How a Royal Visit Helped Weaken the Crown’s Grip on the Caribbean

How a Royal Visit Helped Weaken the Crown’s Grip on the Caribbean

How a Royal Visit Helped Weaken the Crown’s Grip on the Caribbean

William and Kate’s springtime tour didn’t spark the movement for independence and reparations in the Caribbean, but it did stoke it.


On Tuesday, March 15, six months before the death of Queen Elizabeth II would reignite a conversation about the British crown’s colonial legacy, the chairman of Indian Creek, an Indigenous Maya village in southern Belize, received a call. A police officer told Sebastian Shol, the chairman, that the village would have to cut down the trees bordering a soccer field in the next few days, because a helicopter would be landing there. Despite being pressed by Shol, the officer refused to give any other information.

The next day, Shol received a call from a woman representing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She apologized for not providing information sooner and told him that the visitors would be Prince William and his wife, Kate Middleton, who would be traveling to Belize, Jamaica, and the Bahamas the following week to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee, marking her 70 years on the throne.

Although all three countries fought for their independence from the crown, they have not become republics like Barbados, Guyana, or Trinidad and Tobago; instead they remain, along with the majority of countries in the Caribbean, part of the British Commonwealth, with the British monarch as the head of state. Each country has a British High Commission in its capital and a governor-general who represents the monarch in “overseas territories” as a government executive.

Shol convened an emergency meeting during which the villagers decided to stage a protest. Their biggest concerns, he told me during a phone interview, were the fact that they were not consulted before the visit, the requirement that the villagers would have to stay 200 meters away from the royal couple at all times, and an ongoing land dispute with Flora Fauna International, a charity with connections to the royal family. Last year, 12,800 acres in Indian Creek were sold to FFI, but, according to the association of Maya villages in the region, the land—which includes the village school, the community center, and a couple hundred homes—was sold illegally.

On March 18, the day before the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were set to arrive, dozens of people gathered at the soccer field carrying signs that read “Not Your Land / Not Your Decision,” “Prince William Leave Our Land,” and “Indian Creek Say No to FFI / Keep Out.” Not long after, the government of Belize told the Daily Mail that, because of “issues,” the visit to Indian Creek had been canceled and the royal couple would visit another village instead. A spokesperson from Kensington Palace confirmed the cancellation to the newspaper.

As the royal couple traveled across the Caribbean over the next week, they were met with demonstrators nearly every step of the way. Though intended to celebrate the kingdom’s relationship with its former colonies, their visit would do largely the opposite: It would galvanize organizers in the three countries, drawing international attention to the long-standing movement for reparations while stoking the flame of independence in the region.

In the past seven months, politicians representing Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, and Jamaica have announced that their countries are taking steps to remove the British monarch as their head of state and to become republics. Following the queen’s death, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda reaffirmed to British media that the country would take steps to become a republic within the next three years. In Jamaica, meanwhile, virtual and in-person town hall meetings on a national reparatory justice proposal will begin this fall, according to Laleta Davis-Mattis, chair of the National Reparations Council. If it is formalized, Jamaica will be the first country in the Caribbean—and likely the world—to have adopted such a proposal.

The royal visit “highlighted certain issues and created momentum,” Henry Charles Usher, Belize’s minister of the public service, told me during a phone call. By mid-autumn, a commission will be formed to decide whether Belize will adopt a new constitution or amend the current one—and, ultimately, whether the country will become a republic.

“The protests against William and Kate…[were] an indication that people are fed up, and that the reparations message is getting around,” said Verene Shepherd, director of the Centre for Reparation Research at the University of the West Indies, in a phone interview. “I don’t think we’ve ever had so many people shouting ‘Reparations now!’ across the region.”

But while the visit clearly drew attention and energy to the cause, it should not be considered the precipitating event. Shepherd pointed out that the growing calls for reparations come after more than a decade of public education programs and grassroots (although she doesn’t like using that word) organizing. And since 2013, when the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM, formed a Reparations Commission, the governments of its 15 member states have also been involved, with 12 setting up their own national reparations committees. These have been organizing educational programs, developing policy, and coordinating public responses to events like the royal couple’s visit.

As a result, the demands for reparations for slavery and colonization have become widespread in the Caribbean, seeping into both public and private conversations. On television shows like Talking History in Jamaica and Reparations Now in Guyana, hosts delve into the intricacies of the reparations issue. The Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner publishes a biweekly column called “Reparation Conversations” by the Centre for Reparation Research, in which guest writers weigh in on the latest developments. (“Now would be as good a time as any to invest some of that extracted wealth back into Jamaica as part of a reparations package,” wrote University of the West Indies lecturer Michael Barnett in a May column.) At the university level, the history of the reparations struggle is part of the curriculum for qualifying exams, and starting this fall, a textbook on the movement will be distributed to secondary schools across the Caribbean.

