Fri | Oct 7, 2022

Royals would have heard demands for change

Published:Saturday | April 16, 2022 | 12:07 AMGus John - Guest Columnist
Augustine John
Augustine John

Much has been said about Prince William and Kate Middleton’s recent trip to Belize, Jamaica, and The Bahamas to mark 70 years since QE2’s accession to the throne and as such, head of the Commonwealth.

Listening to media commentary on the visit and seeing the pictures, I could not help thinking of my own experience of royal visits in Grenada and Trinidad as a citizen of the United Kingdom and its colonies, and my later experience in Britain as someone racialised as ‘a coloured immigrant’.

Waiting in the blazing sun for hours and fainting from the heat, and for want of water, just for the privilege of being able to wave a Union flag and get a fleeting glimpse of some royal driving by, hoping that s/he was waving at you personally, was an experience that my generation had, and more or less, took for granted.

Nobody told us how much it cost our impoverished islands to spruce up the place, mend roads and bridges that locals had lived with perilously for years before the royal visit, and lay on lavish civic receptions for the royal and their entourage and for the great and not necessarily good in government and civil society. Nor were we told that such visits on the part of some royals were invariably combined with revelries of a completely different sort in hideouts of the rich and famous, such as Mustique in the Grenadines.

Be that as it may, there are some fundamental differences between the visits of royals to the Caribbean before 1970, let’s say, and in the 21st century. Here are some.

William’s father, Charles, was born in 1948, six months after the iconic Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks with its human cargo of descendants of enslaved Africans who Britain had bled dry in its colonies in the Caribbean. They were coming to Britain not because Britain loved them and was discharging a duty of care towards them as the King’s loyal subjects, but because they were no longer economically useful in the Caribbean and were a readymade reserve pool of labour that could be deployed to put Britain together again after two devastating world wars in the space of 30 years.

William was born in June 1982 and Kate in January 1982. Ten years after Charles’ birth, there were race riots in Notting Hill and in Nottingham. One year later, neo-fascists murdered one of the Queen’s loyal subjects, the Antiguan carpenter Kelso Cochrane, four miles from Buckingham Palace.

IMMIGRATION ACTS

In 1962, both Trinidad and Jamaica won their independence from British colonial rule, remaining members of the Commonwealth. Also in 1962, the British parliament passed the first of what was to become a long roll call of racist immigration acts, effectively changing the status of nationals of those countries – and of others who later also became independent – from that of citizens of the United Kingdom and colonies and with that, their right to permanent residence in the UK.

Throughout her 70 years on the throne, the Queen has opened Parliament with unmatchable British pomp and ceremony and delivered the Queen’s Speech, telling the nation and the world what her government would and would not do. She has passed into law every piece of anti-black legislation since 1962, and so the systemic racialisation of immigration over the last 60 years, with its deadly impact upon citizens of the black Commonwealth has happened under her watch.

Even if that was too contentious a subject for William and Kate to have got their heads around while at university, they have both lived their entire life in the very same country that I have lived in since 1964. Britain’s failure to confront its colonial and imperial legacy and the racism that it spawned is as much their experience as mine, irrespective of how much they might have chosen to insulate themselves in their palaces and royal lodges and turn a blind eye to it and its implications for the monarchy now and in the future.

They cannot be unaware, for example, of the number of QE2’s loyal and law-abiding subjects who have been killed with impunity during their lifetime by the police and other state agents who were meant to be protecting them and respecting their human rights. Nor can they be unaware of the extent to which their black contemporaries across the land, also British born and bred, do not experience the society as guaranteeing them the same rights, including the right to be treated with respect and dignity, as their white peers.

My argument is simple. Even if QE2 half a century ago, or even ten years ago, traversed the Commonwealth in the name of a Britain struggling to hang on to the last vestiges of colonialism, while steadfastly refusing to entertain any notion of its historical responsibility to right racial wrongs, there is absolutely no justification for Charles, let alone William and Kate to do the same. But they can only do so because our own governments let them.

Who would have thought that in the midst of the ongoing Windrush scandal and the denial of fundamental human rights to Jamaican nationals who Britain has been deporting at will, illegally, denying them the right to bare essentials and to access to health care that could keep them alive, Jamaica would want to open its arms and embrace William and Kate in celebration of 70 years on the throne of a monarch that refuses to act upon the knowledge of the contribution of African enslavement to her ginormous wealth?

Colonial Britain did its utmost to get the African Diaspora in the Caribbean to deny our African ancestry and identity. Now, the monarchy and the British state are conducting themselves as if what they do in the Caribbean has nothing whatsoever to do with how we experience them here.

William told the people of Jamaica of his ‘profound sorrow’ for Britain’s role in African enslavement, which suggested that neither the monarchy nor the British state had any intention of acknowledging the responsibility that placed upon them to make recompense and ensure that patterns of dehumanisation and racial subjugation did not persist. Yet he wanted the people of the Caribbean to believe that in his words, his and Kate’s trip was meant to “reaffirm our desire to serve the people of the Commonwealth and to listen to communities around the world”.

Hopefully, they are not just listening but hearing the increasingly shrill demands for reparations and reparatory justice and for an end to state racism in Britain.

Professor Augustine John is visiting professor, Office of Teaching & Learning, at Coventry University, and honorary fellow and associate professor at the UCL Institute of Education, University of London.