On the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, new King Charles III shook hands with Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, who has renewed efforts to stage a referendum on the country becoming a republic within three years.
Republicanism is a huge issue, highlighted by this year’s royal tours. The royals have made numerous visits to the Caribbean region, but this year they were met with protests and calls for reparations over the British monarch’s past links to slavery and colonialism.
This indifference to the British monarchy can be felt across the Caribbean, where debates around republicanism have reignited in many countries. As well as the UK, King Charles is head of state for 14 countries in the Commonwealth, including eight in the Caribbean.
The Commonwealth, a club of 56 countries that evolved out of the British Empire after World War Two and which presents itself as a partnership of equals, mattered hugely to the late queen, who as its head made numerous visits to member states and cultivated friendly ties with their leaders.
The King and Queen Consort Camilla on Sunday hosted hundreds of dignitaries, from world leaders including US President Joe Biden, Canadian premier Justin Trudeau and senior members of the British royal family, ambassadors from many nations, and foreign royals including Japan’s Emperor Naruhito and the Kings and Queens from Holland, Norway and Spain.
Most dignitaries viewed the Queen’s coffin in the ancient heart of Parliament after being given a VIP timeslot. Now that she is gone, the baton passes to her son King Charles, as she had hoped and as was agreed by Commonwealth leaders in 2018, but stepping into her shoes will not be straightforward for the new monarch, who is far less popular.
Some Caribbean ministers have questioned why he should succeed her as head of the Commonwealth, noting the British monarch is not automatically its figurehead and suggesting that this harks back to the days of Empire, when British colonies were expected to transfer allegiance from one monarch to the next. The question of colonial legacies, hotly debated in the Caribbean and among some sections of British society, is an underlying tension in the Commonwealth.
“Yes, the queen is a powerful symbol,” said Jamaica-born Nicole Aljoe, a professor of English and Africana Studies at Northeastern University in Boston in the United States. “She’s also a powerful symbol not only of the good stuff, but also of the very negative outcomes that have occurred because of Empire.”
Some voices within the Commonwealth have called for a reckoning with that history, and Charles surprised many at its most recent summit of heads of state and government, in Rwanda in June, by raising the issue of slavery.
Meanwhile, Caribbean countries say they will protest louder against royal visits, as calls grow to ditch Charles. Some in Jamaica and Grenada have dismissed the idea of King Charles as ‘ridiculous’, saying the countries get more support from China and Taiwan than the Commonwealth.