I was heartened by the protests staged by conscious brothers and sisters against the visit of the British representatives of the real Head of State of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Queen Elizabeth 11 of the United Kingdom, on Saturday last.
I don’t like to use the term “royal” lightly because privilege in any society should be earned, not inherited. So, this idea of a “royalty”, whether as colonial masters and mistresses or even among our own, is anathema to me. It is even worse when we mobilise our people, our young people in particular, to welcome “royal visitors”, beneficiaries of our legacy of colonialism, genocide and slavery, but fail to even provide them with an understanding of the context. If one could excuse it in colonial days, not so today.
So, very encouraged I was by this bold manifestation that consciousness cannot be killed or erased, and the seizure of the opportunity to focus on the just demand for reparations. In fact, a quote I read in the media by former Speaker of Parliament, Jomo Thomas made the point explicitly. He is quoted as saying, in relation to the protests:
“This is not so much for the colonials who are coming but to raise the consciousness of our people that the call for reparations is a just cause…”
Right on brother! Other quoted statements however about “this neo-colonial government”, to which he once belonged, and attempts to excuse the referendum of 2009 which confirmed the Monarch of Britain as our Head of State, as “not indicating support for the monarchy” were feeble attempts to introduce local politicking. The issue is bigger than that.
The visit of this couple and a previous one has, fortunately helped to stir up the reparations pot. Even regional Heads of Government tried to ride the mood of the public as witnessed in Jamaica and Grenada. What emerged is a continuing lack of consistency among CARICOM leaders on such important issues.
We must level with the people, not try to eat our cake and still have it. We are the ones, not the sons and daughters of Elizabeth Windsor, who would not let go the “royal” coattails. The Privy Council and the British law lords are still our point of reference in law, in spite of the many legal luminaries that we have produced.
Some Caribbean countries have their own national honours but the real heroes of the region, those who have earned recognition and adulation by their own feats, cricketers of the calibre of the 3Ws, Sobers, and Viv Richards are honoured by the “Sir” before their names. Trinidad’s Learie Constantine was put even further up on the rung, becoming Baron Constantine, while today, despite widespread dissatisfaction, CARICOM insists on supporting “Baroness Scotland” of Dominica to be the Secretary General of the Commonwealth. We are still enamoured with the “royal” paraphernalia, so “royal visits” are part of it.
That is why it was so good to have the protests, but if truth be told, that is the easier part of the reparations story. The harder part is to reinforce, maintain and sustain a regional machinery that can regain the momentum and particularly to ensure that it is grounded in future generations. Hard as it was a generation or two ago, it is many times harder in today’s distracting world. The Wessex couple will not go home to Mama and as in the Biblical tale, do like Moses and ask, “Let the people go”. It took the intervention of the Almighty, says the Bible, before Pharaoh would relent.
At the levels of government, which have raised expectations, leadership in the reparations movement and Caribbean civil society as a whole, we have enormous challenges, no easier than the slaves had to confront to overthrow slavery. It is easier to protest and shout than to map out and implement strategies to advance the movement for reparatory justice; easier to condemn than to convince and outmanoeuvre.
Whatever our personal or political likes and dislikes, reparation belongs to all of us. We may disagree on approaches, tactics etc. but in the long run if we are to achieve success, we must devise ways to work with each other. We have a huge task to persuade and to influence, and creating animosity is not one of them.
Public education must be a priority. After our governments started with the big fanfare, momentum seems to have stalled. It does not have to be education via high-profile lectures and presentations by regional luminaries. Just getting all our schoolchildren to understand what reparations means and why it is even more critically important to their own advancement will be a major achievement in itself. How must reparations be manifested in our school curriculum?
Most of all, those in the leadership of the reparations and political movements must learn how to engage and to put aside their petty and political prejudices. I was heartened to read that in Antigua, the Reparations Committee actually engaged the Wessex couple in discussions and their counterparts in Grenada expressed regret at the cancellation of the visit because they would have wanted to engage as well.
The prime minister of Antigua is reported as telling the couple about his government’s intentions to cut the monarchical chord and to use their influence to help our region obtain “reparatory justice”. Whatever we think about the level of his commitment, we can only view these as encouraging advances. By the way, what did our government here tell the couple?
Yes, when the visit is all over, we now have the hard tasks before us, requiring patience, tolerance and understanding.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.