Two days after Queen Elizabeth II’s death on Sept. 8, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda said that the island-nation would hold a referendum on becoming a republic in the next three years. King Charles III, the head of the British former colony’s state, would be removed if the referendum succeeds. It follows an increase in Caribbean republicanism support, campaigners argue. This is part a bigger reckoning with British colonialism and slavery in the Caribbean.
But while the Queen’s death has reignited conversations over republicanism in some of the 15 countries where King Charles III is head of state—including in New Zealand, where Prime Minister Jacinda Arden says she expected the change to happen “in [her] lifetime” but nonetheless dismissed any imminent proposals—the calls are strongest in the eight Caribbean nations.
Even before the Queen’s death, the republican movement was thriving in the region—in November, Barbados became the first country to remove the Queen as head of state since Mauritius in 1992. According to reports, the Jamaican government also wants to do so. Experts and activists tell TIME that the Royal Family is being viewed as outdated by more Caribbeans living in ex-British colonies. Their symbolic role in their islands is not appropriate. (The 15 countries where King Charles III is head of state are all constitutional monarchies—they are ruled by elected governments and the monarchy’s role is largely symbolic.)
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The strength of the feeling in the Caribbean that the monarchy is outdated was exemplified by protests during Prince William and Kate Middleton’s royal tour of Belize, Jamaica, and the Bahamas in March last year—during which the couples were photographed, to much criticism, of shaking hands with Jamaican children through a wire fence.
According to Natasha Lightfoot, a professor at Columbia University specializing in emancipation studies and Antiguan colonial history, the death of Queen Elizabeth II is the latest “touchstone in the trajectory toward republicanism” in countries like Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda.
Peter Wickham (Barbarian political analyst, pollster) says that a country’s transition to become a republic could not bring any tangible benefits for Antigua or Barbuda. But the symbolism is nonetheless important in redefining former colonies’ political futures, advocates say. “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,” said then-Governor General Dame Sandra Mason, who is now President of Barbados, in September 2020.
An “unacceptable” arrangement
The British monarchy was central to the establishment, expansion, and maintenance of the British empire—which at one point comprised nearly a quarter of the earth’s surface—and the transatlantic slave trade. The British East India Company was established in 1600 by Queen Elizabeth I. This charter allowed for expansion and the trafficking of slaves. King Charles II created the Royal African Company, which transported more than 3,000 Africans from Africa to Barbados.
Many activists and academics believe that moving to republicanism will be the first step toward recovering compensation for human rights abuses, plundering countries during colonialism and other violations. “We are very mindful of the fact that our forebears were not compensated while our enslavers were,” says Rosalea Hamilton, a Jamaican trade expert and organizer of the Advocates Network, a group of Jamaican academics, politicians, and cultural figures calling for reparations. When slavery was abolished in British colonies in 1833, the British government paid £20 million—£1.65 billion ($1.91 billion) in today’s money, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator—in compensation to 3,000 slave-owning families for the loss of what they saw as their property. The British government borrowed some money to accomplish this, but it was not repaid until 2015.
Hamilton claims that Jamaica’s colonial past is evident in poor housing, socioeconomic inequality, crime, and violence. The repercussions are also present in Caribbean diaspora communities in the U.K.—the Windrush scandal that first surfaced in 2017 exposed the wrongful deportation of Caribbean immigrants that had arrived after the Second World War, or their descendants. “Jamaicans fought and died for England [in the war],” Hamilton says. “Many of them grew up being told that they were British citizens, that the British flag was theirs, that the Queen was theirs,” until governmental policies, that she says are part of the colonial legacy, rejected them.
Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, and Prince William (Duke of Cambridge) ride in Land Rovers as they participate the first Commissioning Parade of service personnel across the Caribbean at the Jamaica Defence Force. This is day 6 of the Platinum Jubilee Royal Tour of the Caribbean. 24, 2022, Kingston, Jamaica
Samir Hussein—WireImage via Getty Images
Activists say that reparatory justice for the British monarchy requires both compensation and a formal recognition of the monarchy’s role in the brutal history. During a visit to Rwanda in June, then-Prince Charles expressed “personal sorrow at the suffering of so many as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact.” His words, says Hamilton, brought “new vigor” to the call for reparations. “He at least acknowledged the need for conversation, and that’s a great place to start,” she adds.
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Charles, however, had not offered a formal apology. Lightfoot doesn’t know if one will ever be offered, considering the huge legal consequences it could have for the monarchy. “If there’s an acknowledgement of harm done, then there’s a legal standing for any claims of material reparations,” she says. These claims could open a “Pandora’s box” for the monarchy, she adds, given the many “places in the world that would like to see an apology.”
Wickham says referendums will take Antigua, Barbuda and Jamaica on the path toward republicanism. According to Wickham, Barbados was allowed to be a republic thanks in large part, to its favorable constitution that requires a majority of two-thirds. In Jamaica, however, it can only happen through a referendum with a two-thirds majority—a more difficult bar to clear.
“It’s not that the anti-monarchical sentiment isn’t strong,’ Wickham says, referring to these challenges. “But when the rubber meets the road, I don’t expect that we’re going to move any faster simply because the level of political polarization is such that it’s difficult to do.” Both Antigua and Barbuda and Grenada held failed referendums in 2018 and 2016, respectively, on constitutional reform that would have limited the role of the British monarchy and courts in the countries, which Wickham says is evidence of the difficulties that lie ahead for many countries—and not just in the Caribbean.
For example, Canada’s transition to republic requires unanimous approval by all provincial legislatures and national parliaments. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada has indicated that he does not intend to begin the complex process any time soon. “In a complicated world, her steady grace and resolve brought comfort and strength to us all,” he said following Queen Elizabeth II’s death last week. “Canada is in mourning.”
But Hamilton thinks that the public’s desire in the Caribbean to achieve full sovereignty is growing. “The more people hear and are reminded of the history, the more the arrangement becomes unacceptable in the modern world,” she says.
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