Prince Philip: The Queen of England consort who became an errand boy

The late Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip. [Courtesy]

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, died in London recently, two months short of clocking a century. Born into royalty in June 1921, he rolled Danish, Greek, German, and English blood into one initial Mountbatten body.

During World War II, Philip, a Royal Navy officer, married his third cousin, Princess Elizabeth, lost his Mountbatten name, and was absorbed into Windsor as Duke of Edinburgh.

The Duke and Kenya had unexpected impact on each other. He visited Kenya at least twice, in February 1952 just a few months before the outbreak of the Mau Mau War and in December 1963 at Kenya’s independence as Queen Elizabeth II’s representative.

When King George VI died, the royal couple, on safari in Britain’s price colony on the Equator near snowcapped Mount Kenya, returned to England for Elizabeth to become queen and for Philip to become consort. With no official role in the new set up, Philip grumbled about inability to pass his Mountbatten name to his children, but he still pledged his willingness to be Elizabeth’s ‘liege man of life and limb.’ 

Unhappy Kenyan ‘natives’ could understand the Duke’s anguish. One curious mzungu, Richard Leakey, wondered why Africans did not mourn the dead king. Instead, Africans started figuring out how to get rid of colonial rule, to liberate land and acquire freedom.

They had developed layers and hierarchical linkages between policymakers and potential fighters with Kikuyu Central Association man Jesse Kariuki, alias Chirang’a, being the link. At the top were Jomo Kenyatta and action men who included Chirang’a, Maitho ma Bururi, who reportedly organised and commissioned fighting men Stanley Mathenge and Dedan Kimathi, leaders of Mau Mau War that shook the fledgling British Empire. While the empire was disintegrating, Philip ‘tried to find useful things to do’. He found many, particularly in outdoor activities as well as representing the queen in independence ceremonies and the changing Commonwealth of Nations.

Commonwealth used to mean a club of white British dominions, the ‘empire’ where the sun never set, until independent India, in 1947, said it wanted to be in the Commonwealth without the English monarch as head of state. They compromised on the republic/commonwealth formula of India having its own head of state while acknowledging the monarch as head of the commonwealth.

In December 1963, the Duke was in Kenya to pass instruments of independence to Kenyatta at Uhuru Garden. In both Dar and Nairobi, the Duke’s dancing partners were wives of prominent African leaders such as Maria Nyerere and Pamela Mboya.

He had fun with Kenneth Kaunda, causing laughter by describing a ‘symposium’ as the drinking part of intellectual conversation and then wondered whether agricultural topics qualified to be intellectual.

The Duke bequeathed to post-colonial African states what he had started while looking for something useful to do.

Among them was the Duke of Edinburgh Award for youth which in Kenya changed into three-tier President’s Award Scheme; bronze, silver, gold. The climax was the Gold Award, after three weeks of rigorous physical and mental training at the Outward Bound School at Oloitotok and climbing Kilimanjaro, leading to shaking hands with President Jomo Kenyatta. I know; I did it.

In life, Philip touched people differently. He was royalty who felt like an outsider in his own house. He lost hisMountbatten name and fretted about his loss of self-identity.

 -Prof Munene is a senior associate, Horn International Institute for Strategic Studies

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