‘Moment of reckoning’: Queen’s death fuels Jamaica’s republican movement | Jamaica

In a crisp black suit, white shirt and black tie, Daniel Pryce reached the end of a mile-long driveway flanked by palm trees and clipped lawns. He had come to King’s House to perform his duty, as he put it, by signing a book of condolence for the Queen, whom he served as equerry on her final visit to Jamaica in 2002.

“The very last moment of that visit, as she was about to alight the aircraft, she turned around and she shook my hand and she said ‘Thank you, Daniel’,” the 58-year-old recalled on Tuesday as flags flew at half mast in serene sunshine. “It was the first time she referred to me by my first name and that was special for me.”

Daniel Pryce at the King’s House in Kingston, Jamaica.
Daniel Pryce at the King’s House in Kingston, Jamaica. Photograph: David Smith/The Guardian

But in downtown Kingston, amid noisy street markets bustling with uniformed schoolchildren and vendors selling bananas, calabashes and mangos, memories of the monarch were less charitable. On the aptly named Charles Street, a Rastafarian known as Ras Ralph, 63, said: “The Queen robbed black people of their riches. Africa, Jamaica, all our own. We have no reason to celebrate someone who enslaved us.”

The death of Elizabeth II, and the accession of King Charles III, has given fresh impetus to republican movements in the 14 Commonwealth “realms” where the British monarch remains head of state. It comes at a moment of reckoning for Britain’s imperial legacy and the royal family’s culpability for slavery, and demands for reparations.

Barbados cut ties with the British monarchy last year. Antigua and Barbuda announced plans last week for a referendum on becoming a republic within three years. Jamaica, another Caribbean island currently in 12 official days of mourning for the Queen, appears hungry for sovereignty.

Andrew Holness, the prime minister, said last year: “There is no question that Jamaica has to become a republic.” In March he told Prince William and his wife, Kate, that “we are moving on” and that Jamaica intends to be “an independent, developed, prosperous country”. Last month a newspaper poll found that more than half of Jamaicans wanted to remove the Queen as head of state.

It would be a hugely symbolic break. After Oliver Cromwell’s forces seized Jamaica from Spain in 1655, it became Britain’s wealthiest colony and the world’s leading producer of sugar. Britain shipped an estimated 600,000 enslaved people from the west coast of Africa to work in Jamaica’s plantations and enrich the empire. Many died under brutal discipline as landowners built “great houses” in the Georgian style.

National Heroes Park in Kingston commemorates figures such as Samuel Sharpe, a deacon hanged in 1832 for inspiring a slave rebellion that led to the Slavery Abolition Act a year later, but also contains a memorial to Jamaicans who fought and died for Britain in the first world war.

In 1962, a decade after the Queen came to the throne, Jamaica gained independence at a ceremony attended by Princess Margaret. Yet from courts to schools, from military barracks to cricket fields, bonds between the nations remained strong and affection for the Queen herself scarcely wavered over six decades.

Now, many among the 3 million population feel it is time to take the final step. Carolyn Cooper, 71, an author and professor emerita of the University of West Indies, Mona, said: “It would be a fulfilment of the promise of independence. The decolonisation process is not complete as long as the head of state is the monarch of England.”

She noted that the Royal African Company was established by King Charles II to enable the trade in enslaved Africans. “The British monarchy represents a racist, genocidal, rapacious politics. They represent the worst of our history. The Royal African Company was responsible for trading more African slaves to the Americas than any other company and was owned completely by the British crown.”

Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, went to Jamaica six times but King Charles III will not dare visit, Cooper predicted, because he would draw an even more hostile reaction than the protests that greeted Prince William, who spoke of his “profound sorrow” over slavery but stopped short of an apology.

Cooper added: “The death is a moment of reckoning. In the past people might have said, ‘all right, she’s a nice little old lady, let her live her life, we’re not going to terrorise her’. Now she’s dead it is time for us to reflect on what the monarchy means, even in the UK. The monarchy has sucked up so much of the wealth of England.

“They’re so rich from ill-gotten gains. If only a fraction of that could be redistributed throughout the Commonwealth for the infrastructure we need for roads and schools and hospitals. Reparations is not a joke. It’s about trying to repair the damage of centuries of exploitation.”

