The second leg of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s much-anticipated Royal Caribbean Tour got off to a turbulent start the moment that the government’s £75 million “Brexit jet” left Belizean airspace. Their imminent arrival in the next “Commonwealth realm,” Jamaica, was not popular and soon sparked outrage among Jamaicans both on the island and in the diaspora — which spilled out into social media. Photos of William and Kate greeting Jamaican children through a fence have hardly helped.
Soon, there were widespread calls for reparations and a republican fervour sweeping Jamaican politics. The Queen remains Jamaica’s head of state, with her duties carried out by a colonial governor-general, but this has long been controversial. The latest visit has sparked significant resistance — influential Jamaican leaders in academia, music, and law have expressed their anger at the institution responsible for overseeing the enslavement of over one million Africans on the island of Jamaica in an open letter to the British Monarchy: “We see no reason to celebrate 70 years of the ascension of your grandmother to the British throne because her leadership, and that of her predecessors, has perpetuated the greatest human rights tragedy in the history of humankind.”
It is widely believed that William and Kate Windsor’s tour of the Caribbean came in response to Barbados’s shock decision to replace Queen Elizabeth II with a Barbadian president in November 2021. If so, it is a decision that has backfired spectacularly. Jamaican prime minister Andrew Holness confirmed on Wednesday in a short meeting with the royals that Jamaica will be “moving on” to fulfill its ambitions as an independent, developed, prosperous country. But why is Jamaica keen to cut ties with the monarchy after nearly sixty years of political independence from the United Kingdom?
A Jamaican Republic
Republicanism in Jamaica can trace its origins back to the 1972 general election, when the newly elected left-wing president Michael Manley and his People’s National Party established a constitutional reform commission with the aim to move Jamaica towards republic status by 1981. However, Manley’s defeat in the following election resulted in this goal being deprioritised by the next administration amid a decade of political conflict backed by numerous foreign powers.
But this did not quell the grassroots movement quickly gaining ground on the streets of Jamaica, as reggae icon Bob Marley touched the minds of millions, waking many up to the realities of imperialism through the power of his music. In the decades since, this has become a consensus. While Jamaica’s two main parties have ideological differences, they are at least nominally united in one thing: the eventual removal of the British monarch, and the installation of a Jamaican president.
At the turn of the 21st century, Prime Minister P.J. Patterson renewed calls for a republic following a 2002 decree by the Jamaican parliament dropping the requirement for MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the Queen. Though these renewed calls gathered cross-party support, the cause once again stalled. This time, the failure to change Jamaica’s constitutional status was a result of contention over the role of a president in a prospective republic.
Politicians often make their commitment to a republic a campaign pledge. But how do Jamaicans themselves feel about the British monarchy? There is a general apathy among the population when it comes to the British royals. Most people simply do not feel a connection, and this was the sentiment shared by Dancehall legend Beenie Man on Tuesday’s GMB broadcast:
We are just here, controlled by the British, ruled by the British law when you go in the court. It’s all about the Queen and the Queen this and the Queen that, but what are they doing for Jamaica? They are not doing anything for us.
Jamaica is a nation acutely aware of colonialism and the role the monarchy has played in advancing British interests at the expense of people in the Global South throughout its history. Last year’s declaration of a republic in neighbouring Barbados was a seminal moment for the region, with the country’s prime minister Mia Mottley pledging to “fully leave our colonial past behind”. But, in truth, these sentiments have been present in Jamaica for some time.
A 2020 poll commissioned by the Jamaica Observer found that 55% of Jamaicans would support ditching Queen Elizabeth II, with just 30% supporting the status quo. As well as Britain’s brutal colonial legacy in Jamaica, part of this is attributable to the royals themselves. For decades, the Firm has prioritised the white Anglosphere (Australia, Canada, and New Zealand) in matters of engagement. Records show that the Queen has visited Jamaica some six times in her 70-year reign, a figure which pales in comparison to the twenty and sixteen visits to Canada and Australia respectively.
More controversially, the British government and monarchy has thus far failed to apologise for the horrific crimes committed against enslaved people on the island of Jamaica, as well as in the wider Caribbean. Charles “acknowledged” the stain that slavery and colonialism left on British history while speaking at Barbados’s transition ceremony last November but fell short of a full apology, something that lawmakers and diplomats across the CARICOM (Caribbean Community) bloc — an intergovernmental organisation of fifteen Caribbean member states — are keen to address with the Caribbean Reparations Commission. In the open letter addressed to William and Kate, the Advocates Network listed 60 reasons why reparations must be paid in order to right the wrongs of the past. They include treating ancestors as chattel, acts described as genocide, and theft of the country’s resources.
Closing the chapter
It isn’t only historic issues that inform Jamaican opinion. On matters of diplomacy and immigration, Britain is also seen in an increasingly negative light. In 2003, Jamaicans saw their visa-free access to the UK revoked by the Tony Blair government, driving an immigration wedge between the Jamaican population, its head of state, and the British diaspora. Jamaicans are currently the only citizens within the Commonwealth realm that require a visa to visit the land of their head of state.
In 2015, a foreign policy blunder by Conservative prime minister David Cameron sparked outrage in Jamaica when he offered to sponsor the building of a new Jamaican prison in lieu of reparations. But arguably both of these pale in comparison to the widely condemned Windrush Scandal, which saw British-Jamaicans wrongly deported by the Home Office. In November of last year, as Barbados declared a republic, the British government started deporting Jamaicans with no criminal record once again, for the first time since the scandal.
The scandals associated with the royal family itself haven’t helped. This trip seems likely to become another, following the controversy surrounding Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein. Before, it was the image of a downtrodden Meghan Markle discussing how her baby’s skin colour had been poorly received by the family. This remains fresh in the minds of the social media-savvy millennials and Zoomers throughout Jamaica, cementing the view that — in the words of former PM Portia Simpson-Miller — “I think [the] time [has] come.”
Throughout Jamaica’s post-independence history, the republican cause has been a popular one. Every Jamaican prime minister since Michael Manley has promised to deliver this to the people. There is, however, one challenge — it may be constitutionally tricky. Sections Forty-nine and Fifty of the Jamaican constitution only allow for the removal of the British monarch after a referendum has been held and popular support has been obtained. Andrew Holness’s mission from here will be to provide a realistic time frame for how soon this can happen, and to close this chapter of Jamaica’s history at the ballot box.
Ashley Rouen Brown is a writer, social commentator, and advocate of republican forms of government in the twenty-first century.
This article was first published on Jacobin.