The coronation of King Charles, a ritual of coronation that is perhaps, like the monarchy and the king himself, a relic from a vanishing past. Today, the United Kingdom is the only European monarchy that still keeps such a ceremony, and it can be seen as a fresh layer of royal whitewash.
The coronation of Britain’s King Charles III this weekend will be presented as steeped in history, a re-enactment and remembrance of ancient traditions and events. For many, the ceremonies and pageantry, with their centuries-old carriages, crowns and even stones, will serve to re-establish a link to the past. However, a central irony will be that the British will be asking the world to join in celebrating something they have actively denied to other societies – a sense of their own history.
The ritual of coronation, perhaps like the monarchy and the king himself, is itself a relic from a vanishing past. Today, the United Kingdom is the only European monarchy to keep such a ceremony. Emerging in Europe at a time when monarchs claimed their rule was legitimised by divine sanction, the central act of the coronation ceremony is the “unction”, the anointing with holy oil signalling conferment of God’s grace upon a ruler.
Before his anointment, Charles III, like his predecessors, will take the Coronation Oath – pared down to reflect the loss of empire. It is the only bit of the ceremony that is actually required by law. Seventy years ago, his mother, Elizabeth II, solemnly promised “to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of [her] Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs”.
At the time, and in the years that followed, few of her subjects outside the UK were ruled “according to their respective laws and customs”. On the African continent, as the late Professor Terence Ranger noted, British colonial administrators had “set about inventing African traditions for Africans”. These subjects were in fact taught that they had no history or achievements, and that the brutal colonial dispossession and occupation was actually for their benefit – that it helped to civilise them.
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Africans are still today living with the effects of this loss and reinvention of their history and remaking of their societies. The “tribal” cleavages that distort politics on the continent are almost entirely a legacy of that occupation. “Africa, for the European occupant, was quintessentially tribal’,” wrote the late Professor Crawford Young. “Thus the task of the colonial state was to discover, codify, and map an ethnic geography for their newly conquered domains, according to the premise that the continent was inhabited by ‘tribal man’. This ethnic template, as imagined by the colonizer, became the basis for administrative organization.”
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