In Ghana I saw why we need royal weddings
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.