In Britain's Jamaican community, a mix of reverence for the Queen and disdain for a colonial legacy

·5 min read
Dozens gathered in south London on Saturday to hear a talk from a veteran who left Jamaica to service in the Royal Armed Forces during the Second World War. (Briar Stewart/CBC - image credit)
Dozens gathered in south London on Saturday to hear a talk from a veteran who left Jamaica to service in the Royal Armed Forces during the Second World War. (Briar Stewart/CBC - image credit)

At a hall in south London, photos of Caribbean veterans who served in the British Armed Forces hang on the wall alongside a stately official portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

Dozens of people are enjoying plates of salt fish fritters and patties before the evening's talk by a war veteran from Jamaica begins. The crowd is asked to give a few minutes of silence to mark the Queen's death, and the start of King Charles III's reign.

In the room, there is reverence for the late Queen. But for British Jamaicans, the relationship with the monarchy is more complex. The institution's connection to slavery and decades of colonial rule leaves many wishing for proper redress, but some are not optimistic it will come under King Charles.

"We wish him the best, '' said Arthur Torrington, the director of the Windrush Foundation, a group that advocates for those who immigrated from the Caribbean to the U.K. in the decades following the Second World War, along their descendents.

"He will speak up. We hope he speaks up."

Complicated feelings in London's Jamaican community

Around 800,000 thousand Jamaicans and those of Jamaican descent live in the U.K.

Mass migration to Britain from the Caribbean was driven by the need for workers to rebuild England after the Second World War. Many families settled in London, particularly in neighbourhoods south of the Thames River, such as Brixton.

Saffron Blue's father left Jamaica to find work in London. Once he was settled, the rest of the family moved over.

Briar Stewart/CBC
Briar Stewart/CBC

She spoke to CBC News while attending the event, which honoured a war veteran from Jamaica. It was held at the West Indies Association of Service Personnel, a building King Charles once visited while he was the Prince of Wales.

Blue said she felt a sense of "stillness" when the Queen died and described her as a "remarkable woman."

Still, she believes it makes sense for Jamaica to become a republic and follow Barbados, which removed the Queen as its head of state in November 2021.

"They are not free. They are still tied up in the constitutional monarchy, '' she said.

"To think that you can't do certain things unless you get permission from here, I don't think it is on."

A potential Jamaican republic

Jamaica, which has proclaimed 12 days of mourning after the Queen's death, gained independence from the U.K. in 1962.

The country remains one of the15 Commonwealth realms, but its government has signalled it wants to reform the constitution and become a republic by 2025.

A survey released last month showed that 56 per cent of Jamaicans support that move.

Last year, Jamaica's government announced plans to ask Britain for financial compensation for forcing an estimated 600,000 Africans to work on sugar and banana plantations that enriched British slave owners.

When the current Prince and Princes of Wales, William and Kate toured the Caribbean in March as part of a trip to celebrate the Queen's Platnium Jubilee, activists protested in Kingston, Jamaica, demanding an apology and reparations for years of slavery.

Gilbert Bellamy/Reuters
Gilbert Bellamy/Reuters

When King Charles visited Barbados last year for a transition ceremony to mark the removal of the Queen of its head of state, he referred to the "appalling atrocity of slavery" saying it "forever stains our history."

But that acknowledgement falls far short for William "Lez" Henry, a professor of criminology and sociology at the University of West London who has African and Jamaican ancestry.

"There are people in Jamaica right now … who can't even afford to have running water. What the hell has the monarchy done for them?" he asked.

"I just think it is ridiculous."

Henry says since the Queen's death he hasn't spoken to anyone, either on social media or over the phone, who has expressed any grief over her passing.

He said he's somewhat hesitant to even say that publicly given that a few who have expressed similar opinions have been reprimanded online.

He points to former British football player, Trevor Sinclair, who was taken off the air at a radio station where he works after he tweeted "why should Black & brown mourn" the Queen's death.

Sinclair later deleted the post and apologized.

'You know, we are crying for a rich lady'

On Saturday in Brixton, a community in London often referred to as "Little Jamaica," reggae music played at a bustling market on Electric Avenue where vendors sell produce, clothing and Jamaican food.

Rochelle, who wouldn't give CBC her last name, says she thinks it is wrong to be disrespectful after someone has died, but understands the point that some racialized people are making.

"It's sad, but I just hope that the poor people … and the people struggling right now are not forgotten," she said.

"You know, we are crying for a rich lady."

She stands in a group with two other women of Jamaican descent. When the topic turns to King Charles, they said they do not expect him to push the boundaries.

"There is a lot of political history and I don't think he will go there," said one woman who wouldn't share her name.

"I don't think he wants to start his reign by opening that can of worms."

Briar Stewart/CBC
Briar Stewart/CBC

Back at the veterans' hall, Andrew Clarke sits at a table playing a game of dominoes and says if any of the royals are going to ignite conversations around the past and current racial struggles, it is going to be the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Harry and Meghan.

"Harry married a Black woman and we all love him for that," he said as he took his turn laying down a tile.

Clarke moved to London from Jamaica 20 years ago after marrying a British woman, but said it took him a year before he could actually migrate because his application kept getting rejected.

He says whenever his friends from Jamaica want to come and visit, they struggle to get U.K. visas.

"Why is [the monarchy] head of our country and we can't even come to England?

"I think it is time we go our separate way."

Briar Stewart/CBC
Briar Stewart/CBC