British Commonwealth: ‘King Charles could become the great moderniser. But he is not going to do that’

Historian Caroline Elkins talks to Keith Duggan about an enduring failure to recognise the villainy and legacy of the British empire and the possibility of this being an inflection moment for Britain’s monarchy

King, finally. Last Saturday’s royal extravaganza in London brought to an official close the long, patient wait by Charles to ascend the throne. Royal pageants elude time. The bunting, the costumes, the gold carriages and cavalry are brought out of cold storage; only the quality of the camera work changes. The coronation will serve as a snapshot of Britain during a fraught period. The royal crowds were decent and, once again, they camped along the Mall and waved their Union Jacks. The rain fell intermittently. The subjects drank from flasks and plastic glasses and sang old Beatles numbers.

Elsewhere in the city, republicans, wearing yellow, turned up with megaphones to chant “Not our King”. One royalist said: “We can’t afford to eat. We can’t afford to heat our homes. But we are going to have a good time.” The King’s youngest son, Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, now estranged from the Firm, made a brief appearance at Westminster, where he was relegated to the third row before legging it back to Heathrow to resume life as a Californian. The lip-readers, somewhat hilariously, deduced that a pained Charles, sitting in his royal carriage, complained, like any other vexed father: “why can’t we be on time?”

Let’s imagine Harry and Meghan go completely off the reservation and say: we are going to do a revisionist history of empire on Netflix. Imagine that!

—  Historian and author Caroline Elkins

He is, after all, a stickler for these days of state, and immaculate timing has always been a vital part of the presentation. At the funeral for Lord Louis Mountbatten, assassinated by the IRA in Mullaghmore, Co Sligo in August 1979, the BBC’s Brian Hanrahan noted that the funeral cortege, planned by Mountbatten himself, was “conducted with a precision he would have expected of such a great occasion. Burma, India, the United States, France and Canada joined Britain in providing an escort for the naval gun carriage”. Charles took centre stage that day, also, his young face wreathed in shock as he read from the altar in Westminster an anguished tribute to the senior man he adored. It seems probable that memories of “Uncle Dickie” would have flashed through Charles’s mind during Saturday’s elaborate rites in the same abbey.

Mountbatten was the last viceroy of India. After becoming king, Charles immediately became head of state for 15 of the 56 Commonwealth countries – including Canada Australia and Jamaica. In the days before the coronation came the call – by way of letter titled Apology, Reparation, and Repatriation of Artefacts and Remains, signed by representatives from 12 Commonwealth countries – for King Charles III “to acknowledge the horrific impacts on and legacy of genocide and colonisation of the Indigenous and enslaved peoples”.

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Listen beyond the horse hooves and choral hymns and you could hear the uneasy rumblings of the past coming home to roost. One of many questions drifting around about the future of the monarchy concerns the Commonwealth. Does it have a future? What is it even for?

“This is a tangible legacy of empire from which the monarchy draws for soft power and there is no reason why they would give that up,” says Caroline Elkins, the renowned Harvard historian whose work has helped to challenge long-held assumptions about the British empire and to encourage uncomfortable conversations.

“The Commonwealth is a freedom of association. You can leave if you wish. And my guess is many leaders do the over-under test. There is no upside to leaving. Maybe from a political standpoint, right? But then you think about the down sides of leaving. King Charles is not going to wake up and say: ‘we are done here.’ Historians hate to be prescriptive. But I would be the first to say this: look, the queen was extraordinary at cultivating a kind of soft power around the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has no function; it has no political function and frankly, not much of an economic one. And yet – even here, when you talk to smart students, they all think the Commonwealth is a real thing. And I think in that sense, one has to admire. She understood what it was to be a careful guardian of empire’s history and the role of the monarchy within it. And it grew up in her present and into the future. And I would be stunned if Charles didn’t continue with this.”

When Bodley Head published Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire last July, it marked the culmination of exceptional, immersive research by Elkins, who spent years visiting and researching both the cities and remote outposts shaped by imperialism. It’s a cracking book; a luminously written and unflinching presentation of the dismal and frequently shocking policy of repressive violence – which she terms “legalised lawlessness” – that was part of the empire’s modus operandi. It’s a sweeping portrayal of the empire on either side of the second World War, in particular. Britain emerged from that war morally victorious and fiscally imperilled by the extraordinary cost of it.

