that subjugated Kenyans, became the first leader of free Kenyans.
That, too, is part of our legacy.
And yes, we are no longer colonised. We are free.