Bram Vermeulen

Op-Ed | Free PR for the British royal family, but where are the critical questions?

Why do many journalists fill hours of airtime about the British royal family without critically questioning the significance of the institution for its former colonies? Dutch journalist Bram Vermeulen calls upon his colleagues to explore this colonial legacy.

Since the death of Queen Elizabeth II, hours of broadcast time have been filled with what anybody could see with their own eyes in recent years, provided you weren't living under a rock. That she had been faithful to her royal duties for seventy years, that she was chilly at the time of Diana's death, but that she was also willing to joke with James Bond. The same anecdotes on all channels, and then in all of the newspapers, some told more unctuously than others.

Britain’s former and current colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean islands, some of which she remained ruler of throughout her working life, were sometimes mentioned in these anecdotes, but they served mostly as a backdrop. A black-and-white image springs to mind of the princess speaking from Cape Town in 1947 and promising to serve the British people all her life. In 1952 she learned while on safari in Kenya that her father had died, making her sovereign of a collapsing global empire with immediate effect.

The significance of the institution of British royalty to her putative subjects was not questioned, at least not in any of the broadcasts I saw immediately after her death or in the newspapers I read in those first days. The South Africa that the 21-year-old Elizabeth visited had ceased to be a British colony in 1910, but was ruled by a white minority which introduced apartheid in 1948 and legalised racial separation. This was done with wholehearted support from London, which was grateful for South African support during two world wars. Queen Elizabeth did not complain about the lack of compassion for black South Africans from her government, which vehemently opposed economic sanctions against the apartheid regime until more than forty years later, in 1986.

Men were wrapped in barbed wire and rolled on the ground until they bled to death

The Kenya she visited in 1952 was still under colonial British rule, though that same year Kenyans would begin the bloody revolt against their oppressors which would lead, a decade later, to independence. Fighters of the Kikuyu minority began to target the farms of white settlers, sowing fear among a ruling elite who had not previously seen their authority challenged. In response to what became known as the Mau Mau rebellion, the British declared a state of emergency and sent reinforcements from London.

You could fill entire talk show evenings with the indescribable atrocities those soldiers committed, much of which is documented in archives which the British state tried to destroy. Tens of thousands of Kikuyu were detained in detention camps. Women were raped with the bayonets of British rifles. Some men were wrapped in barbed wire and rolled on the ground until they bled to death, while others were castrated. According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, over the eight years of the rebellion around 160,000 Kenyans were detained and 90,000 suffered torture, mutilation or execution.

But neither the national and international news channels, nor most newspapers, thought that the moment of the death of the British sovereign who was head of state at the time of these heinous crimes was the right time to bring this up. We did, however, see footage of Nelson Mandela visiting the Queen, and we read on the BBC about ‘the Queen’s long-standing relationship with Africa’.

One might say: this is not the time. But a surprising groundswell of personal responses show that this is precisely the time that we should start talking. Twitter is one such forum in which the institutional line was challenged. On Thursday night interviews about the Mau Mau rebellion were shared many times. I viewed an interview with Muthoni Mathenge, a Kenyan the same age as Queen Elizabeth, who was tortured by British royal forces and whose husband was murdered. "Let Elizabeth bring back what belongs to me”, she says. She wants financial compensation, directly from the British royal family. "Without middlemen." In 2013, the British government paid 20 million euros in compensation to the survivors.

When I visited Kenya in late June, I made a trip to Laikipia county, in central Kenya, where almost half the land is still owned by white farmers, mostly the descendants of British settlers and soldiers who received the land as a thank-you for their role in World War II. In the heart of that county is still a British army base. It’s ostensibly used for joint training, but the subtext is hard to ignore.

They say we should not speak ill of the dead. They say colonialism is all so long ago. They say, this is not the time. But countless reactions show that this is precisely the time that we should start talking.

Harvard professor Maya Jasanoff wrote in The New York Times that during her seventy years in power, Elizabeth acted as "a solid traditionalist front during decades of violent upheaval." Meanwhile when Professor Uju Anya of Carnegie Mellon University tweeted that Elizabeth was the monarch of "a stealing, raping and genocidal empire”, she found her tweet hastily deleted by the platform after fierce criticism. Some media outlets, such as NOS and The Guardian, emphasised that the queen was not universally loved. But those exceptions seemed like footnotes drowned in the rest of the offerings.

Professor Mukoma Wa Ngugi of Cornell University wrote, "If the Queen had apologized for slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism and forced the Crown to pay reparations for those millions of lives that were taken away in her name, I would be reacting as a human being and feeling bad now [about her passing]. But as a Kenyan, I feel nothing. This is an absurd theatre."

At such a historic moment it is the duty of journalists to show that theatre. But our job must also be to critically question this enormous, consequential and tainted institution which has now been in the news for days on end. That's journalism. The rest is public relations.

This article was first published in Dutch in NRC.

Bram Vermeulen is a journalist and documentary maker. He was a Dutch Africa correspondent for NRC and NOS.