As the movement has expanded throughout the region, it has also deepened and evolved. Currently, the CARICOM Reparations Commission is meeting in Guyana, Trinidad, and Jamaica with the descendants of Indians who were brought to the Caribbean by colonial powers to serve as indentured servants. Members of these communities have felt “unincluded in the reparations movement,” according to Niambi Hall Campbell-Dean, the chair of the Bahamas National Reparations Committee.

At the same time, research projects such as SlaveVoyages, an interactive digital archive created in 2017 with information on more than 36,000 voyages of slave-trading ships, and the publication by the University College London in 2013 of the compensation paid to former enslavers for the loss of their “property” after slavery was abolished, have placed current reparatory justice demands in a detailed historical context. “All of this information is making people realize how unjust it is for those who committed crimes against humanity to refuse to apologize or to take any steps toward reparation,” Shepherd told me.

To be sure, many in the Caribbean recognized this injustice long before the present moment. Formal calls for reparations go back almost to the beginning of the independence era. In the years following their independence from the crown—beginning in 1962 with Jamaica and continuing through 1983 with St. Kitts and Nevis—every former British colony in the Caribbean demanded some sort of reparations package, based on the argument that the British government had exploited and extracted wealth from their countries for centuries. Yet none received any. In contrast, when slavery was abolished in the British Empire, the UK had no problem paying enslavers for the loss of their “property.”

In 1833, the British government took out a loan of $20 million to settle approximately 40,000 claims from former enslavers. Kris Manjapra, a professor at Tufts University, has found that the UK likely continued to make payments on this loan until 2015. “The implication, number one, is that British citizens for many generations were paying taxes towards paying off this debt,” Manjapra said during a phone interview. “Number two, people of the Caribbean, through the colonial machinery, were also paying for the debt [until their independence].”

The most frequently cited example of this type of injustice is Haiti’s independence from France in 1804. In exchange for its freedom, Haiti was forced to pay its former colonizer 150 million francs, a sum that took it 122 years to pay off. (The New York Times’ recent investigation into the country’s crippling indemnity to France is just the latest effort to explore the subject.) The legacy of this debt spurred then–Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to make the first formal request for reparations in the postcolonial period. In 2004, Aristide demanded $21 billion from France. Not long after, and with the support of the US military, he was removed from power in a coup.

These stories and statistics bolster the Caribbean reparatory justice movement, which began “from the moment of capture and shipment across the Middle Passage,” Shepherd said. “People were resisting. People were saying, ‘No!’” In practice, it has taken numerous international summits, such as the Pan-African Conference on Reparations, held in Abuja, Nigeria, in 1993, and the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001, to slowly build the movement’s political viability. “Over time, other heads of state became convinced,” Shepherd said.

Every year, CARICOM writes letters to the former colonial powers that trafficked enslaved people and ruled over the region. In these letters it encloses a document called the Ten Point Plan, the manifesto for the Caribbean reparatory justice movement, which also served as a template for the US National African American Reparations Commission’s own reparatory justice plan and as a reference for organizers worldwide. The manifesto states that the victims of European crimes against humanity and their descendants “have a legal right to reparatory justice, and that those who committed these crimes, and who have been enriched by the proceeds of these crimes, have a reparatory case to answer.”

In making this case, the Ten Point Plan integrates broad calls for the funding of cultural institutions, health care institutions, and science and technology programs—all of which address the colonial legacies of economic underdevelopment—with more particular calls for investment in Indigenous communities and demands for repatriation to Africa by Rastafari organizers. Reparations can take the form of financial funding, “but also human resources development…technology transfer, diplomatic services and interventions,” according to Dorbrene O’Marde, the vice chair of the commission.

Crucially, the plan calls for debt cancellation. Since independence, countries in the Caribbean have suffered from high levels of debt and have been forced to make costly restructuring deals with the International Monetary Fund, which have debilitated their economies even further. Jamaica, for instance, which has been caught in a cycle of debt, has sought bailout loans from the IMF nearly every year. Jamaica’s national reparatory justice policy will be based on the Ten Point Plan, according to Davis-Mattis, the country’s National Reparations Council chair.

A week before the royal couple were set to arrive in Jamaica, the Advocates Network, a coalition of community leaders and academics in the country, published an open letter demanding reparations from Britain and its royal family, with an accompanying document listing 60 reasons why. “These issues are too long on the table,” economist and organizer Rosalea Hamilton told me over the phone. “We need to bring it to the attention of the royals, and in so doing bring it to the attention of the society.”

