In Ghana I saw why we need royal wed­dings

The Guardian - Journal - - Front page - Afua Hirsch,

Prince Harry is mar­ry­ing Meghan Markle this week, and it presents me with a dilemma. I am no roy­al­ist. The Bri­tish royal fam­ily has been syn­ony­mous with em­pire – the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of which we have barely be­gun to process – and the slave trade, in which mon­archs all the way back to El­iz­a­beth I per­son­ally in­vested. The royal fam­ily has never ac­knowl­edged, let alone apol­o­gised for, this past. One of the most painful as­pects of Bri­tain’s colo­nial legacy is that fam­i­lies like mine, who once lived in Ku­masi, the Asante cap­i­tal in west Africa, saw cen­turies of her­itage, lit­er­a­ture and art oblit­er­ated and looted by Bri­tish sol­diers and mer­ce­nar­ies. The trauma of these mem­o­ries is com­pounded by the fact that the Bri­tish monar­chy was not only in­volved in, but ac­tu­ally en­joyed, these “ad­ven­tures”.

Yet it is be­cause of the co-op­tion of coun­tries such as Ghana into the global econ­omy, on Bri­tain’s terms, that I ex­ist. My fam­ily was ed­u­cated in Bri­tain be­cause of the em­pire, and as a de­scen­dant of that dual her­itage I have two cul­tural tra­di­tions. And given my in­ter­est in iden­tity, I can very eas­ily re­late to the love so many have for the monar­chy. Peo­ple are search­ing for a her­itage that has con­tent and his­tory, tra­di­tion and faith. These things are not ra­tional; they are emo­tional, and they go deep.

When in 2002 my mum watched the fu­neral of the Queen Mother, for whom she felt a fond af­fec­tion, one de­tail moved her more than any­thing else. The Queen Mother’s four grand­sons – Princes Charles, An­drew and Ed­ward, and Vis­count Lin­ley – stood vigil by her cof­fin, il­lu­mi­nated by can­dle­light, their heads bowed and swords re­versed. For my mother it closely re­sem­bled the fu­neral of her own grand­mother, in the Ghana­ian vil­lage of Nsawem. My great-grand­mother was a huge fig­ure not just for her de­scen­dants, but for the wider com­mu­nity. As she lay in state in the house that she built – which still stands in Nsawem to­day – men in cer­e­mo­nial dress also stood vigil over her cas­ket, lay­ing their swords over it as a mark of pro­tec­tion and re­spect.

By recog­nis­ing the sim­i­lar­i­ties, my mother was in a way see­ing through what an­thro­pol­o­gists have called “the ethno­graphic daz­zle” – the way strik­ing but superficial dif­fer­ences be­tween cul­tures so of­ten blind us to the sim­i­lar­i­ties. The sim­i­lar­i­ties are in­evitable be­cause the re­al­ity is that cul­ture, tra­di­tion and cer­e­mony are foun­da­tional hu­man needs.

And they may be be­com­ing more so. As the pro­po­nents of “glo­cal­i­sa­tion” have pointed out, the forces of glob­al­i­sa­tion and tech­no­log­i­cal change have been met with an ac­com­pa­ny­ing pres­sure to­wards the lo­cal, the per­ceived ur­gency of pre­serv­ing nar­rower iden­ti­ties and cus­toms. Iden­ti­ties are not be­com­ing bor­der­less, they are hun­ker­ing down. Glob­al­i­sa­tion is not an iden­tity. The House of Wind­sor is.

Where those tra­di­tions don’t ex­ist or are in­ad­e­quate, we sim­ply tidy them up, or in­vent new ones. In the run up to a royal wed­ding, it’s of­ten said how good the Bri­tish monar­chy is at putting on a good show. “We can still show the world a clean pair of heels when it comes to the cer­e­mo­nial,” one news­pa­per said of the Queen’s sil­ver ju­bilee in 1977 – cast­ing a spirit of in­evitabil­ity about the roy­als’ abil­ity to get these things right.

Yet the re­al­ity – as the furore sur­round­ing Meghan Markle’s fa­ther re­minds us – is that royal events have a rich his­tory of fi­asco. Queen Vic­to­ria’s corona­tion was com­pletely un­re­hearsed; the clergy lost its place in the or­der of ser­vice; the choir was aw­ful; and the ring didn’t fit. The wed­ding of Vic­to­ria’s el­dest son, the fu­ture Ed­ward VII, was so shabby that com­men­ta­tors com­plained about the car­riages; and so badly or­gan­ised that Lord Palmer­ston, the prime min­is­ter, had to travel back from Wind­sor third class.

That Bri­tain’s ex­cel­lence at pomp is in­vented does not re­ally mat­ter – all tra­di­tions were in­vented at some point. The mourn­ing sword used dur­ing the fu­neral of the Queen Mother is be­lieved to have orig­i­nally been a piece of 16th-cen­tury litter. Which takes make-do-and­mend – an­other nostalgic slo­gan ro­man­ti­cis­ing Bri­tain’s wartime spirit – to a whole new level.

It was in the late 1970s, at the same time as our

“clean pair of heels”, that the ex­tent of glob­al­i­sa­tion – com­bined in Bri­tain with the loss of em­pire – be­gan to dawn on or­di­nary peo­ple, and an­thro­pol­o­gists no­ticed the resur­gent im­por­tance of tra­di­tion in their lives. A whole new level of tur­moil is shak­ing the foun­da­tions of our iden­ti­ties now. And so, while none of us can re­late to all the tra­di­tions oth­ers hold dear, we can’t deny that the fact of them makes sense. Even royal wed­dings.

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