Jamaica Working on Split With Monarchy as Charles’s Coronation Looms

A statue of Queen Victoria in Kingston, Jamaica. The island was was a British colony for more than 300 years. During that time, hundreds of thousands of enslaved people were dragged to the island forced to toil on sugar plantations. (Ousama Farag/CBC)
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The Caribbean nation plans on removing King Charles as head of state by 2025

Three people sit around a yellow table, decorated with green logos, playing dominoes in a bar at night. In the background, the main bar is lit up with lights.
Jahmar Clarke, left, plays dominoes with two friends at a bar in Kingston, Jamaica. He is one of many people in Jamaica CBC News talked to who said it’s time for their country to move away from the monarchy. (Ousama Farag/CBC)


CBC- No matter where you go in Kingston, the Jamaican capital, it seems no one really cares about King Charles’s coronation.

The fact that he is even King of a country where hundreds of thousands were enslaved under centuries of British rule is viewed as an insult of history to many.

“Why is the King still our head of state?” asked Jahmar Clarke, 32, over a game of dominoes with friends at a Kingston bar.

“We should move past the monarchy … it’s time for us to address it as a nation.”

That’s exactly what Jamaica is trying to do. The government says it will hold a nationwide referendum with the goal of removing King Charles as head of state by 2025.

A man wearing a grey suit and blue tie stretches out his arm to shake the hand of a person, as he greets a crowd of people gathered behind a low barrier.
Prince Charles tours the historic town of Falmouth, Jamaica, on March 13, 2008. He was on the final leg of a 10-day tour of the Caribbean. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)

“We are moving on,” Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness told Prince William and his wife, Catherine, during their widely criticized tour of Jamaica last year.

“We intend to … fulfil our true ambitions and destiny as an independent, developed, prosperous country.”

Jamaica’s leaders also want an apology and reparations — for all the suffering inflicted and all the wealth taken from the island.

WATCH | Jamaica cool to King Charles as it seeks to move away from monarchy:

Calls for an apology

Jamaica was invaded by the British in 1655, quickly becoming one of the empire’s most lucrative colonies. All that wealth was built on the backs of enslaved people forced to toil on sugar plantations across the island.

And the Royal Family was complicit in the brutality from the very beginning.

The Royal African Company, which dragged scores of African people to Jamaica, operated under a royal charter from King Charles II. Many of the enslaved people were branded with the letters “DY” for the then-Duke of York who ran the company. That Duke would later become King James II.

A young girl holding a yellow paper sign is embraced by a woman, as other demonstrators stand around them. The sign reads: Kings, Queens and Princesses and Princes belong in fairytales. Not in Jamaica.
People calling for slavery reparations protest outside the entrance of the British High Commission in Kingston, Jamaica, on March 22, 2022, during the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. (Ricardo Makyn/AFP/Getty Images)

“The Royal Family and many persons in the British government, both past and present, have been deeply involved in gaining wealth from the atrocity,” said Dave Gosse, director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies/Reggae Studies Unit at the University of the West Indies.

When emancipation came in 1834, slave owners still benefited.

Under the Slavery Compensation Act of 1837, the British government paid out £20 million  — nearly $30 billion Cdn today — to slave owners for their loss of human property. The enslaved got nothing.

A Black man wearing sunglasses and a white shirt stands on a beach.
Dave Gosse is the director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies/Reggae Studies Unit at the University of the West Indies. He says the Royal Family should offer a formal apology for the monarchy’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

In fact, even after emancipation took effect, many were forced to work for their former owners without pay for four more years as so-called apprentices.

Experts have attributed many of Jamaica’s social challenges, and those throughout the Caribbean, directly to the legacy of slavery, including its deeply-entrenched poverty, stark class divides, and lack of development.

“People are more understanding now of our history and the role of the Royal Family in that saga,” Gosse said. “What we really want is for someone to have the balls to apologize and say ‘we are sorry.'”

