Reparations and an apology for the descendants of chattel slavery, the return of jewels and artifacts seen as stolen wealth from former colonies and the desirability of continuing to pledge loyalty to the House of Windsor have been brought to the fore by the death and funeral rites of Elizabeth II, late queen of the United Kingdom and ceremonial head of 14 former British colonies.
The more than thousand-year monarchy has survived much of the tumult of the history of its times. Unlike the French and Russian royal houses, it continues to be politically influential even after surviving a 1649 to 1659 revolution leading to execution of the king and eventual five years rule by lord protector Oliver Cromwell.
The power of Britain’s monarchy in its many metamorphoses seems to reside in its continuing devolution of power since the nobility forced King John of England on 15 June 1215 to share power as set out in the Magna Carta Libertatum (Great Charter of Freedoms) drafted by the Church leader.
The terror of colonialism and imperialism built on occupation, bloody slavery and the murder of indigenous populations in the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia is, to many, personified in the royal family and the sitting monarch. It’s as though they still had the power to issue patents royal to pirates, privateers and noble baron thieves as did Elizabeth I when she first authorized and invested in John Hawkins on his maiden trip to buy and sell Africans into slavery in 1562.
“Queen Elizabeth II leaves a complex legacy for Aboriginal Australians”, the First Nations of Canada, the Mau Mau and other liberation fighters in Kenya, South Africa other parts of Africa, India and China. All these conflicts and their deep wounds predated her and have to do with decisions taken in parliament and the Foreign and Colonial Office with the governors, military and the Church of England as executing agencies.
But the monarch embodies the sovereignty and majesty of a nation and so “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. It bears responsibility.
First though to the matter of allegiance.
“Will Jamaica now seek to ‘move on’ from royals as a republic?” the BBC asked in the headline of an online piece couched against the backdrop of Barbados being declared a republic by its prime minister, Mia Motley in November 2021 to mark its 55th anniversary of independence. Barbados was once termed as Little England for its conservative demeanour and cultural retentions seen by linguists and university social scientists in the region as the most British.
Jamaica, with its land size about 27 times that of Barbados, at more than 4,400 square miles and with 10 times the population with about 2.7 million, is seen as the polar opposite with the greatest African retention. It gave birth to 20th century Pan-Africanist, Marcus Garvey, the anti-Babylon Rastafari and militant reggae music.
Jamaican stage and television actor and comedian Oliver Samuels, broke his non-political mold by condemning the decision to observe 12 days of mourning for the queen’s death by the prime minister, Andrew Holness. Samuels who questioned what the late queen had ever done for Jamaica, called for all Caribbean Commonwealth countries to follow in Mottley’s step. A similar call was made in Barbados by Dr Anthony Carter more well known as a strident politically driven calypsonian, the Mighty Gabby.
Mottley is not the first to go republican in CARICOM. Guyana has been a republic since 1970 having gained independence in 1966, Trinidad and Tobago since 1976, and Dominica since 1978 at independence–all within the Commonwealth.
It is understandable that segments of the Afro constituency of the sugar diasporas of Africa, India and China in the West are the most vocal in anti monarch feelings. It is their ancestors who endured the forced resettlement and violence of chattel slavery without any compensation after emancipation in 1834-38. (Indians and Chinese began arriving after 1840, mostly voluntarily as indentured servants to replenish the sugar plantations’ labour and were offered free lands to settle or return fares on completion of their periods of service.)
However, it was Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago with populations at the time roughly evenly split between Indians and Africans that led in giving up the British monarchy.
The praises showered by the freed people on Victoria, the queen at the Emancipation Proclamation, is not shared by many in the present population who see revolts by their ancestors, activism by abolitionists and their allies in parliament as the the ones whose actions were rubber-stamped by Victoria. And any love she may have earned doesn’t carryover to her successors, living or dead.
Since 1930 Rastafari and progressive people in the labour movement had been condemning colonialism and imperialism with some advocating Marcus Garvey’s vision of African redemption including compensation and repatriation.
When independence started blowing across the region in August 1962, Jamaica’s and Trinidad and Tobago’s political leaders retained the monarch (Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors) as head of State.
