Empire needed its emir, caliph, king

May 31, 2002

On the eve of the Queen's golden jubilee celebrations, THES writers examine why European monarchies endure and look at royal dynasties around the world.

British imperial rule nurtured pliant monarchs in its dominions but there was only one king, Justin Willis writes.

From Asante to Zulu, 19th-century Britons assumed that Africans possessed of any sort of extensive and hereditary political authority were kings. Thrilled by gory reports of the consequences of their untrammelled power, Europeans drew comfort from the implicit comparison with the moderation and restraint of the British monarchy. Meanwhile, those Africans who did not labour under allegedly tyrannical "kings" were assumed to live in a Hobsonesque state of nature: the lurching between these two extremes demonstrated that the political development of the continent, like everything else about it, lay hundreds of years behind that of Europe.

North of the Sahara, however, lay another world of the political imagination. If Africa was divided between bloodthirsty kings and disputatious villagers, the Orient was the world of the absolute ruler, and while African potentates might be called kings, such an implicit analogy between the Orient and any phase of European history was clearly too uncomfortable to be born by 19th-century British observers. Africans might lag behind Europe; orientals were just plain different. Here be sultans. Their rulers could only be called by Europeanised versions of their Arabic, Turkish or Persian titles: emirs, sultans, caliphs dominated the political landscape of northern Africa and the Middle East.

By 1920, considerable numbers of these non-European rulers had come under one of the manifold forms of British political control - colonies, protectorates, high commission territories, mandates - which made up Britain's African and Middle Eastern empire at its 20th-century peak. At the apex of this awkwardly constructed edifice was the king, in whose name all the residents and consuls and high commissioners and governors and governors-general exercised authority. The monarch offered a physical manifestation of empire that the unsophisticated could understand.

Whether this vision of a mighty monarch at the centre of a vast empire helped to ensure obedience is unclear. David Cannadine has argued that this may explain how such a tiny little country managed to hoist its flag over vast populations. On the other hand, in the years after 1945 the imperial monarchy was not very efficacious in averting the wind of change. Perhaps this is unsurprising: Britons had been uncertain whether their empire was intended to shore up the walls of tradition that protected colonial subjects from the force of modernity, or to tutor these subjects in the delights of representative government. By the late 1940s the ballot box, rather than hereditary authority, was being touted as Britain's contribution to governance; royalty could scarcely play a central role in these last frantic years of imperial experimentation.

Decades before the twilight of the imperial monarchy, the looming presence of the king had raised other problems. The British monarch was a jealous monarch and would not suffer worship to be offered to others. British officials had to abandon the 19th-century passion for finding kings, and to eschew the use of the English titles "king" or "queen" for Africans. Some ingenuity went into the resulting compromises: many were reduced to "chiefs", but the most exalted - the Swazi and Lozi rulers, for example - became "paramount chiefs".

Meanwhile, British imperial practice in the Middle East had followed the reverse trajectory, "creating kings", as the traveller Gertrude Bell put it, where none had been before. Here, too, there was British resistance to the idea of more than one sovereign, and Egypt and Jordan had to be formally independent before the British would agree to call their rulers "kings". Here again the racial basis of the British political imagination was manifest: the suggestion that there was more than one king in the world would only confuse Africans, but Arabs could manage more complex hierarchies and would be won over by the vision of an international order that cherished them.

Monarchy was not, however, an enduring export. The kings of Egypt and Iraq did not survive the ebbing of British influence, and in sub-Saharan Africa, while some indigenous hereditary rulers have asserted their right to be called "king", post-colonial states have viewed most such monarchs with ambivalence. A few post-colonial despots toyed with the grandiose implications of kingship - hence Idi Amin, king of Africa - but formal political rhetoric has focused on the claim to representation, not inherited right; and the vestigial oddity of the Commonwealth serves only to emphasise the international irrelevance of monarchy. Only in Lesotho and Swaziland have the bounds of monarchy coincided with those of the modern state. Elsewhere, monarchs subvert the very notion of the "nation" as the modern political unit.

Colonial rule has left a heavy burden of institutional paraphernalia behind, in Africa and the Middle East - but the monarchy has not, generally, been part of this.

Justin Willis is research and development officer in the department of history at the University of Durham.

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