Queen’s Death Prompts Commonwealth Nations to Question Monarchy Ties

The death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II last week has sparked renewed debate in many Commonwealth countries, most of them former British colonies, about their future ties to the monarchy. 

Britain wasn’t alone in proclaiming a new king upon the death of Elizabeth. Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Jamaica are among 14 other nations where King Charles III is the new head of state. Echoing the ceremonies in London, proclamation ceremonies were held in several capitals, from Nassau in the Bahamas to Suva in Fiji.

Fifty-six countries are members of the Commonwealth, an association of mostly former British colonies. In 2018, the organization agreed to appoint Charles as its head upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II, prompting anger among some members, especially in the Caribbean.

“The death of Queen Elizabeth absolutely will mark a turning point,” said Sonjah Stanley Niaah of the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, in an interview with VOA on Wednesday.

“Many countries have really been considering their own role, their own place in the commonwealth. And I think that now that Queen Elizabeth has passed, there is going to be certainly more of a move to disassociate themselves from the commonwealth,” Niaah said.

Republicanism

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, an avowed republican who was elected in May, wants a referendum on removing the British monarch as head of state in the next parliament.

“It’s not appropriate now … to talk about constitutional change. What is appropriate right now is to commemorate the life of service of Queen Elizabeth II,” Albanese told reporters this week.

Antigua and Barbuda, as well as St. Lucia, both in the Caribbean, have expressed similar plans. For the first time, the government of the Bahamas this week said such a referendum was possible.

“The only challenge with us moving to a republic is that I can’t, as much as I would wish to do so, I can’t do it without you all to consent. I would have to have a referendum and hear what the people have to say to me … it is our people who will have to decide,” Bahamian Prime Minister Philip Davis said September 9.

A poll taken in August, before the queen’s death, showed that 56% of Jamaicans are in favor of removing the British monarch as head of state. 

In November last year, the Caribbean Island of Barbados became a republic, severing ties with the British monarchy. Guy Hewitt, a former high commissioner to the U.K., told VOA he did not believe the Barbadian people disliked the monarchy.

“I make the point that Barbados’ journey to a republic was not a rejection of the queen or of monarchy, but more so an affirmation of a right toward self-determination,” Hewitt said.

New members

This year Togo and Gabon, both former French colonies in Africa, joined the Commonwealth – evidence the organization is not in decline, Hewitt said.

“What we have seen is in the post-independence era, rather than the commonwealth getting smaller, it’s actually getting bigger. Charles, as the new head of the commonwealth, worked closely with his mother as the Prince of Wales, traveled extensively around the commonwealth in his own right, championing causes like sustainable development and environmental protection,” Hewitt said.

“It has started to feel somewhat antiquated, and it may be that King Charles is able to inject – as his mother did – some dynamism some new direction and a new sense of purpose for the Commonwealth of nations,” Hewitt added.

Slavery

Intrinsic to the debate is the legacy of colonial rule. Britain and other European nations enslaved millions of Africans until the 19th century, forcing them to work on plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas. Critics argue the monarchy’s wealth is partly based on profits from the slave trade.

“This commonwealth of nations, that wealth belongs to England. That wealth is something we never shared in. So, for us in Jamaica, the monarchy is a harsh reminder of our unfortunate past,” Bert Samuels of the Reparation Council of Jamaica told Associated Press.

The monarchy has expressed sorrow over colonial abuses, but Britain has not formally apologized. Visiting Jamaica earlier this year, Prince William addressed the issue at a gala dinner hosted by Jamaican governor-general. “Slavery was abhorrent, and it should never have happened,” William told the audience.

Reparations

That does not go far enough, said Sonjah Stanley Niaah of the University of the West Indies. “An apology is necessary. We must see remorse and we must see a time when reparations become important in the ways in which we move forward as former colonies.”

“There is a critical mass of us in in the former colonies who are aware that a relationship in terms of the Commonwealth means very little to the real day-to-day conditions of persons who dwell in these countries. And so, I think that there is more awareness about reparatory justice, there is more awareness about the role that that slavery still plays in today’s society,” Niaah told VOA.

That apology should come from the British government, Hewitt said.

“Yes, there is a need for those colonial powers to take responsibility for what they have done. But in the case of the head of the Commonwealth or the king of the United Kingdom and its other realms, that is not their constitutional responsibility.” 

“The discussion around reparations is not one that I think can be taken to the doorstep of Buckingham Palace. It is one that has to be taken to Downing Street,” Hewitt said.

Some of the information in this report came from Reuters and Associated Press.

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