Branding irons, a cat-o-nine tail, a neck restraint and handcuffs are displayed in a glass case at the Institute of Jamaica’s national museum. So too is a wood-carved effigy of Elizabeth II paraded through Kingston on a float during the independence celebrations in 1962.

Ayanna Gordon, curatorial assistant at the Institute of Jamaica’s national museum.
Ayanna Gordon, curatorial assistant at the Institute of Jamaica’s national museum. Photograph: David Smith/The Guardian

Ayanna Gordon, a curatorial assistant, said: “The legacy is more negative than positive. There are so many places in Kingston that are named after Queen Victoria and so it meant that Britain stamped her presence in a very indelible way in our country, in architecture, in buildings, in so many areas, but it didn’t develop our people.

“We’re still suffering from the legacies of the plantation. We’re suffering from the legacies of slavery. We’re suffering from the legacies of Windrush. We’re suffering from mass migration and brain drain. We need to get the reparations whether we are republic are not. To me, the reparation is more important than the republic.”

On the campus of the University of West Indies, Mona, a simple monument honours about 200 enslaved people known to have once lived in the area from 1817 to 1832. It lists names – overtly anglicised – that include William Bennett, Donald Gordon, Peter Robertson, Liverpool, George Rae, Nelson, Somerset, Edgar, Julian, Portia, Amelia, Charlotte, Phoebe, Judy and Eleanor Rutherford.

Two centuries on, up a drive called the Queen’s Way, students wander the grounds, carrying backpacks and consumed by smartphones like students anywhere. Many interviewed by the Guardian expressed indifference to the monarchy. Some suggested that Jamaica should first address more pressing concerns, such as crime and education. Others felt that severance was urgent.

Shane Brown, 30, an education administrator, said: “For a sense of identity and who we are as a people, it should have happened a long time ago. It’s an absolute travesty that to this day that institution is still the head of state. It’s a bit of an absurdity to the concept of independence.”

Sitting outside a cafe just before a downpour of rain, Jevaughn Gordon, a communications student, noted a generational divide between “people who were there in the 50s and 60s” and “millennials and Gen Z-ers who are globalised and watch The Crown”. The latter have become engaged in the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice.

Gordon, 22, said: “A lot of people understand that in the US there is a lot of institutionalised racism, especially since George Floyd and instances of black people getting oppressed by the police or experiencing some form of segregation from the general public.

“In Jamaica, we feel that too. People now feel a part of that community and have that charge to speak out against oppression and marginalisation among especially black people.”

Others in Jamaica agree that advances such as the New York Times’s 1619 Project, emphasising the centrality of slavery to American history, and demonstrations in Britain that saw the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston, a transatlantic slave trader, have heightened global consciousness of how white privilege came at the price of black generational trauma.

Mikael Phillips, an opposition member of parliament who in 2020 filed a motion backing the removal of the monarch, said: “What happened in Britain and the US has brought the conversation locally here in Jamaica about our own identity as people of colour, as black people. Those two have brought the conversation to persons who would not normally have that conversation, hence why there’s a difference in the poll numbers.”

Last year the Jamaican government said it would ask Britain for compensation for the enslaved people forcibly taken to the island. The push for a republic, however, has moved slowly owing to internal political wrangles, for example over whether the new head of state would be an executive or ceremonial president. There are plans to set up a committee to review the constitution before a referendum can be held.

Phillips, 50, who represents the constituency of Manchester North Western and has visited its British namesake, said he did not understand why Holness appeared to be dragging his feet.

“Maybe he was waiting, not wanting to do it with Queen Elizabeth still being head of state. Maybe not,” he said. “You either have the will or you don’t and I would feel that as a post-independence child like myself, who I believe is committed to Jamaica, [he would agree] that if the generation before ours has not been able to do it, we have a responsibility. We have the easiest opportunity to do it.”

It appears to be a question of not if but when. Even Pryce, the retired colonel who served as the Queen’s equerry 20 years ago and fondly recalls her “liberal dose of dignity”, seems prepared for history to take its course in a referendum. “If we wish to go that route, we should do so with much alacrity and not just dawdle around and talk,” he said. “I think we should just do it.”

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