There’s a wind of change blowing through the Commonwealth Caribbean and it’s beginning to pick up. When Queen Elizabeth reached Jamaica during her tour of the Commonwealth in 1953, the British Pathé newsreel described 35,000 schoolchildren waiting to welcome her in Spanish Town. ‘Their eyes shine with excitement – their Queen has come from a far-off land to see them.’
The grainy footage shows the Queen and Prince Philip driving past ranks of children in a Land Rover on a day ‘warm not only with the bright sunshine but with the affection of the Queen’s people … the great wealth of loyal affection that awaits them at every stage of their Commonwealth tour.’
The Land Rover was one of the few things that the ‘New Elizabethan’ visit had in common with the tour of the region Prince William and Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, embarked on last month. The young couple may have used the same open-top car, but for most Jamaicans the Windrush scandal, the Black Lives Matter protests and George Floyd probably resonated more than the post-coronation visit.
After Barbados, the ‘Little England’ of the Caribbean, became a republic last year, William’s trip was meant to strengthen the British monarchy’s links with Caribbean Commonwealth states as well as mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Instead, the tour may have ‘accelerated moves to ditch the Queen as the head of state’. There were protests, placards telling the prince to apologise and to go home, and demands for reparations for slavery. Jamaica’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, baldly told William: ‘It is inevitable that we will move towards becoming a republic.’
The tour got off to a bad start, with the couple flying into a row in Belize because of a dispute between indigenous Q’eqchi Maya people and Flora & Fauna International, a conservation charity that counts William as a patron and has land nearby, over the alleged appropriation of 5,000 hectares of communal land. Belize’s Channel 7 TV reported villagers demonstrating against the ‘colonial’ visit and use of their football pitch for the couple’s helicopter without them being consulted. The visit was hastily scrapped.
Days later, the Belize government said the People’s Constitutional Commission would be consulting on becoming a republic. ‘The decolonisation process is enveloping the Caribbean region,’ Henry Charles Usher, minister for constitutional and political reform, told Belizean MPs. ‘Perhaps it is time for Belize to take the next step in truly owning our independence. But it is a matter that the people of Belize must decide on.’
While an estimated 250,000 Jamaicans – a sixth of the population – turned out to see the Queen in 1953, William arrived to a cooler reception – one article was headlined: ‘Jamaicans shun UK royal visit.’ An open letter from 100 prominent Jamaicans, organised by the human rights alliance Advocates Network Jamaica, gave 60 reasons for apologies and reparations from Britain and its royal family, going back to pre-colonial history. ‘We will not participate in your Platinum Jubilee celebration,’ it stated. ‘We will, however, celebrate 60 years of freedom from British colonial domination. We are saddened that more progress has not been made given the burden of our colonial inheritance … just sey yuh sorry!’
As many commentators noted, the tour’s ‘optics’ were often awkward at best, such as the prince inspecting an honour guard in a white uniform like the one his grandfather had worn 69 years ago and the couple greeting well-wishers through a wire fence. A speech in which William expressed his ‘profound sorrow’ over the ‘appalling atrocity of slavery’ was roundly criticised for falling short of an apology. An estimated 600,000 Africans were shipped to Jamaica as slaves, according to the National Library of Jamaica, but Britain has never formally apologised for the trade it helped instigate for fear of vast reparation claims. The Voice said: ‘Britain has a long record of dancing around the word “sorry” for being the world’s biggest enslaver.’ Another commentator wrote: ‘Voicing “sorrow and regret” is indeed a start but money talks far more than platitudes.’
His speech (coincidentally on the eve of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery) was derided as ‘tone-deaf’. After days of negative coverage, William called an emergency meeting with aides, the Mirror reported. When the couple flew on to more protests in the Bahamas, William made it clear that any decision by the Bahamas to become a republic would be respected. He said: ‘We support with pride and respect your decisions about your future. Relationships evolve; friendship endures.’
Jamaica seems all but certain to hold a referendum on becoming a republic in the next few years. Don Anderson, a pollster, said that in 2011 only about 40% of Jamaicans supported politicians’ moves to cut ties with the monarchy but by 2020 this had increased to 62%. ‘I’d be surprised if that number isn’t closer now to 70%, because of the increased calls for Jamaica to follow Barbados,’ he told the Guardian.
The Windrush scandal’s fallout reinforced a growing sense in Jamaica that the relationship with the UK offers little: the last prime minister to visit Jamaica – David Cameron in 2015 – also skirted round an apology for slavery. And, instead of reparations, offered $38m to build a new prison to house Jamaicans deported from Britain – an offer described as ‘adding insult to injury’. The requirement for a visa for travel to the UK – uniquely among Caribbean Commonwealth countries – is also much resented. As Prof Philip Murphy, of the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies, said: ‘There are profound sensitivities around the legacies of colonialism and slavery [but] the Foreign Office doesn’t quite get it.’ The royal visit, meant to strengthen ties, appears ironically to have galvanised the reparations campaign. After the royal tour a joint statement from groups in all three countries declared: ‘We stand united in rejecting the so-called charm offensive tour … we will stand stronger, united in our call for reparatory justice and in supporting the roadmap for redress laid out by the Caricom Reparations Commission.’
William, who reportedly expressed doubts privately about using the same Land Rover as his grandmother, is well aware of how the trip has backfired. He has acknowledged the growing republicanism and that he may not become head of the Commonwealth. Before leaving the Bahamas, he said: ‘In Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas, that future is for the people to decide upon … Who the Commonwealth chooses to lead its family in the future isn’t what is on my mind. What matters to us is the potential the Commonwealth family has to create a better future for the people who form it.’
Eight Caribbean realms remain: Belize, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and St Kitts and Nevis. The fact that most of the Commonwealth member states that still have the British monarch as head of state are in the Caribbean may be down to the ‘mistaken belief amongst many former slaves that Queen Victoria had played a crucial part in their emancipation,’ according to a Caribbean constitutional law expert, Derek O’Brien. ‘The Queen was viewed as a symbol of liberation.’
Whatever remains of this deferential reverence for the British monarchy is not likely to outlive the present Queen. However, the longtime BBC royal correspondent Jennie Bond said: ‘This may well have been the last royal visit to the Commonwealth realm of Jamaica. But there is no indication that the island intends to leave the Commonwealth itself.’
Commonwealth Update became Eye on the Commonwealth in January 2022. After 38 years in print form, the column has moved from the Round Table journal to the Round Table’s website. Originally Commonwealth Notebook, the column became Commonwealth Update in 1993. The new-look Eye on the Commonwealth will seek to provide a perspective on a topical development by the journal’s Commonwealth Update editor, Oren Gruenbaum.