King Charles’ coronation stirs little interest in the Caribbean, save for how he plans to respond to calls for reparations

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Following the 70-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles III was installed as Britain's new monarch on May 6, 2023. While some international media organisations were calling the event a “once-in-a-generation ceremony,” it was just another day in the Caribbean, a region that has long struggled with the UK's legacy of colonisation and the lingering effects of the transatlantic slave trade.

This is not to say that the Caribbean and other members of the Commonwealth were not represented at the coronation. Despite Barbados becoming a republic in 2021 and Jamaica making similar noises post the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's fraught 2022 regional tour, a sizeable contingent of Caribbean leaders was in attendance, from Antigua and Barbuda, The Bahamas, St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Guyana, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

Regional troops played an active role in the ceremony, as did three women with Caribbean roots: former children’s television presenter Baroness Floella Benjamin, who has Trinidadian roots and chaired the Windrush Commemoration Committee, carried the new king's sceptre; Guyana-born Baroness Valerie Amos, the first Black woman to serve as a Cabinet minister, joined the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Act of Recognition at the start of the coronation ceremony; and Reverend Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the Bishop of Dover who originally hails from Jamaica, presented the Queen Consort’s rod.

In light of the UK's past responses to the issue of reparations, however, such attempts at diversity rang hollow for many Caribbean citizens. Britain has never apologised for its role in the slave trade.

A few key regional heads of government, most notably prime ministers Keith Rowley (Trinidad and Tobago), Andrew Holness (Jamaica) and Mia Mottley (Barbados), did not attend the coronation. Despite Prime Minister Mottley, who is known to have a good relationship with the king, sending a message of congratulations, this Twitter user shared a UK Guardian opinion piece that suggested:

Clips of an ITV interview with Barbara Blake-Hannah, a specialist on Jamaican culture, literature and society, also made their way onto Twitter:

In the clip, Blake-Hannah refers to Meghan Markle and Prince Harry's revelation in a 2021 interview with U.S. talk show host Oprah Winfrey that a member of the royal family expressed interest in the potential skin colour of their then-unborn son, Archie. Blake-Hannah noted, “It stunned us. Still does.”

Meanwhile, Jamaica's Minister for Legal and Constitutional Affairs, Marlene Malahoo-Forte, told Sky News that “the time has come” for Jamaica to be “in Jamaican hands”:

The country is hoping to have a referendum on the matter next year. Belize is also taking action to remove itself from the hold of the British monarchy.

Though the coronation ceremony involved people of colour and made concerted attempts to use language and prayers that focused on inclusivity, the new king failed to directly address reparative justice, or even publicly acknowledge his country’s role in the atrocities against enslaved Africans and Indigenous communities, in spite of heightened public awareness of the issue and activists’ agitation for amends to be made.

Once abolition was declared in 1834, the British government financially compensated former slaveowners for the loss of their labour force, while the newly “freed” enslaved people received nothing, with many even having to continue labouring for years with no pay under an “apprenticeship” programme.

For many Caribbean citizens, the coronation of a new monarch is an opportunity to do things differently. In a piece published at Open Democracy, Jamaican educator and author Carolyn Joy Cooper wrote:

As Jamaica slowly engages in the process of becoming a republic, the British monarchy is being held to account for centuries of atrocities. The research has been done and the evidence is indisputable: successive kings and queens of England were engaged in the trafficking of enslaved Africans for 270 years.

The new king's first tenuous steps to investigate the British monarchy's ties to slavery via a research project left Cooper unimpressed:

What is there to reconsider? The case is closed. One of the deadly enterprises in which the Crown was engaged was human trafficking. This ‘engagement’ cannot be reconceptualised in any other terms than as a classic manifestation of royal entitlement to brutality.

Noting that the CARICOM Reparations Commission has a clear, 10-point plan for reparations, Cooper concluded:

King Charles’ ‘explicit support’ for research on ‘the links between the British monarchy and the transatlantic slave trade’ may prove to be just as flaccid as his repeated declaration of ‘profound sorrow’ for the trafficking in Africans that was enabled by the monarchy. Talk is, indeed, very cheap. Further research is nothing but impotent deferral of vigorous action. King Charles must translate the rhetoric of sorrow into the truly meaningful language of immediate reparations.

On May 4, two days ahead of King Charles’ coronation, representatives from advocacy and Indigenous groups from as many as 12 Commonwealth countries made a joint statement calling for King Charles to formally apologise for slavery and start the reparations process in order to right the wrongs of colonisation:

The next move belongs to the king.

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