The slavery protests Prince William faced in Jamaica came less than two years after a backlash against Prince Harry for suggesting Britain’s colonial past must be acknowledged for countries to move on.
William and Kate Middleton‘s tour of the Caribbean was hit by protests calling for an apology for slavery and reparations.
The Duke of Cambridge then condemned slavery hours after Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness told him of the country’s ambitions towards independence, in a nod to removing Queen Elizabeth II as head of state.
The saga came after Prince Harry said a conversation about Britain’s difficult past was necessary for countries to move on during a video for the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust in July 2020.
Harry’s comments may sound like they foretold the PR crisis that came to define William and Kate’s tour of the Caribbean.
However, at the time the Duke of Sussex triggered a backlash in which he was accused of conflating Empire and Commonwealth.
Prince Harry’s Call to Acknowledge the Past
Harry and Meghan Markle triggered a conversation about the crimes of Britain’s past when he described the struggle in Commonwealth countries to “move forward.”
Prince Harry said: “When you look across the Commonwealth, there is no way that we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past.”
Meghan said: “It’s not just in the big moments, it’s in the quiet moments where racism and unconscious bias lies and hides and thrives.”
She added: “We’re going to have to be a little uncomfortable right now because it’s only in pushing through that discomfort that we get to the other side of this and find the place where a high tide raises all ships.
“Equality does not put anyone on the back foot, it puts us all on the same footing—which is a fundamental human right.”
The Reaction to Prince Harry
However, at the time Harry was criticized in Britain for his failure to distinguish between the crimes of Empire and the Commonwealth of Nations, a voluntary partnership between Britain and, predominantly though not exclusively, the country’s former colonies.
Robert Hardman, a biographer and columnist for the Daily Mail, wrote: “I’m not entirely comfortable saying this, but you seem to assume that the Commonwealth and the British Empire are one and the same thing.
“It is a common enough mistake among people with no great interest in the subject, but a pretty baffling howler for the President of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust (as you continue to be, despite relinquishing the Youth Ambassador role).”
Veteran broadcaster Andrew Neil wrote on Twitter: “What is it that the Commonwealth has done wrong? And since they don’t live in it, what’s it got to do with them?”
He added: “The Commonwealth replaced Empire. So what? It’s multi-racial club of independent states. Membership is entirely voluntary. Even non-UK colonies have joined. It took strong stand against apartheid. What’s your problem? Where’s its ‘brutal history’?”
However, there was at least one significant figure who came out in support of Harry and Meghan—the Jamaican High Commissioner to Britain, Seth George Ramocan.
He told the U.K’s Today program: “This really should be a matter of open discussion and acknowledgment of what the wrongs were, particularly through the slave trade and how we come to a common understanding about this.”
He added: “I believe what the duke and duchess are saying is that there is an elephant in the room and we all need to address it because if we want to move forward… we will just have this stumbling block in the way.
“To move on we need just what Prince Harry is saying—we need to move on but we can’t move on without understanding. For that reason there needs to be a discussion because much of the ills of the past perpetuate today.”
Prince William on the ‘Atrocity’ of Slavery
Fast forward nearly two years and Prince William and Kate Middleton’s tour of Jamaica was hit by protests calling for an apology for slavery and reparations at the British High Commission, in Kingston, on March 22.
The Advocates Network, which organized the demonstration, issued an open letter to the couple stating the Queen had “done nothing to redress and atone for the suffering of our ancestors.”
Then Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the couple directly that Jamaica was “moving on” and seeking independence on March 23.
Later that evening, William told a reception at the Governor General’s residence: “I strongly agree with my father, the Prince of Wales, who said in Barbados last year
that the appalling atrocity of slavery forever stains our history.
“I want to express my profound sorrow. Slavery was abhorrent, And it should never have happened.
“While the pain runs deep, Jamaica continues to forge its future with determination,
courage and fortitude.”
On March 25, Henry Charles Usher, a minister in the Belize Government, told the country’s parliament: “Madame Speaker, the decolonization process is enveloping the Caribbean region.
“Perhaps it is time for Belize to take the next step in truly owning our independence. But it is a matter that the people of Belize must decide on.”
The reaction to Prince William
William and Kate’s tour of Jamaica triggered a backlash, including the protests and online criticism of some unfortunate photo ops.
However, the prince was not criticized for his comments on slavery, with his speech earning positive coverage on two U.K. front pages.
The Sun picked out a reference by the duke to the Bob Marley song “One Love” while the Daily Express ran the headline: “William Takes Firm Stance on Slavery.”
Hardman, who had criticized Harry in 2020, also wrote a piece defending the tour for the Daily Mail, in which he commented on pictures of William and Kate meeting children through the holes in a wire fence.
He wrote: “The ‘colonial’ response would actually have been to ignore these uninvited crowds. Instead, the couple went over—and then even went round to the other side of the fence on their way out where they were mobbed once again.”
He added: “So let us put this trip in some sort of perspective. Yes, the world has moved on and so must royal tours. Yet this one was a great success in terms of representing the Queen, meeting huge numbers of people and recognizing and publicizing their concerns and achievements.”
Jan Moir, another of the newspaper’s columnists, did however offer an opposing voice in the same edition and was one of the few to comment on the content of William’s slavery remarks.
She wrote: “Every time he tried to help, he only made things worse. At an official dinner the prince wrung his hands and expressed his ‘profound sorrow’ at ‘abhorrent’ slavery and echoed his father by saying it ‘stains’ British history.
“Sadly, he didn’t mention the £100million plus of aid we have given to Caribbean Commonwealth countries over the years, nor did he speak of how the UK led the world in abolishing slavery.
“How I wish, just for once, somebody would. Instead it was the full royal grovel—and when it wasn’t the full grovel it was the embarrassing photo opportunity.”