Being a republic would be symbolism for Jamaica — but powerful enough to change it?
Britain's queen is a figurehead in Jamaica, but could the psychological effect of dumping her as the Caribbean island's head of state put it on a more developed path?
When Britain’s Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton arrived in Kingston, Jamaica, last week, they were met by protests calling on William to apologize for centuries of enslavement of Africans when the Caribbean island was a British colony.
An open letter from a hundred Jamaican civic and cultural leaders demanded British reparations for that past. The Prince — who was on a Caribbean tour as part of his grandmother Queen Elizabeth II's 70th anniversary on the throne — did say the monarchy regrets the legacy of slavery.
“I want to express my profound sorrow," he said. "Slavery was abhorrent."
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But he stopped short of an apology. That angered many Jamaicans — and added fuel to their drive to break with Elizabeth. Like many Caribbean countries, Jamaica is independent, but it’s a member of the British Commonwealth (or Commonwealth of Nations) and the Queen is its head of state.
Polls show most Jamaicans want that to end. As popular dancehall singer Anthony Moses Davis, known as Beenie Man, told the British TV show “Good Morning Britain” last week:
“Jamaicans don’t want the Queen… Rule by the British, and the Queen this and the Queen that... They’re not doing nothing for us.”
READ MORE: Prince William arrives to protests in a Jamaica that could soon become a republic
Most Jamaicans instead want to make their country a republic. That could happen this year, as Jamaica observes its 60th anniversary of independence. Prime Minister Andrew Holness publicly told Prince William as much last week in one stunning moment:
“We are moving on," Holness said. "And we intend to fulfill our true ambitions.”
Jamaica's been making republican rumblings for years. But recently it did in fact create a new ministry to map out the transition. And a conclusive, binding referendum on the issue may be held this year.
But just how would becoming a republic help Jamaica fulfill the national development ambitions Holness spoke of? The Queen, after all, is little more than a figurehead in Jamaica — and most Jamaicans acknowledge ditching her as head of state would be a largely symbolic move.
Still, many say the symbolism of definitively breaking with their colonial past would be powerful enough to move Jamaica in a new, more modern and just direction.
There are still Jamaicans who feel they need to bleach their skin whiter. We need to break with that past — to redefine the image of ourselves, our physical and psychological self-concept.Rosalea Hamilton
“We have to redefine the image of ourself — both the physical and psychological self-concept," said Rosalea Hamilton, a Jamaican economist and attorney in Kingston who directs the nonprofit Institute of Law and Economics there.
Hamilton also co-coordinated last week’s letter of protest to Prince William from the Jamaican nonprofit Advocacy Network. And she believes several Jamaican institutions would benefit from the psychological effect of pivoting to a republic.
Foremost, she insists: education. Hamilton argues detaching Jamaica, whose population is 92 percent Black, from a white British monarchy will help make schooling on the island more racially egalitarian.
“The British colonial system of education persists," Hamilton said.
"It's an elite system in which a handful of light-skinned and white students get into the best schools. What you don’t get — and I have experienced this — is to be encouraged about who you are as an African person.”
She points, for example, to a recent Jamaican judge's decision to uphold a rule that students may not wear their hair in Rastafarian-style dreadlocks in school, even though it's one the country's most widely recognized cultural symbols.
"In the year 2022 we still have Jamaicans who feel they need to bleach their skin whiter," Hamilton said. "We need to break with that past."
Doing so in areas like education, she believes, will have strong ripple effects elsewhere, such as making the island's economy more inclusive — and as a result more productive.
“It will help us ensure that we are supportive of the innovators," Hamilton said. "The micro- and small businesses and others who can produce more globally competitive goods and services.”
Barbados made similar arguments last year when it broke with the British monarchy to become a republic. It was the fourth British Commonwealth country in the Americas to do so, along with Dominica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago.
(Those countries remain Commonwealth members despite removing the Queen as their head of state. Along with Jamaica, seven other Caribbean nations retain her as head of state, including Belize and the Bahamas, which William also visited last week.)
Other advocates — including leaders in South Florida's large Jamaican diaspora — also feel making Jamaica a republic will give its people a more committed stake in their own democracy. Jamaican-American Miami attorney Marlon Hill says they need that "second dose" of independence.
“The question as to whether or not we can survive on our own, or be stable on our own, or even prosper on our own, I think is a troubling question to even ask," Hill said.
"The time has come for all Caribbean nations to really seriously consider charting their own path of self-determination for the next generation.”
That’s not to say becoming a republic always means successful self-determination. Guyana is an example of a Caribbean country whose democracy struggled for years after it dumped the Queen.
And if Jamaica breaks with Britain, it would likely have to build a more autonomous judicial system. A few years ago the lower house of its Parliament began the process of ending Jamaica's ties to the Commonwealth's Privy Council appeals court and joining the Caribbean Court of Justice based in Trinidad. Either way, it's a critical matter since Jamaica has one of the world’s highest violent crime rates — a problem that, in years past, British police officials were often sent to the island to help tackle.
Still, many Brits support Jamaica’s republic plan. In a satirical video released last week on Twitter, British comedian Munya Chawawa, who is Black, criticized the hypocrisies of the Queen’s head-of-state status in Jamaica.
Singing from a Jamaican's point of view, Chawawa reminds his audience that Brits can "hop aboard a posh airline" to visit Jamaica, but "when it's time for us to fly" to the U.K., "our visas" often "get denied."
The ironic fact that Britain’s queen is Jamaica’s head of state, yet Jamaicans need a visa to visit Britain, is one more reason Jamaica looks set to fly without the Queen.