VIEW FROM THE GALLERY BY MAHMUD JEGA
At the weekend I dug through several sacks of personal books and magazines but could not find my 1978 copy of a TIME magazine with a faintly smiling picture on the cover of then Prince Charles. He was described in the story as A Most Uncommon Bloke. After reading it, my young African nationalist aversion to the British royal family grudgingly gave way to some respect for Charles.
I have to recall some aspects of the story from memory, so there may be errors. It stated, “If Charles Philip Arthur George Mount-batten-Windsor did not exist, who could invent him? Consider. He can pilot a jet fighter and knows enough about helicopters to help repair them. He has skippered a Royal Navy minesweeper through North Atlantic gales with the skill of a yachtsman… He plays an aggressive, three-plus-handicap game of polo and is a qualified paratrooper. He is a gifted amateur cellist… He has scuba-dived in the Caribbean, schussed down the Alps, sambaed into the night with Brazilian beauties… A keen student of history, he can discourse persuasively on the neglected virtues of his ancestor King George III, and is host and interviewer on a TV series on anthropology.”
Phew! Pilot, paratrooper, polo player, ship captain, scuba diver, skier, all the things I fear in my life! The story then listed Charles’ royal titles at that point. “Prince of Wales, Duke of Cornwall and Rothesay, Earl of Chester and Carrick, Baron of Renfrew, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland.” Up to that point, the only one of his titles we knew very well was Prince of Wales while his father, Prince Phillip, was the Duke of Edinburgh in Scotland, which he popularized by always wearing the Scottish kilt. Charles was also said to be a Colonel in the British Army, a Group Captain in the Royal Air Force and a Captain in the Royal Navy, in addition to being the patron of 500 clubs, charities and associations. TIME magazine then said Charles “is also heir to the classiest preserve of royal pomp and privilege left on earth: the British throne.” He was 29 that year; he only got to occupy that throne at 73, when most of those skills he acquired have probably faded with age. At the weekend he was formally crowned King in the most masterful display of British pomp in 70 years.
The title he assumes is enough to kill a horse. Extrapolating from the titles of his late mother, he must now be Charles III, by the Grace of God King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia and of His other Realms and Territories Beyond the Seas, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Duke of Lancaster, Duke of Normandy in the Channel Islands; Seigneur of the Swans in England; Fount of Honour in the Commonwealth and Fount of Justice in the United Kingdom. The only title missing, the one once most cherished by Queen Victoria, is Emperor of India.
The landscape of Europe was once dotted by Kings and Queens but most of them have now fallen by the wayside, including the Emperors of France, Kaisers of Germany and Kings of Prussia, Kings of Greece, Albania and Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Emperors of Turkey and the Tsars of Russia. A few ceremonial monarchs however remain in Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Sweden and Spain, the latter with the impossible name King Felipe Juan Pablo Alfonso de Todos los Santos de Borbon y Grecia!
Although the British monarchs are the best known around the globe, they are only ceremonial, while absolute monarchs still abound in Arabia. The King of Saudi Arabia, with his cherished title of Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques, is overshadowed by his son Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, due to old age. There are still absolute monarchs in Morocco, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. Elsewhere in Arabia, the Presidents of Egypt, Algeria and Syria look very much like kings even though the Egyptians toppled King Faruk in 1952 while Muammar Gaddafi toppled Libya’s King Idris in 1969. Arabia is used to monarchs; before they fell from power, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Tunisia’s Abidine ibn Ali and Algeria’s Abdulaziz Bouteflika, not to mention Sudan’s General Hassan Omar al-Bashir, closely resembled the Pharaohs of old.
Nearby in the Middle East, the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, reigned supreme from 1941 until he was overthrown in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, one of the most earth-shaking political events of the late 20th century. In 1977 when our then Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters Major General Shehu Yar’adua visited Tehran, he was said to have gone through seven decontamination chambers before he was ushered into the Shah’s presence.
