By Tyehimba Salandy
May 20, 2018
Ten years ago, British ‘royalty’, Prince Charles and his wife Camilla visited the Caribbean and locals prostrated before them. Local leaders made arrangements for them to play the Steelpan and the sacred Rastafarian Nyabinghi drums. Leslie from Africaspeaks.com wrote an insightful article titled Royal Visit Highlights Lingering Colonialism that brought attention to the dynamics of colonialism in this visit. This article is as relevant today as it was ten years ago when it was written, given the celebratory eruptions at the wedding of British monarch Prince Harry and his bride Meghan Markle. Yet the region is poorer today for elevating fake royalty to dizzying heights of reverence while neglecting the royalty inherent in resistant Caribbean voices who have worked hard at improving Caribbean societies.
While many people gush at royalty and the “power of love”, for people of the Caribbean and wider global south, who are still faced with the structures of British coloniality imbedded deeply in our society and the world we live in, it is an opportunity to reflect on these issues.
The British Monarchy and the Empire of Violence
The British empire was held together by violence in two forms. The first one was the military violence that invaded and conquered territories, set up slave plantations and brutally suppressed dissent and revolts. The second, and perhaps more dangerous form of violence, was the violence of “knowledge” which involved spreading a narrow and ideological system of values, culture and information as if it was the best and only one. Non-European and non-Christian ways of seeing and being were bastardized and destroyed. It is through this violence that Anglo-Saxonism firstly became the dominant European model of civilization and progress, and later the global model of civilization and progress. It also explains how, after more than 50 years of independence from Britain, the social, mental and global structures erected across the global south as part of colonial domination are still in place.
Generations of children had to sing “God Save the Queen” in local schools that instilled British and Christian values in young impressionable minds. Within this British educational system, ideas of white superiority and black inferiority, subservience to colonial authority and demonization of non-European cultures formed part of the structures that upheld the British colonial empire. This feeds into the global reverence for Britain and her monarchy.
While many people have very romantic images of the British monarchy, it presided over a reign of brutal violence, that far exceeded that of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and the Butcher of Congo: King Leopold II of Belgium. Britain dominated the trade and enslavement of Africans, and at the height of its empire had colonies across the globe while boasting that the sun will never set on the British empire. They also participated in the genocide of indigenous people in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia. While in charge of India, British actions of increasing taxes and exporting crops grown by farmers caused a series of famines that resulted in the death of millions of Indians. In one of these famines, known as the Bengal Famine, Britain diverted food to its soldiers, and caused the death of between three and ten million people. During the Mau Mau uprising against British rule in Kenya, the Kikuyu people were imprisoned in concentration camps and subjected to torture, executions and sexual abuse. Yet, despite being the most pervasive colonial power, and with perhaps the most colonial crimes against humanity under its belt, Britain is still able to project an aura of respectability, honour and nobility. This allows them to avoid responsibility for their many atrocities.
Stolen Wealth of Nations
Across the global south, most countries that were colonized by Britain still maintain membership in the Commonwealth of Nations. Also called the Stolenwealth of Nations, this organisation is headed symbolically by the British queen. Once every four years, athletes from all of these countries participate in the Commonwealth Games, established by the Commonwealth of Nations, and again presided over by the British queen. It is a travesty that most global south leaders see it fit to maintain membership in this colonial organisation, rather than creating an independent global organisation to serve the interests of global south countries and to further decoloniality. It also reminds us that the structures of domination have survived long past the point of political independence more than 50 years ago.
Let us not forget that in the Caribbean, the countries of Jamaica, St Lucia, Barbados, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua, Grenada and St Kitts and Nevis still maintain the Queen of England as their symbolic head. Guadeloupe and Martinique are still colonized by France. In addition, there have been concerns that there are moves to re-colonize the Caribbean given the situation in the former Netherlands Antilles (Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba) where in 2010 the Netherlands took control of these areas and declared them as municipalities of the “mother country”. This is a reminder that mental and political decolonization is an ongoing process across the global south.