In more recent times, Jamaica has stuck with the UK’s Privy Council as its final court of appeal rather than be part of the Caribbean Court of Justice established by CARICOM (the Caribbean Community), the functional cooperation and political integration body established in the 1970s by 12 Anglophone countries and territories.
Yet, since the Barbados move, Holness has restated under public outcry that republican status is on the cards. In London for the funeral he conveyed to Charles III, the love Jamaicans held for his late mother the queen.
And Gaston Browne, the prime minister of fellow CARICOM member, Antigua and Barbuda, told British ITV News that if he’s re-elected in 2023, he will possibly hold a referendum in three to five years on the issue of the country becoming a republic.
Despite protestations for the long mourning period, Elizabeth was Jamaica’s queen and head of state and now it’s her son Charles III, king in 13 other countries as well; and they have their supporters and admirers.
“She knew that Sovereignty was bestowed upon her by god…,” the Rt Rev Rachel Treweek, an Anglican bishop who sits in the House of Lords as a Lord Spiritual, said in a BBC TV interview.
There are anti-royal voices in the two biggest Commonwealth countries, Canada and Australia and at home in the UK but the loudest voices now seem to be monarchist. And it seems the more temperate views are in these places where the politics are dominated by people who did not experience slavery.
Take Singapore, the Asian city state and one of the world’s most prosperous countries. “We are not going to re-litigate the past,” said Singapore’s foreign affairs minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan in a TV interview about continuing in the Commonwealth.
The massive UK crowds who over several days queued for up to 14 hours to walk past Elizabeth’s flag-draped coffin in Westminster Hall, the leaders of State and government and the seemingly more than a million who lined the route of the cortege for the September 19 last spectacle written and choreographed by her, share a different story. Many, like the Liberal prime minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, spoke of her devotion to duty and commitment to service, something that seems nebulous in contrast to the view of theatre personality Samuels, who pondered what she had ever done tangibly.
The mixed race Meghan Markle, the Dutchess of Sussex and wife of the duke, Prince Harry, stated in an interview that a senior member of the family wondered aloud what the coulour of their first child would be. Perhaps in that context of alleged racist attitudes among some royals, a former Conservative prime minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, recalled the late monarch at a Commonwealth heads of government meeting in the Bahamas, surreptitiously marshaling support to bring pressure on the then South African apartheid regime, against the open support to Pretoria by Margaret Thatcher, the then UK prime minister.
We asked one of the few people in our social media circles who was uncritical of royalty, a Jamaican-Briton former trade unionist in London for 23 years, “what do you find attractive and endearing to the monarchy and why?”
“I was born [five] days after the death of King George Vl, so Queen Elizabeth II was the only monarch I knew. I moved to England at the age of 15, where I developed an interest in British Monarchy and [have] read upon it dating back to Eleanor of Aquitaine to Queen Victoria!
“I notice that people today are quick to discard traditions, I love history and have no wish to rewrite it.
“The late Queen’s father was not meant to be King but due to the abdication of his brother, had no choice. He did his duty, as did Queen Elizabeth II and I respect that.
“They represent tradition and history and millions of people visit England each year because of them and the pomp and pageantry that they bring.
“I hope the tradition continues. I worked for a trade union for 23 years up to my retirement and they are mainly anti monarch but I kept my beliefs and they did theirs.”
This charming reputation of Elizabeth II is touted as what has kept the royals relevant and liked post the abdication of her uncle Edward VIII. Sundry family scandals and a coolness towards then prince, Charles, who was unfaithful to his late wife, Diana, with his now wife, Camilla the queen consort, who was also married at the time, seem like potential stumbling blocks in Charles’s reign and keeping the Commonwealth realms on board.
One glaring possible barrier could be how Harry and Meghan and their two children are treated. Many of the “woke” cultural persuasion, who challenge the continued public burden of monarchy, concurrently wish the American Mountbatten-Windsors could get the proper royal treatment and income.