A man in a white military uniform and a woman in a white formal dress and hat are shown standing in a vintage Jeep, with lines of soldiers in red uniforms on the ground around them.
Prince William and his wife, Catherine, are shown visiting Jamaica on March 24, 2022. This military parade was meant to be a homage to Queen Elizabeth, who rode in the same Jeep, but it was criticized as a reminder of British colonialism on the island. (Paul Edwards/Getty Images)

There were demands for Prince William to offer that apology during his March 2022 visit to the country, including an open letter signed by dozens of prominent Jamaicans. But it didn’t come.

“I want to express my profound sorrow,” William said. “Slavery was abhorrent. It never should have happened.”

The tour was seen as an attempt at a charm offensive, with republican rumblings already rippling through Jamaica. Instead, it was riddled with problematic photo ops and criticized as tone-deaf. It seemingly only spurred Jamaica’s move away.

Two people greet a crowd reaching out through a chainlink fence.
This photo op during last year’s royal tour of Jamaica was also criticized, with some commentators calling it ‘disastrous.’ The tour was meant to be a charm offensive but it seemingly only spurred Jamaica’s move to sever ties with the monarchy. (Samir Hussein/WireImage)

‘A foreign king’ 

Jamaica has already set up a constitutional reform committee, responsible for ensuring a smooth transition from constitutional monarchy to republic. In the weeks before the coronation, the government posted a video about the reform process, already referring to Charles as a “foreign king.”

The date of the referendum is yet to be announced but opinion polling from last year shows a majority of Jamaicans support severing ties and both main political parties support the move.

Jamaica would follow Barbados, which removed the British monarch as head of state in 2021. Other Caribbean countries, such as Antigua and Barbuda,  are having the same conversation.

“Our goal is to be truly independent of our colonial past and of those who enslaved us,” said Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport Olivia Grange.

A woman wearing a black shirt with colourful trim clasps her hands and smiles as she stands in front of a desk in an personal office.
Culture Minister Olivia Grange oversees Jamaica’s Reparations Council. She says Jamaica plans on petitioning King Charles directly, calling on the U.K. and the royals to ‘repair’ the long-standing impacts left by slavery in Jamaica. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

But it’s not the only goal. Grange is the government minister in charge of Jamaica’s push for reparations. A recent private member’s bill tabled in the Jamaican parliament said the British government owes at least £7.6 billion ($12 billion Cdn) to Jamaica.

“Jamaica is one of those countries that continue to suffer from … the enslavement of our ancestors,” she said. “We’re asking that the wrong that was done — that they should prepare the damage.”

Grange said the government plans on petitioning King Charles directly.

“We’re looking at all the options,” she said. “We’re not going to stop until we get justice.”

‘Metaphorical chains have been broken’

While reparations are deeply important to many on the island, they are not all that matters — ditching the monarchy also has psychological and symbolic benefits for countless Jamaicans.

“Are we really emancipated if we still have a head of government that’s a monarchy, that’s honestly archaic in nature?” asked Toniann Pellington, 19, a graduating student at Immaculate Conception, an all-girls high school in Kingston.

“Removing the King as head of state will not exactly impact our daily lives but it would mean that the metaphorical chains have been broken,” Pellington said. “We’re no longer mentally enslaved.”

Pellington was with classmates Summer-Leigh Yapp, Jade Thomas, and Dana-Kaye McPherson, all of whom are old enough to vote in the upcoming referendum. Each of them said they can’t wait to have a head of state who looks like them and truly reflects their country.

Four Black teen girls, wearing blue and white school uniforms, smile as they pose for a portrait outdoors.
Dana McPherson, Jade Thomas, Summer-Leigh Yapp and Toniann Pellington say having a Jamaican head of state, and removing King Charles from that role, is important for the future of their country. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

They lamented the reminders of British colonialism that exist throughout Jamaica — the statues, the street names, parliamentary structures, and the reverence some still hold for the Royal Family.

The students, and several others across Kingston, quoted Bob Marley’s famous Redemption Song, with the lyrics, “emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind.”

“We would really like to have our own Caribbean identity and I feel like the presence of the monarchy really impedes that,” Yapp said. “It’s like hanging over Jamaica … pulling us back and keeping us from further progress.”

“There’s so many Eurocentric ideals that we hold,” she added. “If we begin to separate ourselves from them, we, as a people, can establish ourselves greatly.”

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