Global, Global Investigates

Global Investigates: A royal tour and the setting sun on the remnants of empire in the Caribbean

Following the royal visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the Caribbean, the British monarchy has faced increasing doubts over its future. The tour, which took place between and, was intended to mark the year of Queen Elizabeth II platinum jubilee and raise support for the royal family in a region where republicanism is on a swift rise. It was, however, met with anti-royal protests, marked by a failure to address the legacies of slavery, and the announcement that Jamaica is planning to remove the Queen as head of state. What was intended to be a glittering royal tour appeared instead to be an out of date attempt to hold together what remains of Britain’s overseas territories.

Of the 54 nations that make up the Commonwealth of Nations, 15 (including the United Kingdom) still officially count the Queen as the head of state. Whilst the formal removal of the Queen as the head of state does not equate to leaving the Commonwealth, it is a powerful symbolic rejection of British rule and its legacy of colonialism. Discussions of republicanism are nothing new, but following Barbados’s removal of the Queen last year, the discussion has once again been brought to the forefront. The COVID-19 pandemic also raised doubts about the longevity of Commonwealth membership, as many of the Caribbean members received little support throughout the pandemic, devastating local economies. With a population of 3 million, 120,000 Jamaican children were out of school and nearly 3,000 died of COVID-19 on the island.  The Caribbean is not the only region debating the role of the royal family, 54% of Australians would support becoming a republic. 

Whilst the legacy of colonialism and slavery has always been at the forefront of discussions of republicanism in the Caribbean, the global Black Lives Matter movement brought new waves of recognizing for remnants of colonialism and the devastating legacy of empires. For many, the arrival of the royal tour looked like nothing more than the reaching aged hand of a disintegrated colonial empire desperate to hold onto its remaining overseas territory. The photos of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge dressed in white in an open top land-rover during a military parade echoed the images of colonialism, critiqued many local campaigners.

The tour got off to a rocky start, the first official engagement scheduled in Belize was cancelled following protests from the Q’eqehi Maya people over disputed territory with a charity patronised by the Prince. Similarly, many also participated in protests in Jamaica, calling upon the visiting royals to address calls for reparations for the several hundred years the royal family and the British Empire profited from the slave trade. Government officials echoed the demands of protestors, with Jamaica’s prime minister Andrew Holness stating the country was “moving on” and wanted to be independent. Prince william expressed “profound sorrow” over the “abhorrent” transatlantic slave trade. 

However, many were quick to criticise the Prince for falling short of a full apology and failing to address the monarchy’s direct profit from slavery. The reparations movement has been growing steadily throughout the Caribbean in recent years. The movement is led by Caricom Reparations Commission, which comprises of 15 countries. Rosalea Hamilton, a campaigner for Advocates Network who took part in the organisation of a reparation protests in Jamaica described a “heightened consciousness of… history” which has emphasised “understanding… the legacies of colonialism today, economic, sociological, psychological.” Hamilton said the movement has led to an increased awareness of the traumatic legacy of the slave trade and its effects on the current Caribbean population who often live in “unhealthy, unsanitary, unsafe” conditions. 

The connection of the monarchy to the transatlantic slave trade is a clear one. Enslaved Africans transported to the Caribbean by the Royal African Company were branded with the letters “DY” as a symbol of ownership to the then Duke of York. The future William IV personally argued in 1799 in the House of Lords for the continuation of the slave trade. 

For Jamaica, republicanism has been a part of political discussion since the 70s and has drawn in significant cross-party support. In 2022, the debate was finally settled as Jamaica decided in favour to break free of the remnants of colonial rule. After years of debate, it is no coincidence that Jamaica and its neighbouring Caribbean nations are finding a renewed confidence now. The mishandling of the Windrush scandal by the British government and accusations of racism within the royal family have floated on a tide of historical reckoning, smashed against the rocks by the Black Lives Matter movement which highlighted the historical impact of the transatlantic slave trade.

Declarations of independence are sweeping through the region. As Barbados’s declaration last year inspired Jamaica, so too is it predicted that Jamaica will inspire the rest of the English-speaking Caribbean. The Bahamas was the final stop of the royal tour, arriving once again to protests and opposition from the groups such as the Bahamas National Reparations Committee. Belize is planning a constitutional review which could very well lead the country down the same path as Barbados and Jamaica, whilst leaders across the region, including the leadership of St Vincent, called on their fellow Commonwealth nations to achieve republican status. 

Now, Prince William and his wife Sophie, the Earl and Countess of Wessex, are currently in the Caribbean on yet another royal tour. The Wessex’s tour is expected to be met with the same demands for reparations as the royal family is warned to avoid “phoney sanctimony” over the transatlantic slave trade. 

Before the couple embarked, the royal visit to Grenada was cancelled. The Wessex’s will visit Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda. The Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Support Commission is due to present an open letter on reparation payment and restorative justice. Dorbrene O’Marde, a member of the Antigua and Barbuda Reparations Support Commission said there has been an “absence of an apology from the Crown” for their involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. The letter said “it has become common for members of the Royal Family and representatives of the government of Britain to come to this region and lament that slavery was an ‘appalling atrocity,’ that it was ‘abhorrent,’ that ‘it should not have happened.’”

It is becoming increasingly clear that for the Caribbean, the continuation of ties to the British royal family represents the legacy of slavery and colonialism, for which the nations of the Caribbean are still awaiting reparations and sincere apology. As the independence movement sweeps the region, the sun is finally truly setting on the remnant of the British Empire.

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Aislinn Wright

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June 2022
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