There is a thin line between Charles the assumed conservationist and environmentalist and Charles the dowdy conservative who wishes to cling to things past. Observers have noted that his advocacy will be publicly silenced now he is the politically impartial king.
Not everyone is challenging for the accumulated wealth, estimated to be in the billions of pounds sterling, where real estate can be assumed to comprise its bulk. According to the BBC, in the case of William alone, promotion to duke of Cornwall and Prince of Wales will result in a personal windfall of a 685 year-old estate worth worth about a billion pounds. He also owns most of the real estate on London’s prestigious Oxford Street.
How much of this royal wealth is personal and how much is held on behalf of the state we don’t know and how it is or can be invested is not pertinent. The challenge is who to approach to seek “restorative justice” as its described by proponents such as Prof Hillary Beckles, University of the West Indies (UWI) vice-chancellor and chairman of CARICOM’s Reparations Commission.
The Crown jewels, including scepters and the orb are part of State, military and ecclesiastical instruments. One doubts the king or any of his family can make a unilateral decision to sell or give them away through philanthropy, however they came into the collection.
(A South African activist has launched a petition for the return of the Great Star of Africa or Cullinan I diamond cut from a larger gem mined in South Africa in 1905 and given to the British royal family by South Africa’s colonial authorities. It is currently mounted on a royal scepter that belonged to Elizabeth II.)
Still, the royal possessions represent only a fraction of the wealth of the United Kingdom. Among large holders are the inheritors from the old sugar barons, the Tate and Lyles, the shipping companies, and insurances businesses like the Lloyd’s group founded 1688, banks, even universities, some of whom have agreed to cooperate with the UWI in ways to share from their wealth from slavery. As with the abolition of slavery, it is to the parliament that entreaties for reparation will have to be made and not the palace.
When independence constitutions came, the Crown lands shifted ownership to the elected governments. Not much progress was achieved with granting lands to the landless people put off the plantations in 1838. It was the opposite for British, French and German settlers since before Emancipation who were awarded large swaths of arable land.
With wealth tied to land as a bankable asset, many in 2022 remain landless across the Caribbean. In the background to the book of presentations made at a ‘Workshop on Land Policy, Administration and Management in the English-speaking Caribbean’ held in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago, March, 2003, Andrew Bishop, Guyana’s then commissioner of lands and surveys, who chaired the network steering committee, wrote:
“Most debates about land policies in the Caribbean are driven by three overlapping and sometimes conflicting objectives:
“The challenge for the Caribbean is to find the legal, institutional and policy measures to balance these three overlapping objectives. In the post-colonial State-led agrarian reform era of the 1960s and 1970s efforts were made to increase medium- and small-scale private holdings of agricultural land, mainly through State acquisition of large estates and the re-distribution of land to the peasant sector. These programmes have now largely been abandoned.”
Not much has changed across the region in those 19 years. In the early 1990s, Barbados did implement an act to facilitate the purchase of their plots by the thousands of people who lived in chattel (movable) houses on tenantries of the old plantations their ancestors had slaved on.
In Jamaica in the 2020s, the government, faced with rampant squatting in rural and urban settlements across the island, admitted it did not even have proper records of the ownership of the occupied lands, including Crown lands.
Critics of attaching this aspect of land holding to slave reparations say this tack amounts to blaming the victims of slavery, as also is noting that nothing exists in the regions of Africa that participated in the trade as is the case of Jews being welcomed to settle lands in Palestine their ancestors had not been connected to for up to 2000 years.
In summary, the 70 year “reign” of Elizabeth II ended September 8, 2022 with her death. While her advice to prime ministers are secret, we can trace no major policy she developed in the UK nor any of her realms and most of the population across these realms remain largely as economically unenfranchised as their grandparents who Barbadian writer Austin Clarke described in his novel, “Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack”.
Is “Massa Day Done” as Dr Eric Williams, who would lead Trinidad and Tobago into independence, titled an address delivered March 22, 1961 at Port of Spain’s Woodford Square or will Britannia rule continue in aspects of Caribbean life?
(This piece has been updated for clarity and minor typographical errors.)
Editor, author and writer with career spanning print, radio, television and new media.