Sat | Jul 2, 2022

I smell a rat

Published:Saturday | May 14, 2022 | 12:07 AMProfessor Gus John - Guest Columnist
Augustine John
Augustine John

The Black Cultural Archives (BCA) in Windrush Square, Brixton, is hosting an online armchair debate on May 16 about the recent Caribbean tour by William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, hosted by Dr Yvonne Thompson CBE, the new Chair of the BCA.

The event is billed as their newest community-engagement initiative aimed at getting “the community’s constructive take on the now infamous royal tour, as a great example of BCA’s commitment to use its active voice to represent our communities”.

The BCA is telling communities that it is time to speak up and have their voices heard and that messages would go “from your mouths to their ears”. So the BCA is interested in capturing communities’ perceptions of the royals’ recent tour and “what if anything, that means for Britons of Caribbean heritage and the Caribbean diaspora in the UK”.

They are also interested in thoughts on what we would want to see from the House of Cambridge and other members of the royal family regarding any subsequent visits to the Caribbean and Commonwealth countries; what our advice and views are about ‘how the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as younger members of the royal family, can be relevant to the British Caribbean heritage community and other black British communities’; who else they should engage with to make the relationships more meaningful; things the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge can learn from what other members of the royal family do; and what the Commonwealth means to us, our families, and friends.

If the communities’ take on these matters is going from ‘our mouths to their ears’, this clearly is much more than the BCA canvassing views at a particular moment in time to curate for posterity. To whom, then, is the BCA representing our communities and why those particular questions? Most of the protests the royals encountered during their Caribbean tour were to do with demands for reparations and for Britain to right historical wrongs, rather than simply repeating that African enslavement was awful and should not have happened. Why no BCA focus on the role of the British Caribbean heritage community in respect of those demands? Why on earth should we want to help the royal family prepare better for any subsequent visits to the Caribbean and Commonwealth countries? Is this about enabling them to argue that even we who they treat so abysmally have given their visits a seal of approval?

chattel exploitation

The questions the BCA is posing in this consultation presuppose that the royal family has an automatic right to go swanning around the Caribbean and Commonwealth countries and to impose themselves on the people at will (as is proposed for the British Virgin Islands). Caribbean countries, republics or not, could decide that there would be no ‘subsequent visits to the Caribbean and Commonwealth countries’, especially the black commonwealth, until the House of Windsor and the British government physically get around the table with representatives of governments and civil society organisations from their former colonies to receive and discuss demands for reparatory justice and reparations for genocide, enslavement, chattel exploitation, and national and regional underdevelopment.

Ever since Britain abandoned those Caribbean countries to their fate and joined the European economic community and union, the countries of the Caribbean should have acted collectively to hold it and the royal family to account and make it plain that they couldn’t just walk away and leave some titular colonial figurehead of a governor general to take care of business for the British crown.

And as for ‘how the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, as younger members of the royal family, can be relevant to the British Caribbean heritage community’, on whose behalf is the BCA consulting with its communities of interest?

If by now William and Kate have not engaged with the issues confronting the British Caribbean heritage community and other black British communities despite the many social and political movements those communities have built over the last half-century and the shelf full of government reports there have been since the Parliamentary Select Committee published evidence about ‘the Problems of Coloured School-Leavers’ in 1968-69, who or what would make them want to do so now, especially as rather than taking responsibility to tackle the legacy of empire and the structural racism that is the most obvious evidence of that legacy, they have compounded it?

The BCA owes it not just to black communities, but to the whole nation to come clean about the genesis and true purpose of this consultation and how the views and advice it canvasses would reach the royal family.

Later this month after the BCA consultation, another mass deportation flight is due to leave the UK with some 50 UK residents bound for Jamaica. Many of them have lived in Britain since before William and Kate were born, having come here below the age of 12. Some of them will have gained convictions as a consequence of the way black people are routinely criminalised by the police and criminal injustice system. And all of that is happening at precisely the same time that Britain is opening its borders to thousands of refugees, escapees from Russian barbarism in Ukraine. But then I suppose the British government would argue that its own barbarism towards the forebears of those who it is deporting is something we should all have got over a century or more ago.

If the BCA wants William and Kate to be relevant to the British Caribbean community, especially after their recent visit to Jamaica, it should send a message straight to their ears, demanding that they intervene to get QE2’s government to stop those deportation flights and desist from banishing black people who have known no other home than Britain to countries from which their parents once came.

For their part, the residents of those countries should prepare to welcome any future royals with placards and billboards, Theresa May style, warning: ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ for genocide, abduction, and enslavement, unlawful occupation of sovereign territories, and living off the proceeds of crimes against humanity from one generation to the next.

Professor Augustine John is a human rights campaigner and honorary Fellow and Associate Professor at the UCL Institute of Education, University of London.