“I don’t think it is very controversial to say that one of the most heavy-handed and interventionist periods of empire is post-World War two,” she says.

“I think that puts the finger on the crux of some of my own writing. There have been many mainstream historians – though by no means all – who argue that there was a natural linear progression post World War two of divestment of empire and a gradual decline. And I strongly make the argument: look, yes, Britain was in the financial crapper post-World War two. Like: it was. And they are facing a moment of decision. And that decision is: do you abandon empire with the idea that you will reinvest in industry at home? Or do you look at empire as sort of your way out? And in this sense, a huge argument of my work is: we enter the post war-period. And this is a period of unbridled imperial resurgence. It is Labour, under [Clement] Atlee with [Ernest] Bevin, the foreign secretary, leading the way. And it becomes an intentional policy: there is no question but that Britain is going rebuild itself on the back of empire.

“They are desperate to be part of the big three, so they have to retain their empire. They do not want to be under America’s thumb. They are absolutely saddled to the Americans from the financial side, and they see that their way out of some of this is by pumping money into the colonial development and welfare and taking an out from a very sophisticated way of manipulating the momentary policy. And they are actually quite successful at this. They do a pretty good job. And they go from being in an absolutely horrible position to ... what was it? 1957/58 and [Harold] MacMillan saying, ‘you’ve never had it so good’ And yet, at the same time when MacMillan comes in 1957, they do what is called an audit of empire. Kind of a balance sheet, if you will. And the exchequer and the military both are saying this is a drain. Every year from the start of Queen Elizabeth’s reign they were in an end-of-empire war. The drain on military resources is extraordinary. The military spending is extraordinary. And many of their able-bodied men are out fighting wars over there. There is a tension between both of these.”

This is how Elkins speaks: quickly and with warm, informal energy, persuasive in her arguments. It’s a fair bet that the legions of imperial historians wished she’d taken the soccer scholarship she considered in her youth. Elkins was a young scholar when she set out on the research that led to her first book, Britain’s Gulag (2005), an electrifying and academically polarising account of the suppression of the Kikuyu during the Mau Mau rebellion in 1950s Kenya. The book (which was titled Imperial Reckoning in the US) won a Pulitzer and drew both praise and virulent criticism. She had already started her research for Legacy of Violence when, in 2008, a London law firm contacted her asking her to appear as a witness in a reparations case it was taking on behalf of elderly Kenyans. The five claimants brought stories similar to those Elkins had heard during her research interviews. Paulo Nzili had been castrated with pliers during detention. Jane Muthoni Mara had been sexually assaulted with a heated glass bottle.

Those harrowing details were just two of a shocking litany of forced labour, tortures, rapes, diseases. The systematic nature of the claimed abuses directly refuted the myth of the “civilising mission” as the informing tool of empire. Then, just before the hearing was due to start, the relatively obscure world of colonial history became front-page news. The Times reported that a trove of British government papers documenting the torture and mistreatment of the Mau Mau prisoners had come to light. The government, under intensifying legal pressure, volunteered the information that the documents, spirited out of Kenya 60 years earlier, had been stored in a secure facility named Hanslope House. Elkins spent nine months going through the records, which substantiated the research and findings of her field interviews for Britain’s Gulag. Lawyers for the government attempted to have the case tossed out.

An obvious question began to materialise: how many other colonial abuse claims and from how many former colonies had yet to be heard? In June 2013, William Hague, then British foreign secretary, announced in parliament an agreement to compensate more than 5,000 Kenyans for torture and abuses suffered during the insurrection.

The old Wall Street Journal quip about academic politics – the rows are so bitter because the stakes are so low – rang both true and untrue here. The criticism of Elkins had been noticeably sharp. She was a young historian – and an American – and her work stood in direct opposition to a long-established imperial school of historical mindset. But the implications of her work were far-reaching. It was, she says, an uncomfortable place to find herself.

“Certainly, there are historians, people writing fiction, poetry ... all kinds of humanists who have been writing about the violence since the time it happened. And you have the critics, like Orwell. There is that qualification. But I do think the timing in how we think of violence and empire ... I do think the publication of Imperial Reckoning was a turning point. I gotta say: I kinda took it on the chin for that book. And the case happened, and a variety of fortuitous things happened that, I think, led to a new way and a push in general towards thinking of empire, race and violence. I think the one thing that has changed, even with Legacy of Violence ... I think the one contribution I have made is to say look, let’s use state-directed violence as our single point of analytical entry and let’s tell the story that way.”

