It’s in Kenya that Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth / Lest we forget: Kenya bled during Elizabeth’s rule

Letters / Opinions

Double post: Kul Bhushan lived and worked in Kenya for almost half a century and has twice stayed at Treetops and knows Kenya’s history of events in depth.

Treetops, 1952
Treetops, 1952

It’s in Kenya that Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth

Kenya in East Africa is where Princess Elizabeth became the Queen of the United Kingdom. She climbed the remote Treetops, a wild animal viewing tree hotel in Nyeri, about 95 miles from the capital Nairobi, as a Princess and came down as the Queen, in February 1952.

On an official tour of the Commonwealth as Princess Elizabeth, accompanied by her husband, Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, she climbed the wooden ladder to the famous wild animal spotting location and spent the night up in the trees. The next morning, she learnt of the death of King George VI, her ailing father, in London.

Treetops, a four-star hotel in Aberdare National Park, is near Nyeri town in the shadow of Mount Kenya. Starting with just two rooms in the trees next to a watering hole frequented by elephants and other wildlife, Treetops opened in 1932. Twenty years later, more rooms were added as the location got popular.

It was 6 February 1952 when the 25-year-old princess and her husband were at Treetops. Back in the UK, the ailing King George VI died in the early hours of the morning.

“The princess climbed up to a look-out point at the top of the tree to see the dawn breaking. The duke’s equerry and friend, Mike Parker, was at her side at the look-out when they spotted an eagle hovering overhead,” according to an article in the Salisbury Journal.

“I never thought about it until later but that was roughly the time when the King died,” he later recalled.

Lady Pamela Hicks, who was the Queen’s lady in waiting and also Philip’s cousin, said the Queen and the duke were “the last people in the world to hear” that the King had died. “She goes up as a princess. The king dies that night. She comes down the ladder as a Queen,” Lady Pamela said.

The secret ciphers, announcing the King’s death, could not be read as the key to the code was with the governor of Kenya who was in Mombasa to prepare for the Princess’s visit.

When the news finally filtered through to royal aides, Elizabeth was resting at the nearby Sagana Lodge, a wedding present from the people of Kenya.

The Queen’s private secretary, Martin Charteris, was in Nyeri, having a drink in a restaurant, when a journalist of a local newspaper approached him and remarked on the news.

Rushing to the Lodge, he told Mr Parker, who went to the room where Princess Elizabeth was at her desk, motioned to the Duke of Edinburgh and secretly turned on the radio very low to get confirmation – but it did not work.

Philip had to break the sad news to his wife while they were alone. He took her into the garden and told her the news as they slowly walked up and down the lawn.

Asked what name she wished to use as Queen, she replied simply: “My own name, of course.”

Lord Charteris and Mr Parker had packed up, worked out timetables, sent a flood of signals, organised a plane at Nairobi and timed a London airport arrival for 4 pm the following day.

Elizabeth’s mourning clothes were waiting for her in Nairobi. After a long air journey, she arrived home the next day, dressed in sombre black mourning garments, setting foot at London’s runway for the first time as sovereign.

The visit of Princess Elizabeth rocketed the fame of Treetops. The visit of Princess Elizabeth was immortalised by Jim Corbett (who was a resident ‘hunter’ at Treetops) in his final book, Tree Tops, which was published by Oxford University Press in October 1955, six months after Corbett’s death on 19 April 1955.

Following the media hype over the accession of Elizabeth II, Treetops attracted a large number of rich and famous people. Personalities who have visited Treetops include Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford and Lord Mountbatten, and a return visit by Elizabeth II in 1983.

As Queen Elizabeth, she visited Kenya again in March 1972, and had lunch with President Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi, where she was bestowed the Chief of the Order of the Golden Heart.

The Queen later made two more visits to Kenya during the reign of President Moi. The first was in 1983 (when she revisited Treetops) and toured Sagana Lodge, the place her tour was cut short in 1952, and gifted it to Kenya, and the last visit was in 1991 as a guest of President Moi.

Treetops today
Treetops today

Meanwhile, Treetops enjoyed worldwide fame due to Elizabeth’s visit. The original structure was burnt down by Kenya freedom fighters in 1954 and was re-built and expanded to become a 35-room, four-star hotel. Comfortable bedrooms with attached bathrooms, it has observation lounges and modern facilities like the Internet. Treetops closed in 2021 due to the pandemic but has reopened at US $65 per night.

