Why Prince William + Kate’s Caribbean Tour Is Controversial

The British royal family is facing embarrassment on the international stage this week as protests disrupt Prince William and Kate Middleton’s tour of former British colonies in the Caribbean. The weeklong trip of the Duke and Duchess began March 19 with a visit to Belize and Jamaica.

Officially, the trip was meant to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, celebrating 70 years on the throne. Many believe the trip was intended to convince the three countries not to go along with Barbados which became a republic in November last year, but to retain Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state. But growing calls to cut formal ties with the Queen and campaigns for slavery reparations have ignited a reckoning with the region’s colonial past.

How is Prince William and Kate’s visit sparking controversy?

On March 22, Prince William and Kate made their second stop on the trip to Jamaica. Only a day later, The Independent reported that the Jamaican government had begun the process of transitioning the island nation—which is the largest English speaking country in the Caribbean—to a republic.

It was a very difficult time for them. The day before the couple’s arrival in the country, one hundred Jamaican academics, politicians, and cultural figures signed an open letter calling for the royal family and British government to apologize and pay reparations for subjecting the island to colonial rule and slavery.

“We are of the view an apology for British crimes against humanity, including but not limited to the exploitation of the indigenous people of Jamaica, the transatlantic trafficking of Africans, the enslavement of Africans, indentureship and colonialization is necessary to begin a process of healing, forgiveness, reconciliation and compensation,” the letter said.

The letter’s consignatories describe Prince William and Kate as “direct beneficiaries of the wealth accumulated by the royal family…from the trafficking and enslavement of Africans”. In reference to the Queen’s Jubilee, the letter reads: “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, has perpetuated the greatest human rights tragedy in the history of humankind.”

The group, called the Advocates Network, staged a protest March 22 outside the British High Commission in Kingston to coincide with the couple’s arrival. Demonstrators held banners reading “#SehYuhSorry and make REPARATIONS.”

The following day, Prince William stopped short of an apology, instead expressing “profound sorrow” for the “appalling atrocity of slavery” during an address to Jamaica’s prime minister March 23.

“Slavery was abhorrent and it never should have happened,” he said. “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.”

The Advocates Network issued a statement in response, calling the Prince’s words “unacceptable,” adding: “There was no responsibility taken! No call out of centuries of British bloody conquest and plunder.”

Events in Jamaica weren’t the only controversy for the couple on their tour. The day they touched down in Belize, their first stop of the tour, they cancelled their engagement. William and Kate were due to visit a cocoa farm March 20 but locals staged a protest against the visit, objecting to the couple’s plans to land their helicopter on a nearby football pitch without consultation, the Daily Mail reported.

Protests took place as part of wider land disputes between indigenous communities and Flora and Fauna International, the conservation charity William is patron. Locals allege that the charity controls their communal ancestral lands, lost in the colonial era, as “private property,” according to the report. Demonstrators carried banners reading ‘Prince William leave our land’ and ‘Colonial legacy of theft continues with Prince and FFI’.

Is the Queen still Head of State in all 14 Independent Countries?

Queen Elizabeth II is the monarch not only of the U.K. but of 14 other nations, such as Australia, Canada, and Papua New Guinea. They are called the Commonwealth realms. They are distinct from the Commonwealth of Nations, a group of 54 countries that were once part of the British Empire—the majority of which no longer recognize the Queen as sovereign.

The nations of the Commonwealth realms are constitutional monarchies—the Queen is a symbolic head of state but the countries are ruled by elected governments. Although the Queen does not participate in governance, she still has some constitutional duties such as authorizing new legislation and approving new government.

Although the Queen’s position in these nations is mostly symbolic, the U.K. government noted that the monarchy forms part of Britain’s outsized influence on the world.

Barbados, which was founded in November 1992 by Sandra Mason as the island’s governor-general, became the country that removed the Queen from office. Dame Sandra Mason, the island’s governor-general since 2018, was named as president-elect of the nation. “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,” she said.

In other Commonwealth countries, debates about the abolishment of monarchy continue for many decades. In 1999, Australia and St. Vincent and Grenadines in the Caribbean held unsuccessful referendums to become republics. Jacinda Arden (Prime Minister of New Zealand), spoke to the GuardianShe predicted that the country would become a republic by her time in 2018.

