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British royals face backlash from pro-republic activists in Jamaica

The official trip was intended to strengthen royal sentiment in Jamaica, after a shock republican turn in Barbados. However, the tour has not gone quite as planned, with the couple arriving as a public reckoning over colonialism and slavery takes hold in the Caribbean.

(CN) — An official state visit to Jamaica by the second in line to the British throne has been overshadowed by a burgeoning republican movement calling for the removal of the monarchy and demanding reparations.

Prince William and Kate visited the Caribbean this week on a tour marking the beginning of the queen’s platinum jubilee – a celebration of her 70th year on the throne. The trip was designed to demonstrate the modernization of the monarchy and strengthen relations with the commonwealth realms of Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas, all of whom retain the queen as their head of state.

However, the arrival of the royal couple in Jamaica was overshadowed by protests in Kingston calling for the establishment of a Jamaican republic. Protesters are also calling for William to apologize for the monarchy’s history of colonialism and to pay reparations for its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

Prior to the arrival of Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Advocates Network, a group of 100 prominent Jamaicans from politics, business, religion and the arts, penned an open letter calling for William to make amends for historic British crimes. Taking aim at the Queen Elizabeth II, the letter stated that “during her 70 years on the throne, your grandmother has done nothing to redress and atone for the suffering of our ancestors that took place during her reign and/or during the entire period of British trafficking of Africans, enslavement, indentureship and colonialization.”

“You, who may one day lead the British monarchy, are direct beneficiaries of the wealth accumulated by the royal family over centuries, including that stemming from the trafficking and enslavement of Africans,” it continued. “You therefore have the unique opportunity to redefine the relationship between the British monarchy and the people of Jamaica. If you choose to do so, we urge you to start with an apology and recognition of the need for atonement and reparations.”

The planned charm offensive of the island nation looked to be turning into a dramatic public relations miscalculation on Wednesday, as Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that the government was set to begin the process of removing the queen as head of state.

In his official public welcome, Holness told the royal couple that "there are issues here which as you would know are unresolved."

"But Jamaica is, as you would see, a country that is very proud, and we're moving on. And we intend to fulfil our true ambition of being an independent, fully developed and prosperous country," he said.

On Thursday, William stopped short of the apology demanded by activists, but expressed regret over the institution’s role in slavery. "I strongly agree with my father, the Prince of Wales, who said in Barbados last year that the appalling atrocity of slavery forever stains our history. I want to express my profound sorrow. Slavery was abhorrent and it should never have happened," he said.

Disruptions to the other stages of the trip have also taken place. The first official engagement for the couple – at a cacao farm in Belize – had to be called off after opposition from locals. And a letter from the Bahamas National Reparations Committee complained that the country had “been left holding the bag for much of the cost of this extravagant trip.”

"Why are we footing the bill for the benefit of a regime whose rise to 'greatness' was fueled by the extinction, enslavement, colonization and degradation of the people of this land? Why are we being made to pay again?” it questioned.

There are multiple reasons for rising republican sentiment across the Caribbean. Last year, under the leadership of Prime Minster Mia Mottley, Barbados proudly declared itself a republic, 55 years after gaining independence from Britain.

“In the words of Marcus Mosiah Garvey, it is ours to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery for none but ourselves can free our minds,” Mottley said at the time. “Now we must accept that none but ourselves can build our nation.”

The decision came in the context of a reckoning over the history of slavery associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, which sparked new momentum behind the campaign for reparations.

The Caricom Reparations Commission was founded by Caribbean governments in 2013 to develop a legal basis upon which claims for reparatory justice can be made. The CRC has drawn up a program of potential compensation which includes debt cancellation, technology transfers and funding for social programs.

Mike Henry, a veteran Jamaican member of parliament, has estimated that Britain owes Jamaica about 8 billion pounds ($10.5 billion) for its role in the slave trade. “I am asking for the same amount of money to be paid to the slaves that was paid to the slave owners,” Henry told Reuters.

Additionally, the impact of the so-called Windrush scandal across the Caribbean – and particularly in Jamaica – is hard to underestimate. In 2018, it was revealed that the U.K. Home Office had been wrongly deporting legally resident Jamaicans and other Caribbean nationals back to their country of citizenship. This resulted in the deportation of many who had lived in Britain since early childhood and had few or no links to their country of birth. Deportations were often justified on the basis of a lack of paperwork that turned out to have been destroyed or lost by the Home Office itself.

Deportations included members of the now affectionately regarded post-war Windrush generation – named as such after the Empire Windrush, a ship upon which many first-wave Caribbean migrants arrived in the U.K. Men and women from the Caribbean were encouraged to emigrate to Britain in the 1940s, and played a vital role in post-war reconstruction of the country.

The scandal shook the premiership of Theresa May and led to the resignation of Home Secretary Amber Rudd, herself a prime ministerial hopeful. Despite outrage at the time, the compensation scheme for Windrush victims has been beset by administrative delays, and the U.K. resumed deportations of Jamaicans without criminal records last November.

The royal trip appears to be another high-profile PR blunder for the embattled British monarchy. In 2020, Prince Harry and wife Megan Markle emigrated to California, with Harry later describing his royal life as “toxic” and Markle accusing a senior royal of racism. And earlier this month, Prince Andrew settled out of court for a large undisclosed sum with Virginia Giuffre, as a result of his association with convicted sex traffickers Jeffery Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell.

The scandals have exposed a generational divide in the U.K., with polls suggesting the younger population have markedly more unfavorable views of the monarchy. But the misjudged Caribbean tour has also raised questions about the strength of the commonwealth – the international organization of former British colonies – and its continued relevance in the 21st century.

For now it is clear – at least in the Caribbean – that republicanism is on the rise.

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