She spent almost a decade immersed in finding the material to write Legacy of Violence, marrying academic research with immersive field work. Her children were young and so she took them on the road – the road meaning jungle treks in Malaya and archival rooms in Singapore.

“I fully believe in taking my kids. I just took them with me, and they grew up through this book. They are off in college now. The burden of carrying some of the stuff in this book was a lot. And writing it. And now I just have to not be writing about violence right now, any more. It takes its toll on you. And there are moments you have to be particularly careful. This entire book was like that. I felt a moral responsibility to the historical actors in this period; those who were victims. And to those young men who were taught how to be brutal. What does this do to them: going home and living their lives after that? You really become very aware of the toll and impact this has. That may be the difference between the first book and this one as well. The first one, I was just young and pissed. This book was really taking a step back and asking: why did this happen? It became a much more difficult book to write.”

You just have to look at the disastrous platinum jubilee tours: the two canary in the coalmines in the Caribbean, with William and Catherine. It gives you a sense of how tone deaf they still are around some of this stuff

Legacy of Violence spans the globe as it covers a period when the British empire represented one-quarter of the world’s land mass. In historical terms, that was just the blink of an eye ago. Its publication was greeted with general acclaim even if “you still have your same knuckleheads saying predictable things”.

There are many vivid and shocking accounts in this book but one features Mountbatten. It is August 1947, the deadline Mountbatten had decreed for the transfer of power to some form of domestic government in British India. The subcontinent was crudely carved up, prompting mass refugee exodus – Hindus and Sikhs leaving the newly created Pakistan for India while Muslims abandoned their homes travelling in the opposite direction. Gangs of guerrillas perpetrated mass slaughter. In her book, Elkins quotes from Nisid Hajari’s Midnight Furies. “British soldiers and journalists who had witnessed the Nazi death camps claimed Partition’s brutalities were worse: pregnant women had their breasts cut off and babies hacked out of their bellies; infants were found literally roasting on spits.” Estimates of the Partition death toll range from one million to two million: whatever the figure, the human misery was on a mass scale.

On the eve of Pakistan and India’s independence, Elkins writes, Mountbatten, his ceremonial duties all done, and the region in turmoil, “retired for the evening with his wife, turning on Bob Hope’s new romantic comedy, My Favorite Brunette, to pass the time”.

The future of the Commonwealth is one of the issues facing the new king as he settles into his role and the calls for reparations and apologies will not go away. There were times when Elkins privately wondered how much Queen Elizabeth knew about the brutal workings of the empire.

“There is no way she knew,” she reasons. “They weren’t telling her. But! Come on. I always did wonder how she understood this and reconciled herself to this. We won’t have answers. But the king now; if the monarchy is to continue, he has to figure this out. He could become the great moderniser. But he is not going to do that. It is just a constant working and reworking.You just have to look at the disastrous platinum jubilee tours: the two canary in the coalmines in the Caribbean, with William and Catherine. It gives you a sense of how tone deaf they still are around some of this stuff.”

When she set out to research the Mau Mau rebellion almost two decades ago, it was with a view to developing a thesis on the civilising mission of empire. Those illusions were quickly shattered. But she is absolute in her belief that the architects and practitioners of empire were genuine and convinced that theirs was a benign project; that it was essentially a force for good. Elkins’s work has offered a compelling and unignorable counter argument. And as Charles, a tired looking 74-year-old man, wore the crown and waved at the crowds in London last Saturday, she expects further challenges to those old assumptions to materialise.

“This gets to the Black Lives Matter movement and global information. Are we seeing an inflection moment? The coronation, all this stuff, is hanging in the balance. Is it a period of just carrying on? Let’s imagine ... I don’t know, Harry and Meghan go completely off the reservation and say: we are going to do a revisionist history of empire on Netflix. Imagine that! Imagine what that does to viewership. My point is: I think there is uncertainty right now about how to keep these many myths perpetuating. It is not as though all of this is going to be taken down by any particular revelation. We all know Churchill was a complete racist and he did many horrible things – yet he is still revered by many, many people. It is more death by a thousand cuts.”