Speaking at a state banquet Tuesday, Charles hewed closely to the British government line, saying he felt “the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret” for the wrongdoings of the past. He steered clear of any language that might open a broader conversation about reparations.
Kenya, which is marking the 60th anniversary of its independence, was a relatively safe choice for Charles and Queen Camilla’s first Commonwealth trip. It has a warmer relationship with the United Kingdom than do some other former colonies.
Nonetheless, Britain, like other former colonial powers, is in a period of reckoning, and the king has been under pressure to address the legacy of decades of British rule in East Africa.
British-Kenyan relations at the “official level are very good,” said Nick Westcott, a professor of diplomacy at SOAS University of London and former director of the Royal African Society, but “that’s not to say there’s not some difficult issues that go back to the colonial period.”
The cover of a weekly magazine in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s most popular newspaper, carried a picture of Charles with the headline “The Dark Past.”
There have been calls for Charles to acknowledge, in particular, the violent suppression carried out by British authorities in Kenya during the early reign of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. In the 1950s, British officials responded to what was known as the Mau Mau revolt — a movement to reclaim land and independence — with a brutal crackdown on the broader population. Thousands were killed and significant numbers imprisoned and tortured, including Hussein Onyango Obama, former president Barack Obama’s grandfather. His family has said that he was beaten by his British captors, who “squeezed his testicles between metal rods.”
In 2013, Britain expressed its “sincere regret” for human rights abuses during that time. A British court also awarded more than 5,000 Kenyans a payout of approximately $24 million.
As a constitutional monarch, Charles takes his cues from the British government and would not be expected to go beyond what the government has said. At the same time, as a new king, he seems to want to convey that he is personally sensitive to the issue.
“Drafting royal speeches requires a deft hand and delicate ear,” Westcott said.
During the state banquet Tuesday evening, Charles told assembled guests: “We must also acknowledge the most painful times of our long and complex relationship. The wrongdoings of the past are the cause of the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret.”
He added: “It matters greatly to me that I should deepen my own understanding of these wrongs.”
But some Kenyans said this trip would be the perfect moment for Charles to go beyond statements of regret.
“We need a national apology for the atrocities meted to the African Black people in Kenya,” said Evelyn Kimathi, the daughter of a renowned field marshal who fought the British colonial authorities in the 1950s. Her father, Dedan Kimathi, was hanged by the British in 1957, the family says, and they have asked for help recovering his body.
Another point of contention: Kenya’s Pokomo people have reiterated their calls for the return of a drum, the ngadji, the source of power and pride for their ethnic group. It has resided in the British Museum for more than a century.
Makorani-a-Mungase VII, the current Pokomo king, said he would appreciate a king-to-king audience, which is not on the official schedule. He considered “gate-crashing one of the events,” he said, but then concluded that “the king of the Pokomo cannot clamor to go and see the king of the British. We did it before and we cannot do it that way. The last time we did it, they took our ngadji away.”
During his four-day visit, Charles will spend time in Nairobi, the capital, and in Mombasa, a coastal city. The British royals will visit a new museum dedicated to Kenya’s history. As he has on previous state visits, Charles is taking part in engagements that highlight his interest in the environment, including meeting with the activist Wanjira Mathai and visiting an urban farm.
But it will be his comments on the atrocities of the past that will be watched most closely.
Dutch King Willem-Alexander apologized this year for the role of his country and his family in the slave trade. On a recent trip to South Africa, he visited Cape Town’s Slave Lodge, where Dutch colonists once enslaved thousands of Africans and Asians.
Charles, by contrast, hasn’t apologized for the monarchy’s role in slavery or the uglier parts of Britain’s colonial past. While still a prince, he went only as far as to express “my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many” and to signal support for research on the monarchy’s historical links to slavery. Hosting a state banquet last year for the president of South Africa, Charles acknowledged, vaguely, that “there are elements of [our] history which provoke profound sorrow.”
When The Washington Post published evidence that the British crown was branded onto the bodies of enslaved people traded in the Americas, the palace said in a statement: “This is an issue that His Majesty takes profoundly seriously.”
Charles will be hoping his trip goes better than last year’s Caribbean tour by Prince William and Catherine, Princess of Wales. That trip was widely seen as a PR disaster, marred by protests along the way. Critics decried photos of Kate shaking hands with children through a wired fence and of the couple, dressed in white, in an open-top Land Rover, which some said harked back to Britain’s colonial past.
Some Kenyans interviewed by The Post this week said it was time to move on.
“What is the point of always reminding people of the past?” said George Mburu, 31, a motorcycle taxi operator in Nairobi. “The British give money, they support projects, they are sad about what they did, why can’t we just work together for a better future?” He added that he was hoping to catch a glimpse of the royals, perhaps when their motorcade passed through the streets of Nairobi.
Mary Mwangi, 29, a trader in Nairobi, said he viewed the royal visit like that of any other head of state. “These people come to Kenya every day, but it does not make a difference to our lives,” she said. “Many of us are not keen on the past. We are more interested in how we can make money and feed our children.”
Adam reported from London.