Your arrival is made dramatic when you leave Nyeri on a four-wheel drive to venture into the thick forest. As the vehicle stops, a hunter with a gun, warns you to be extra careful and look out for wildlife. Then you are guided to a nearby wooden staircase to climb to the tree hotel.

Once you check in, you can go to the rooftop for tea and start looking over the forest and the salt lick. Later, you can climb down to the observation lounge and have cocktails while watching out for animals at dusk. Soon it is dinner and after a hearty meal, you can retire to your room. The staff informs you that you can avail of a bell to be alerted of wild animals at the salt lick, if you so desire. After a night of game watching, it is breakfast time.

As you leave, you wonder if Princess Elizabeth also had such a fantastic experience.

Mau Mau
Mau Mau

Lest we forget: Kenya bled during Elizabeth’s rule

Sure, Kenya is the country where a young royal lady went as a princess and returned as a queen in 1952, but Kenya is also the country where her government launched a brutal and vicious campaign to crush the freedom movement by its people at that time.

It all started about fifty years earlier when the Uganda Railway was built and reached Nairobi in 1896. The railway brought British officers and missionaries; officers to rule the country and missionaries to convert ‘the heathen’ into Christians.

The Africans farmed on the temperate slopes around Mount Kenya and herded animals in the plains of the Great Rift Valley. When more Britishers arrived in this new colony, they took over the land around Mount Kenya and it came to be called White Highlands. The vast plains in the Rift Valley were also fenced for cattle ranching. This new group was called White Farmers and the Africans ended up as their farm labourers.

While pressing for freedom, Kenya’s charismatic leader and later its first president, Jomo Kenyatta, famously said that the white man had a book (The Bible) when he came to Kenya and the African had the land. Soon, the white man had the land and the African had the book.

The campaign for freedom started in 1920s and early 1930s when African leaders started demanding human rights, first as workers and later as citizens. Since they did not get far, the more radical ones launched a violent uprising to get back their land and freedom, known as Mau Mau.

When Elizabeth visited Kenya, this movement was gathering pace in early 1950s and continued until 1960. In fact, it was the Mau Mau who had burnt down Treetops in 1954. (It was then rebuilt later.)

The British government, or rather the Queen’s government, flew in hundreds of British soldiers to fight ‘the terrorists’ and the Royal Air Force flew in with planes to bomb the forests where the terrorists were hiding.

An Emergency was declared and the rulers had a free hand. With the local police and administration, they unleashed a horrendous, powerful and bloody response. Thousands were picked up and sent to ‘detention camps’ where they were beaten and tortured to extract information. The detainees also suffered malnutrition, starvation and disease due to the inhuman conditions. Hundreds of suspects were hanged. Many thousands of Africans were issued with a pass to travel from their villages, denying them the freedom of movement.

The number of deaths of Africans during the Emergency is disputed. The estimates range from 25,000 to 50,000 but go up to 130,000 and 300,000. How many were killed by Mau Mau? Around 300 White Farmers, about 5,000 African loyalists, just 30 White Soldiers and about 200 British police force of different races.

In 2013, after a group of elderly Kenyans sued the United Kingdom, the Foreign Office, for the atrocities during the eight-year Emergency, the British government was forced to admit it had illegally hidden more than one million colonial-era documents that should have been declassified.

To date, these documents remain in the UK and are yet to be repatriated to the colonies they were stolen from. These documents are not only hidden from Kenyans and researchers, but also from the British public who have a romanticised image of the white man developing and civilising African land.

The petitioners were paid a paltry sum as compensation. The honours bestowed on the officers of the Empire were all in the name of the Queen; the Queen’s medal and so on.

Eventually, the demand for freedom gathered pace in the late fifties and early sixties until the British government yielded and granted independence to Kenya in December 1963.

Like most freedom struggles against the British Empire, the Mau Mau fight is but another episode during the reign of Elizabeth II which is not included in British history as it is taught in schools or universities.

A Kenyan journalist, Patrick Gathara, wrote, “The romanticised tale of the girl who went up a tree a princess and descended a queen tends to ignore the circumstances she was thrust into as well as the death, torture, brutalisation and dispossession of Kenyans that would mark the first decade of her reign.”

Kul Bhushan

Anand Kul Bhushan is a writer, journalist, UN media consultant and workshop/meditation leader.

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