‘Seh Yu Sorry!’ Royal visit to Jamaica sparks protests and calls for slavery reparations

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during a tour of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, July 7, 2011. Photo by Kat2Kat2 on Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

On March 22, when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and his wife Catherine (“Kate”), stepped off the plane on a windy afternoon at Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport, the ensuing commentary was about much more than the Duchess’ daffodil yellow designer dress — but they would have, no doubt, been briefed on what to expect.

A wave of controversy had been steadily building as the royals embarked on a regional tour to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's platinum jubilee year. Even before they arrived, protesters were gathering outside the British High Commission to call for an apology for the British royal family’s support of slavery — which ended in 1830 in Jamaica — as well as reparations for the wrongs committed under colonial rule.

The first leg of the royal tour of the Caribbean began in Belize, a Commonwealth country in Central America. It had gone fairly smoothly, although a protest by Indigenous peoples caused a change in the royal couple’s schedule. One British writer observed:

Meanwhile, in Jamaica, the body language in a photograph shared by health administrator Wayne Chen sparked considerable comment from Jamaican social media users. It showed the Duchess of Cambridge flanked by Jamaica's Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamina Johnson Smith (left in the photograph) and the opposition People’s National Party‘s (PNP) representative, Lisa Hanna, after the airport arrival:

The local protests were based on an Open Letter to William and Kate, published on March 20 and composed by the Advocates Network, which campaigns “for human rights and good governance to improve the socio-economic conditions of the people of Jamaica and to transform lives.” The letter was signed by 100 Jamaicans [including the author of this post]:

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, have perpetuated the greatest human rights tragedy in the history of humankind. Her ascension to the throne, in February 1952, took place 14 years after the 1938 labour uprisings against inhumane working/living conditions and treatment of workers; painful legacies of plantation slavery, which persist today. 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 […]

We will, however, celebrate 60 years of freedom from British colonial domination. We are saddened that more progress has not been made given the burden of our colonial inheritance. We nonetheless celebrate the many achievements of great Jamaicans who rejected negative, colonial self-concepts and who self-confidently succeeded against tremendous odds. We will also remember and celebrate our freedom fighters, including our National Heroes, who bravely fought against British tyrannical rule and abominable human rights abuses. We welcome you to join this celebration.

Attached to the letter, which was handed over to a representative of the British High Commission by Professor Rosalea Hamilton and Patricia Phillips, was a list of “60 Reasons,” including documented atrocities under slavery. Among the many protestors were members of Jamaica's Rastafarian community, academics, musicians and entertainers. Moderator of the popular Running Africa Forum on Irie FM radio, Ka'Bu Ma'at Kheru, shared on Facebook:

The STRUGGLE is REAL. This morning we PROTESTED. This evening RASTAFARI drumming, chanting and WELCOMING the children of the ENSLAVERS with the NYABINGHI DRUMS😭😭😭😭😭😭😭😭

During the Royals’ brief visit to Montego Bay on March 23, a leader of the Rastafari Coral Gardens Benevolent Society said that the monarchy “owes us millions, billions and trillions of dollars”:

The women's arm of the opposition party penned an open letter to the Duchess of Cambridge, noting:

Leader of the Opposition Mark Golding has stated his intention to sit with you and your husband to discuss reparations. We appeal to you as a mother, as a wife, as a woman, and as a human being to encourage a real conversation, which results in your understanding of the role of your family in our development as a country and the role that justice demands you play in righting those wrongs.

We believe you want to see a world where every human being's life is treated with dignity no matter the colour of his/her skin. But to level the playing field requires more than awareness of the injustice, it requires investment.

It was only in 2015 that the British Government made their last payment to the descendants of plantation owners as compensation for the loss of slaves resulting from Emancipation.

It is now time to make payments to the descendants of the enslaved.

The visit drew extensive and widespread attention from overseas media, in particular the British press, as well as American, Canadian and Australian broadcast and print media, many of whom had reporters on the island. While the “royal reporters” coverage was predictably glowing and positive, other journalists asked hard questions.

Social media users, commenting on a royal visit to the community of Trench Town, were also on the ball:

Well-known attorney-at-law and Pan Africanist Bert Samuels commented:

During a photo op at his office on the second day of the royal visit, Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the Duke and Duchess that Jamaica is considering “moving on” towards abandoning the monarchy and becoming a republic, as Barbados did last year:

Referring to former UK Prime Minister David Cameron's remarks during a 2015 visit that Jamaicans should “move on” and “get over” slavery — a comment which sparked considerable anger — Jamaican blogger and retired economist Dennis Jones observed dryly:

In a letter to the Jamaica Gleaner, a member of the Advocates Network, Anglican priest Sean Major Campbell, recalled that Cameron “displayed a lack of common decency, emotional intelligence, and sensitivity for the pain and suffering endured by our revered ancestors and the manumitted who were never even compensated for the centuries of Great Britain’s prosperity at the expense of the lives and dehumanizing experiences.”

Despite the protests, however, the first two days of the visit passed off in a generally friendly fashion, as the royal couple was welcomed with the customary Jamaican politeness and hospitality.

One Jamaican tweeted wryly:

However, the hoped-for apology did not take place during Prince William's speech. While expressing regret, he stopped short of an apology. At a formal dinner at King's House (the home of the Governor-General who remains Jamaica's Head of State) on March 23, veteran journalist Fae Ellington reported:

One Jamaican gave a terse response:

An evening current affairs show on Jamaican television included Professor of History at the University of the West Indies Verene Shepherd, who chairs the National Commission on Reparations. The question was asked whether Jamaicans truly understand their history, and the connection between colonialism, slavery, and the UK Monarchy:

A Jamaican public relations practitioner boiled it down:

Leaving Jamaica on March 24, the royals now head to The Bahamas, where there have already been calls for reparations, with one Jamaican unsurprised that this refrain will be carried onto the final leg of the trip:

The Duke and Duchess can expect more protests as they conclude their tour:

Nevertheless, not all Jamaicans were completely supportive of the Advocates’ strong stance. For many who may not even use social media, it's a question of “leave it be,” while others show continued support for the monarchy:

As the Jamaican government mulls over the next steps towards leaving the monarchy behind and becoming a republic, such ambivalence from a potential “silent majority” might show itself if and when a referendum on the matter is held, but since there is currently no timeline for this, it is uncertain whether Jamaicans will be waving goodbye to the monarchy any time soon.

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