Maybe because of what I read about Prince Charles in that old Time magazine edition, I was fascinated by monarchs around the world, especially the powerful, glamorous and longest-serving ones. In Africa here we had Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the original founding father and host of the Organisation of African Unity [OAU], now known as African Union, AU. This great grandson of the biblical King Solomon and Queen of Sheba, hero of the Ethiopian resistance against Italian occupation in the 1930s, was very well known in Nigeria. When he made a colourful state visit in 1972, General Yakubu Gowon took him to many states. We also knew that he was worshipped by Caribbean Rastafaris, who are of African origin. We were very sad when the Ethiopian army toppled him in 1974 in the bloodiest ever coup in Africa.
I was personally fascinated by King Sobhuza of Swaziland, Son of the She-Elephant, husband of Queen Regent Dzeliwe and father of the current Swazi King, Mswati III. He reigned over Swaziland from 1899 to 1982, or 83 years, when Britain’s longest reigning monarch, Elizabeth II, reigned for only 70 years. Unlike the new British King who has one wife and two children, one of them rebellious, the Swazi National Trust Commission says King Sobhuza had 70 wives, 210 children and 1000 grandchildren at the time of his death in 1982. That’s a true African royal. Probably surpassed only by King Hassan I of Morocco, who was listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most prolific father of all time, with 888 children at the time of his death in 1894.
In Africa we also had Jean Bedel Salim Ahmed Bokassa of Central African Republic, which he converted to Empire in 1977 and made himself the emperor. It would have been comical if it were not so tragic. Bokassa imported French horses for his coronation, modelled after the French Emperor Napoleon, but a magazine reported that many of the horses died in the Bangui heat.
The Kabaka of Buganda, Sir Edward Frederick William David Walugembe Mutebi Luwangula Mutesa, popularly called Mutesa II, was a fascinating monarch in Africa in the 1960s. Just like Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe in Nigeria, Mutesa was the ceremonial President of his country in 1963-66 when Milton Obote was prime minister. He was however deposed in 1966 and died in exile in 1969. The current Kabaka, Muwenda Mutebi II, son of Mutesa II, is a low-key monarch in comparison.
In the Far East, there was no monarch in the 20th century quite like Emperor Hirohito of Japan, who led his country into the devastating World War Two that ended in its utter defeat by the United States. Hirohito escaped Western punishment because the Japanese “unconditionally surrendered” to the US in 1945 with one condition, that the Emperor will not be touched. Although all the Japanese war criminals who were tried by the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Far East [many of whom were hanged] tried to shield the emperor, captured Japanese military archives implicated him in plotting the war. When he died in 1989, President Ibrahim Babangida went for the funeral but British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said she will not attend the funeral of a war criminal.
Very little is heard these days of the Maharajas of India, once thought by us, African children, to be the wealthiest and most glamorous monarchs in the world. India had more than 600 princely states on the eve of its independence in 1947, each with its own Hindu Raja or Muslim Nawab, the biggest ones known as Maharajas. The last time I heard of a Maharaja was in an Indian Airlines advert, where a Maharaja enviously complained that the airline treated every passenger like a Maharaja!
I was fascinated by King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, who died in 2016 after reigning for 70 years. Although the Thai King is ceremonial, he was extremely influential in his country and criticizing him was a criminal offence. In 1975, protesting Thai university students desecrated effigies of the King, and citizens retaliated by storming the campus and pummeling the students to death. Many of them jumped into a river behind the campus and drowned.
In recent times we witnessed intense aristocratic maneuvers, such as in 1999 when the ailing Jordanian King, Hussein, suddenly returned home from an American hospital. He then issued a decree deposing the Crown Prince, his younger brother Prince Hassan, and appointed his own son Abdullah in his place. He also decreed that Abdullah’s half-brother Prince Hamzeh, son of King Hussein’s American wife Queen Noor, daughter of the President of Pan American Airlines, would become Abdullah’s Crown Prince. Hussein died of cancer shortly afterwards, Abdullah became King and made Hamzeh the Crown Prince but five years later he removed him and made his own son, Hussein, the Crown Prince.
Crown Prince William of England, who we saw on television pledging loyalty to King Charles and kissing his cheek, should be very careful. Lest his brother Prince Harry writes another book.