by Claudia Willetts
Rene Lemarchand, author of African Kingships in Perspective: Political Change and Modernization in Monarchical Settings, writes that like most monarchies, African kingships incorporated a wide variety of dimensions, being (1) carriers of a cultural tradition, (2) embodiments of symbolic or religious beliefs, (3) legal institutions defined in constitutional terms, (4) methods of transferring power, or (5) capstones of particular administrative or political structures, among others. In addition, African monarchies possessed a sacral element, sacredness serving as a major source of legitimacy. However, Lemarchand goes on to write that by the mid-1970s, most African monarchies had disappeared, because their legitimacy was challenged in the name of progress and democracy. For the sacredness of dynastic claims was substituted the “sanctity” of secular religion rooted in the exaltation of republican values, and the sanctity of the new order spelled the desacralization of the old. Between 1960 and 1970 two independent monarchies (Burundi and Libya) met their doom at the hands of a new generation of republican elites; a third (Rwanda) was abolished on the threshold of independence in a pool of blood; a fourth (Buganda) managed to maintain itself as a separate entity in a broader national framework (Uganda), until it too, suffered decapitation. Less than a year later, three other surviving kingships (Ankole, Bunyoro and Toro) within Uganda, were done away with through constitutional surgery.
Christianity and Islam both sought to convert the peoples of Africa. In 1887, the Muslim Khalifa Abdullah controlled an empire in central Africa half the size of Europe. Alan Moorehead in The White Nile, tells us that the Khalif then dispatched a letter to Queen Victoria summoning her to Omdurman (Sudan) where she was to offer her submission and become a Moslem. Similar messages were sent to the Sultan of Turkey and the Khedive of Egypt. After some delay the documents were returned to the Arab envoys with the message that none of the three monarchs deigned to make a reply.
Burke’s Royal Families of the World, Volume II: Africa & the Middle East offers a sketch of the life of Emperor Haile Sellassie I of Ethiopia. Born in 1892 in Harar, Ethiopia, he was appointed Crown Prince and Regent Plenipotentiary for his cousin Empress Zawditu, in 1916. He was described as “slender and delicate, his demeanor composed and dignified”. He encouraged various reforms including education. After his accession in 1930 on the death of the Empress, he promulgated a constitution, though real power still vested in the Emperor. Ambitious plans for modernisation were cut short by the Italian invasion of 1935. He travelled to Europe to lay Ethiopia’s case before the world at the League of Nations, scoring a public relations victory. He returned to Ethiopia in triumph during World War II to take up the task of rebuilding his country. During the postwar years, Haile Sellassie emerged as a leading world statesman, but in 1974 discontent over mismanagement of famine relief resulted in a military coup which deposed the Emperor, and the monarchy was formally abolished shortly after, in 1975. Haile Sellassie remained under house arrest until his death in mysterious circumstances in August of that year.
Walter Myers tells the story of a West African princess Sarah Forbes Bonetta in At Her Majesty’s Request: An African Princess in Victorian England. Rescued from death in Dahomey in 1850, she was brought to England as a child. There she was presented to Queen Victoria, who provided for the upbringing of the young orphaned princess, and eventually became godmother of Sarah’s daughter named Victoria in the Queen’s honour.