The British Royals Caribbean trip, ignoring history and the need to understand inequality

In March this year, the Duke and Duchess of Kent visited the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica, as part of a charm PR offensive. The neighbouring Caribbean country of Barbados cut its strings to the British monarchy, and declared itself a republic. Hoping to discourage Jamaica from removing the Queen as head of state, the royal visit was meant to drum up support for the UK monarchy.

The trip did not go well. The royal couple were met with protests, condemning the UK monarchy’s role in the commission of slavery, demanding reparations for the descendants of the enslaved. The Windrush scandal, which saw hundreds of Caribbean nationals deported from Britain, was also raised by the Jamaican protesters. Afro-Caribbeans, even those who had lived and worked in Britain for decades, were swept up in the British government’s policy of creating a hostile environment for Caribbean nationals.

The Jamaican prime minister, Andrew Holness, informed Prince William and the Duchess Catherine while they were in Kingston that Jamaica does indeed intend to sever ties with the UK monarchy and become a fully-fledged republic. Jamaica and Barbados are member states of the Commonwealth, the latter a loose association of former British colonies and dependencies. Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Papua New Guinea are, among others, Commonwealth nations keeping the Queen as the official head of state.

With Jamaica following the example of Barbados in declaring themselves a republic, the grandiose notions of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ‘global Britain’ in the wake of Brexit have been undermined. Commonwealth nations are not forming the backbone of a resurgent Brexit Britain, as the UK government had hoped.

Barbados history of slavery crucial in understanding the rise of English colonialism and Britain as a maritime superpower. Slavery, while different from capitalism, was instrumental in the expansion of capitalist socioeconomic relations.

This is more than just a case of royal ties being cut in the Caribbean. A rise in Republican sentiment is all well and good; but there needs to be a thoroughgoing assessment of the impact and continuing relevance of slavery, and Britain’s role in it. Slavery is usually regarded as a historic and outmoded institution, something that has only marginal significance in the expansion of capitalism. While slavery has certainly been relegated to the distant past, and Britain did have a strong anti slavery movement, there can be no denying that the transatlantic slave trade was instrumental in the development of Britain as a capitalist power.

Professor Trevor Burnard, from the University of Hull, writes that Britain has never fully acknowledged its role as a slave-trading power. He notes that the UK monarchy as an institution was deeply embedded in, encouraged, and profited from the practice of slavery. The bustling entrepôts of Bristol, Liverpool and similar commercial cities built their wealth on the backs of slave-trading. Barbados was the place where the English first solidified their economic practice of slavery. English capitalist accumulation organised itself on the slave-driven sugar plantations in Barbados and the Caribbean.

It is no exaggeration to say that Barbados is the birthplace of Britain’s drive to construct a slave society. That template was exported and replicated across the Caribbean and mainland America. Importing African slaves as a disposable workforce, the profits from the sugar and tobacco plantations went into the coffers of the slave owners – and into the banking institutions, factories and workhouses that have become synonymous with English capitalism. While Barbadian society was organised as a ruthless, inhumane and back-breaking society for the slaves, the profits generated propelled English entrepreneurship into a global power.

There was a time when Britain paid reparations – not to the formerly enslaved, but to the former slave owners. The English government, finally relenting to the demands for the abolition of slavery, paid millions of pounds in compensation to the former slave owners, the latter claiming they deserved payment for their loss of property. The previously enslaved and their descendants received nothing. Slavery and capitalism may be rival economic formations, but they are also sibling rivals.

Kenan Malik, writing in the Guardian, observers that this latest royal trip was bound to be farcical. The notion that the UK monarchy is foremost in the minds of the Jamaicans or Barbadians is nonsensical. As Malik notes, politicians in the former British colonies, particularly in the Anglosphere, are proficient at constructing historical stories to reinforce their power in the present. The stories of repeated slave rebellions and uprisings in the Caribbean is conveniently omitted.

It is high time to consider not only the establishment of a republic, in Barbados, Jamaica and the wider Commonwealth nations, but also the abolition of the UK monarchy itself. It is an obsolete and archaic institution which should go the way of slavery.

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