How can global south people celebrate the romantic activities of the monarchy when the structures of coloniality are still so much a present part of day to day realities? Caribbean thinkers have long pointed out the damaging presence of the colonial jumbie or duppy. Celebrating without considering all of this is tantamount to celebrating colonialism. Consider this analogy. You are at home one evening, and intruders break into your house, kill some members of the family, rape some, and torture some. They steal the valuables in the home, and hold some members hostage. What degree of psychological pressure would it take for those members of your house to accept guidance from the intruders on how to be a good person, how to educate your children, and how and who to worship? Moreso, to feel excited about one of the intruders’ impending marriage? These are the circumstances in which we find ourselves today.
Reparations, Feelgoodism and the Redemptive Power of Love
Scholars, such as CLR James, Eric Williams, Joseph Inikori, Walter Rodney and most recently Hilary Beckles, have explained the relationship between European colonial nations and their overseas colonies. Eric Williams in his seminal book Capitalism and Slavery explained how proceeds derived from slavery and colonialism were a key part of economic transformation in western Europe. Hilary Beckles develops Williams’ ideas in his book Britain’s Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide by going into the archives and tracing how the British royal family, the British government, the established church, many elite families, and institutions in the private and public sector all invested in, and benefited directly from, slavery. In a lecture titled Britain’s Perfect Caribbean Crime: Ignored Genocide, Faked Emancipation, Insincere Independence, and No Reparations Professor Hilary Beckles explains how the 1934 Emancipation Act defined enslaved Africans as property and so paid slave owners 20 million pounds sterling for the loss of that property. This history forms part of CARICOM’s demands for reparations from Britain which so far has been met with silence, or in the case of the former UK Prime Minister James Cameroon, a response suggesting that Caribbean leaders “move on from this painful legacy”.
The ‘royal’ wedding is in itself an urgent reminder of the need for reparations. The extravagant lifestyles of the monarchic family draw upon ill-gotten gains that have their roots in slavery. The opulent wedding ceremony was also no doubt connected to wealth that came from the subjugation of black and brown bodies during slavery and colonialism. How many of the diamonds, gold and other precious jewellery that adorn the queen’s crown and the bodies of British nobility were also questionably obtained during this period. How many crimes against humanity sanctioned by the monarchy have to be forgotten to celebrate this wedding.
That the near-white Meghan Markle has a mixed mother does not change the relations of empire and privilege that is at the center of the wedding. In the wedding, the Black preacher won widespread acclaim for a sermon about the redemptive power of love. Yet this was part of feelgoodism and illusions of a wedding of empire. Having a Black preacher, a Black musician, and a Black gospel choir are all emotional trinkets to tug at heartstrings and thus distract people from seeing the relations of empire underneath the fairy-tale “love can conquer” illusion that is the ‘royal’ wedding. There is no “redemptive power of love” without first truth and justice. Will Prince Harry and his bride agitate for reparations and the return of stolen resources? Will they work to repair the damage done by British empire? I think not.
The wedding is also an opportunity for people to rethink the notions of royalty and monarchy. Why are European monarchies who have presided over so many global crimes against humanity viewed with so much esteem and reverence? The fact that royalty is consistently portrayed in white or near white bodies is psychologically damaging to all people, given the rampant racism and colourism that affects all countries and communities. Who will stand up and ask the brave question “what makes them royal”?
At best, the empire wedding of Harry and Meghan is a distraction away from the ongoing global struggles for justice happening across the world. What about the Chagos Archipelago where journalist John Pilger exposed how Britain managed to wheel and deal, and steal an entire nation, evicting the inhabitants who were later prevented from returning? What about the Palestinian-Israel conflict which Britain was complicit in starting? It is telling that global media, as well as media in the global south often give more attention to the royal wedding than atrocities happening in Palestine. What of the illegal invasion of Iraq? Or Britain’s role in the 2011 invasion of Libya and the murder of its leader? What of the Windrush generation, children of Caribbean migrants who were maliciously denied citizenship of a country they helped to build. The fairy-tale royal wedding is part of the erasure of the memory of all those atrocities.
The feelgoodism that occurs when there is even just a slight departure from the lily-white faces in positions of leadership in colonial establishments does nothing to lessen or repair the damaging impact of coloniality. In fact, it does quite the opposite. The feelgoodism puts minds to sleep as people are far less likely to think critically, thereby allowing dominating structures to increase their control, without opposition. This explains how Barack Obama as a two-term President of the United States was able to attract widespread global support, despite his drone strikes, increased military spending, increased financial support to Israel and illegal invasion of Libya.