Britain has hidden a key part of our story from ourselves. With the Queen’s death marking a decisive shift, it’s time for us all to start building a better picture of our country and its past, writes Hardeep Matharu
Few of us stop and think about ‘British identity’ – it’s the water we swim in. But in the wake of the Queen’s death, talk of the monarch being its ultimate symbol has filled airwaves, social media timelines and newspaper columns.
Much has been said of the Queen’s unique role in modern British history. From the Empire to Brexit Britain, Churchill to Liz Truss, she has been a symbolic bridge connecting post-war imperial Britain and the modern UK, embodying the values of a generation now passed; providing continuity during seismic change.
But what lies beneath the pomp and ceremony; the conventions and the crown?
The Queen’s death definitively marks the end of one era and the shift to another – and with this, Britain must now consider the deeper questions it refuses to ask itself, about the country it has been and the country it is becoming.
This conversation with itself is more important than ever. In a time when the mythology of Britain’s history has been put to political ends; and a rounded, more honest, appraisal of our past is weaponised in 'culture wars'. As Britain stands isolated, from its old friends in Europe and on the world stage.
As it turns inwards, it must look out.
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On 1 February 1952, my grandfather, Pritam Singh Matharu, captured the then Princess Elizabeth’s visit to British Kenya. En route from Eastleigh Airport to Government House, the young woman of 25 is seen waving at the crowds of Kenyans and Asians, kept in place by lines of askaris. Five days later, she would be Queen.
My father Swaraj, who makes an appearance in the photos as a young boy of five, remembers it as a “good occasion”, with much of Nairobi decorated with Union Jacks.
“People were aware that we were being ruled by the British and that Kenya was a British colony,” he says, recalling his upbringing in the Empire today. Back then, Kenya was a stratified society with Asians – like my father’s Indian Sikh Punjabi family – considered middle class, ‘below’ their white rulers and ‘above’ the black Kenyan majority. ‘Divide and rule’ is the description most commonly given to such a set-up.
“There was that awareness that whites were different, Asians were different, blacks were different,” he says. “There were the areas where only the whites could own their houses – Asians weren’t allowed to buy any houses there or the Africans. Everyone was aware that the whites lived in those areas, the posh areas of Nairobi, with their big houses. Rarely did we go into these areas – the whites just used to be on their own.”
But at the same time as my grandfather was taking his photos, a darker side of Britain’s colonial rule was unfolding.
Those belonging predominantly to Kenya’s Kikuyu tribe were fighting against the confiscation of their land by white colonial settlers in what was known as the Mau Mau uprising. While the Mau Mau used violence to further its aims, the British response was severe.
Even though he was a child, my father remembers events from that time. Eight months after Elizabeth’s visit, the British declared a state of emergency in the colony and moved army reinforcements into Kenya.
“At nights there was this home guard, a few Asian men would get together and patrol the streets, they used to carry whistles and big sticks with them,” my father recalls. “Other areas used to have their own home guards. There was a lot of police presence as well and sometimes a lot of askaris would come and search our houses for any Mau Mau hidden, to arrest them.
“Asian men were killed, hacked to death by the Mau Mau. Nobody went out after dark, it was very dangerous.
“All Africans were made to carry ID cards, kipande and, if any Africans didn’t have it on them, they would be arrested – if they were Kikuyu or from any other tribe. They would be put into police yards. There was a police station where we used to live and, at the back, there was a big compound with barbed wires. Often we would see a lot of Africans sitting there with their arms on their heads.
“It was mostly the Kikuyu tribe that was rounded up. The British thought all of them belonged to the Mau Mau movement – and not all of them did. It was bad the way they were treated. They were arrested, taken away, shot.”
He remembers a young Kenyan boy who worked for the family who never returned after a visit to see his relatives in a village. “The next thing we knew, one of his cousins came to us and said he won’t be returning because the police shot him dead – perhaps he wasn’t carrying his kipande and he tried to make a run for it… but he didn’t belong to the Mau Mau movement,” my father says.
While many sympathised with the Kenyans, some Indians did treat them badly, according to his experience. But others, like the trade unionist and Sikh Makhan Singh, actively supported the Mau Mau movement.
Kenya was the country where my father was born, and he did feel it was his country; but he still refers to the fight for independence in the British colony as belonging to the Kenyans. “They wanted their independence,” he says. “It was their country. I used to live there, born and brought up there, we [Asians] were also happy that we were going to get independence. But it was their country, everybody used to say that.”
A decade after my grandfather photographed the young Princess Elizabeth, Kenya became independent – on 12 December 1963.
Looking at the photographs now, my father observes that “it was two things happening at the same time”. While Elizabeth swept by in her car and the crowds cheered, the Mau Mau uprising was at its height.
Thousands of Kenyans were being put into camps, subjected to extreme violence, sexual assaults and, according to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, torture at the hands of the British.
In 2013, the Government agreed to pay £19.9 million in compensation to more than 5,000 people who had suffered abuse during the Mau Mau uprising. The court case brought by them also laid bare ‘Operation Legacy’, when the Foreign Office was forced to disclose some of the documents hidden from that time that had been kept in a secret archive. It turns out, many more were destroyed in the Empire’s dying days.
For the acclaimed historian Caroline Elkins, author of a comprehensive account of Britain’s crushing of the Mau Mau, the British Empire was able to survive for as long as it did because its violence was wrapped in a “velvet glove” of liberal reform.
I would encourage everyone to read about this time and decide for themselves what can be said of it. But Elkins’ identification of Britain’s two imperial faces seems a valid one.
If Britain is ever to truly move forward, as a confident, self-aware nation, we must look honestly at our past – not cling to it like a refuge; the only thing we have left.
History is complicated and – as the adage goes – written by winners. To examine its contradictions and complexity, the bad and what might be perceived as some good, is not an attack. It just is.
Without doing so, we cannot properly praise or question the things we think about ourselves and where that leaves Britain now.
King Charles may be able to contribute to the start of this, if he feels able to open up discussions about the Commonwealth or structural racism in Britain today. But he sits at the head of an institution that perpetuates Britain’s half-story about itself. The ceremony and splendour we have seen following the Queen’s death makes any excavation of what lies underneath it all from such quarters very unlikely.
With a Government committed to a ‘war on woke’ and an Opposition offering no new vision for the country going forward, from where will this conversation emerge?
Well, we can all start today. We can take it into our own hands. I sat down for a cup of tea with my dad (who has now lived in Britain for more than 50 years) – and we can all watch, read, listen and talk about it. It’s our history. And it’s there for the taking – and reclaiming.
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