Peter Wickham (Barbados political analyst, pollster) says that some Commonwealth kingdoms might not be able to give up their monarchy, regardless of whether the public or government wants it. Barbados became a republic due to its constitution, which allowed it to make the final decision on its own. A referendum must be voted on by a majority of the country’s citizens in order to make it happen. “I don’t believe it will ever happen because the referendum will be manipulated by political parties,” Wickham says, drawing comparisons with the divisions caused by the U.K.’s Brexit referendum.

What makes campaigners want to remove the Queen from head of state?

Although the Queen’s role in Commonwealth realms is largely symbolic, attitudes towards the royal family are varied and complex. Wickham says that although Elizabeth herself is quite popular in many Caribbean countries, she is perceived as “not really relevant.”

“We don’t have a problem with her or even monarchy as such,” he says. “Most of us think she’s all the way in England and there’s no reason why we should maintain her as head of state.”

Some people believe that the Queen’s continued rule as head of government is detrimental to independence. “Imagine being given independence, and then to be told as an adult nation, that the Queen still had a stake in Jamaica and that the island is not really free. It is still an infant colony,” Jamaican-born British writer and academic Dr. Velma McCarthy told TIME.

Jamaica celebrates this year its 60-year independence anniversary from Britain. There have been calls to republicanism. Mark Golding is the leader of Jamaican opposition. He says that after the death of George Floyd, in 2020, conversations about Jamaican national identity were rekindled in Jamaica.

“There are strong feelings that the royal family should apologize for their involvement with the slave trade and the plantation system which our people went through for a few hundred years,” Golding tells TIME. “I think it would enhance the cohesiveness of the relationship going forward.”

Golding says that although William and Kate’s trip to Jamaica may have been more “fraught” than they expected, he hopes it was a revelatory experience for the couples at the center of the royal family’s future. “I hope that they will realize that a better future can be assured by some introspection and reflection on the past, and the role of the institution of which they are now key members.”

Campaigners are also demanding compensation for human rights violations dating back centuries that continue to affect ex-colonies today. CARICOM (an intergovernmental organisation of 15 Caribbean states) unanimously adopted in 2014 a 10-point program calling upon European countries to pay former colonies compensation for their centuries of slavery, exploitation, and mistreatment. These demands call for the repatriation and cancellation of debts of descendants of slaves. The body, which includes Jamaica and Barbados, says that the subjugation of former colonies by European governments is “the primary cause of development failure in the Caribbean.” Golding agrees, attributing issues of economic and healthcare inequality in Jamaica to the legacy of colonialism.

“Today, Jamaicans are still struggling and relying on remittances from relatives abroad, McCarthy says. “I’m 65 years old this year, and I’ve been sending remittances [from the U.K.] to rural Jamaicas since I was 17 years old.”

Another issue that has influenced public opinion in ex-British colonies are the allegations of racism by Meghan Markle (the first biracial woman married into the Royal Family).

“Suddenly, all of us who before didn’t really take much notice of the royal family began to see what was happening to Markle,” McCarthy says. “She was vilified as a Black woman and no statement of support was made by the [royal] family.”

Markle’s allegations were so damaging the royal family was forced to respond. The Queen issued a statement calling them “concerning,” while Prince William defended the monarchy, saying, “We’re very much not a racist family.”

How does the British monarchy in the global future look?

Despite a string of royal controversies in recent months—from Prince Andrew’s settlement in a sexual assault lawsuit to allegations of a cash-for-honors scandal at Prince Charles’ charity—public opinion of the Queen herself remains high. However, her heir may be in a different league. Ipsos Mori conducted a survey of nearly 2,000 British adults. It found that the Queen (who tested positive to COVID-19) is three times as popular as Prince Charles.

Learn more Who’s Paying Prince Andrew’s $16 Million Settlement to Virginia Giuffre? The Royal Finances: What You Need to Know

A few royal watchers have speculated that Kate and Prince William, who are 39 and 40, respectively, may be investing in the future leaders of this royal family. Charles, who is 73 years old, might not remain on the throne for as many years as Charles. The popularity of Charles and his wife are double that of their husband. The Caribbean tour was a crucial test of the monarchy’s relevance in the modern era—the scale of the opposition William and Kate faced may well trouble the Queen.

Ultimately, however, Barbadian political analyst Wickham believes the future of the British monarchy outside the U.K. is less an issue of royal popularity than it is about countries’ national identity. “This is not about Queen Elizabeth herself. It’s not about an individual,” he says. “It’s really about us moving in a different direction.”

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