The death of Queen Elizabeth is reigniting debate in several Caribbean countries over cutting ties with the monarchy. The move had already been gathering steam this year amid a seeming unwillingness by members of the Royal Family to reckon with their ancestors’ role in slavery and colonialist exploitation of the region.
Now, the renewed focus on the Crown is shining a spotlight on the discussion.
“What we have is a head of state that provides no benefit to the country, and continues the colonial legacy of imperial domination,” said Rosalea Hamilton, a Jamaican economist and co-ordinator of the Advocates Network, a group that favours the island country becoming a republic. “Very few people here are mourning.”
The Prime Ministers of the Bahamas and of Antigua and Barbuda, Philip Davis and Gaston Browne respectively, have both signalled they would move forward with referendums on ditching the sovereign.
“I will have a referendum and the Bahamian people will have to say to me, ‘Yes,’ ” Mr. Davis told reporters as he signed a condolence book for the Queen at the Bahamian senate. Shortly after proclaiming the accession of King Charles, Mr. Browne said in a television interview that his country becoming a republic would be “the final step to complete that circle of independence.”
Jamaica had already signalled earlier this year its intent to end the monarchy. During a meeting with Prince William in March, Prime Minister Andrew Holness said his country was “moving on.”
In Belize, meanwhile, the government launched the process of drafting a new constitution this summer, which will include considering whether to become a republic. The People’s Constitutional Commission will hold consultations over the next year and make recommendations to be put to a referendum.
The cabinet minister overseeing the process, Henry Charles Usher, said the reform was intended as another step in the country’s decolonization. “One of the issues is that the head of state does not reside in this country; they are thousands of miles away; they are not in tune with what’s happening in the country,” he said.
The path from realm to republic is well-worn. Out of 56 Commonwealth countries, only 15 have King Charles as head of state. The most recent country to cast off the monarchy was Barbados, which became a republic last year.
Many former Commonwealth realms took the same route to spurning the Crown with minimal day-to-day political disruption. India, Pakistan and Trinidad and Tobago, among others, have retained Westminster-style parliamentary systems with executive prime ministers, simply transferring the monarch’s figurehead functions to ceremonial presidents.
The monarchy has long had a fraught relationship with its Caribbean realms, where most of the population descends from enslaved people brought from Africa or from indentured Indian labourers. Queen Elizabeth I approved and partially funded voyages by John Hawkins, the first known English slave trader. Kings Charles II and James II set up the Royal African Company, a major perpetrator of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.
Two royal tours of the region this past spring highlighted that painful history. During the first visit, Prince William greeted Jamaican children through a chain-link fence and rode dressed in white standing in the back of the same Land Rover used by the Queen 60 years earlier. A plan to visit a village in Belize was cancelled after protests by residents who are embroiled in a land dispute with a charity connected to the Prince.
During the second trip, Antigua and Barbuda’s Mr. Browne asked Prince Edward, the Queen’s youngest son, whether he would support reparations for slavery. The Prince joked that he couldn’t answer the question because he wasn’t taking notes.
Still, ditching the monarchy is a complicated process in most countries, which has stymied previous attempts. Unlike Barbados, which only required the approval of its Parliament, both Jamaica and the Bahamas would have to hold referendums to become republics.
In Jamaica, both major political parties nominally support republicanism, but neither has so far wanted to go through the process to make it happen.
Bahamian voters have previously rejected other constitutional reforms, voting down efforts to enshrine gender equality and change the retirement age of judges, making passage of a republic referendum far from certain.
Sean McWeeney, a former attorney-general of the Bahamas who chaired a constitutional commission a decade ago, said public opinion is not a monolith across the region. Unlike in Jamaica, he said there was no major push for change in his country: Consultations by the commission found little interest in the idea of changing the head of state.
He attributed the different attitudes in part to the fact that progressive politics have long garnered more traction in Jamaica, and partly to the Royal Family’s personal connections to the Bahamas. King Charles spent a lot of time there in his younger days and some of the Mountbattens, his cousins, live in the country.
Mr. McWeeney said he believes there is “a certain inevitability” to the Bahamas eventually ditching the monarchy, as it represents a “culmination of the process of evolution.” But he doesn’t think it will happen any time soon. “A lot depend on how Charles handles himself, how he acquits himself going forward. It remains to be seen if he is able to capture the imagination of the public in the way of his mother,” Mr. McWeeney said. “But we’re currently in a very full monarchical position and I don’t see that changing at all in the near term.”
The King has also begun to acknowledge the underlying issues at play. During a Commonwealth meeting in Rwanda earlier this year, he said he felt “personal sorrow at the suffering” caused by slavery and wanted to engage in a “conversation” about it.
Referendum or no, Ms. Hamilton, the Jamaican republican activist, said the first step for the Crown would be to take responsibility for this legacy of imperialism. In Jamaica, she said, chronic poverty, violence and poor health care all trace their roots to colonialism. These are things that the King, with his long history overseeing various NGOs, could tangibly help with. After all, she pointed out, the British government famously gave £20-million in compensation to slaveowners upon abolition in 1834. Taxpayers only finished paying off the debt from that sum, equivalent to about $26-billion in today’s money, in 2015.
“Our foreparents, whose blood, sweat and tears created their wealth,” she said, “received not a cent.”
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