When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge arrived in Kingston on March 22, what was originally supposed to be 60 protesters swelled to 300, according to Hamilton. Once again, international media outlets were there to cover the demonstrations. The banners carried by the protesters and the T-shirts they wore read “Seh yuh sorry”; many had been created for former British prime minister David Cameron’s visit in 2015. During his stay, Cameron gave an infamous speech at the Jamaican Parliament in which he called on Jamaicans to “move on from this painful legacy” of slavery.

The next day, in Montego Bay, two dozen Rastafari held a demonstration at the headquarters of the Coral Gardens Benevolent Society. During the Coral Gardens Massacre, which unfolded over a week in April 1963, at least eight Rastafari were killed and as many as 150 injured in a series of police raids. Jamaica’s then–prime minister, Alexander Bustamante, had called for officers to “Bring them in, dead or alive.”

Ras Drick I, who attended the protest in Montego Bay and whose uncle was a survivor of the massacre, told me, “What I and I are still fighting for is to free ourselves from all the colonialism and the British monarchy,” using the Rastafari expression “I and I” instead of “we.” “I and I is talking about freeing ourselves: mental repatriation, physical repatriation, and physical reparations.”

Since 1930, when the Rastafari community officially removed King George V as their monarch and replaced him with Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, they have been the spiritual leaders of the reparatory justice movement, calling for reparations as well as repatriation to Africa for nearly a century. When Jamaica became the first country in the region to create a national council on reparations in 2009, a couple years before the CARICOM Reparations Commission was formed, it was building on the work of Rastafari organizers. Credit also goes to the Jamaican politician Mike Henry, who first brought the reparations proposal to Parliament in 2007.

By the time William and Kate arrived in the Bahamas on March 24, the Bahamanians were organized. While the royal couple was still in Jamaica, the Bahamas National Reparations Committee published its official demand. At the end of its statement, it reprinted the lyrics from the 1972 song “Pay Me What You Owe Me,” by the Bahamian musician Tony McKay. The song repeats the phrases “Pay me for my blood in the water / Pay me for my sons and my daughter” and “Pay me for all of my dead / Pay me for the blood that you shed.” When I asked Hall Campbell-Dean, the committee chair, why it chose to include these lyrics, she said, “We wanted to show that this is a call that the Bahamanian people have been demanding in various ways for many years.”

March 25 was the International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. At sunrise, Hall Campbell-Dean held a libation ceremony at Yamacraw Beach in Nassau, the capital, pouring bottled water, purple bougainvillea flowers, and paper money into the ocean to honor the 15 million killed during the four centuries of the slave trade. In Nassau and in Freeport, on another island across the channel, Rastafari organizers held protests. They had tried to get an audience with the duke and duchess and to hand a letter to the high commissioner, but they were told they were too late, said Priest ​​Rithmon McKinney, one of the organizers.

On Friday, March 25, exactly one week after the royal couple touched down in Belize, they had their final dinner in Nassau, hosted by Belize’s governor-general. Addressing the three countries the couple had visited on their tour, Prince William said, “We support with pride and respect your decisions about your future,” referring to the growing independence movements across the Caribbean. Two days later, organizers from Belize, Jamaica, and the Bahamas announced in a joint statement published by the Advocates Network, “We stand united in rejecting the so-called charm offensive of the Caribbean undertaken by William and Catherine, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.”

In the months after William and Kate departed the Caribbean, much of the international media followed suit, but the organizing and agitation didn’t cease. In April, another pair of royals—Edward and Sophie, the Earl and Countess of Wessex—traveled to the region. A planned visit to Grenada was canceled at the last minute, without an explanation, and they faced protests in St. Lucia as well as St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In Antigua and Barbuda, Prime Minister Gaston Browne pressed Prince Edward (Elizabeth’s youngest son) and his wife on the subject of reparations, asking them to use their political influence to support the reparatory justice movement.

News reports characterized the exchange as awkward. At one point, Prince Edward told Browne, “I wasn’t keeping notes, so I’m not going to give you a complete riposte.” Speaking to The Guardian, the former BBC royal correspondent Peter Hunt said that future trips by the royal family would be “unwise.”

Then, on September 8, Queen Elizabeth II died. International media outlets were quick to return to the Caribbean, asking organizers and political leaders what the death of the monarch meant for the region’s reparations and sovereignty movements. The reactions were mixed; the tone was mostly somber. Flags were lowered to half-mast, condolences were published, and organizers refrained, for the most part, from making political statements.

One exception was the Barbadian folk singer and official cultural ambassador Anthony “Gabby” Carter, who published a poem titled “Good Riddance to Rubbish” that circulated online. In it, he wrote, “She inherited millions of pounds / From the gains of slavery / Yet she allowed each colony / To wallow in poverty.”

On the subject of Charles III, Carter was brief and to the point: “He will become the Monarch / The British Ruler / The King! / If he brings us Reparations / Then I will support him!”

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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