My first experience of being on a royal tour was also the first overseas trip for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Huge crowds and infectiously positive energy, their eight-day travels across Canada in 2011 felt like the potential start of a modern chapter for the British monarchy. It was, as an enthusiastic Kate told me during a pitstop on Prince Edward Island, “an amazing opportunity to meet people of all different backgrounds and learn from them”.
It’s been 11 years since that moment and, while I’ve been on a number of successful foreign visits since then, recent royal travel has left me questioning just how much has actually been learned. As the modern world fervently tackles critical social challenges and undoing mistakes of the past, the sepia-tinted formula for the House of Windsor’s global travel has found itself held back by the palace’s reluctance to change anything if it still works.
But as the Cambridges’ ill-fated tour of the Caribbean in March proved, these trips no longer do. Billed as a “charm offensive” to shore up support for the monarchy across the islands, the colonial throwbacks and poorly advised photo-ops ended up having the opposite effect on the Bahamas, Jamaica and Belize (who have all individually expressed the desire to become republics). Damage control began before the wheels of William and Kate’s plane had even hit the tarmac in the UK, with Kensington Palace aides eagerly briefing journalists that lessons have been learned and next time the itinerary will be more mindful. But while a revised line-up of engagements may help the somewhat tired formula of royal walkabouts, ceremonial welcomes and cultural events, it doesn’t solve the other problem affecting the monarchy on tour—the royals themselves.
Last week, the cabinet of Antigua and Barbuda looked on in horror as Prince Edward—in the country with the Countess of Wessex on behalf of the Queen—laughed off an opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation with prime minister Gaston Browne, who had sat with the couple for several minutes to explain the need for reparatory justice and the lasting impact that the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism has had on the islands. “I wasn’t keeping notes, so I’m not going to give you a complete answer,” the 58-year-old chuckled, before sidestepping the issues completely.
Given this painfully awkward moment had been preceded by a letter from the country’s Reparations Support Committee referring to the royal family’s previous “phoney sanctimony” over slavery, the Earl of Wessex’s tactless response not only lacked diplomacy but was also a show of complete disregard for a country that had respectfully welcomed them with open arms. It was also a diss to protestors in St Vincent and the Grenadines, who less than 24 hours earlier had stood outside a cocoa plantation the couple were visiting with banners reading “Compensation Now” and “Britain Your Debt is Outstanding”.
Any hope that Edward and Sophie (or at least their advisors) had learned from the Cambridges’ problematic Caribbean travels quickly went out of the window. Instead, the trip—once filled with potential to show that the firm could be empathetic and move with the times—became a series of pretty photographs as the couple smiled, waved, and danced their way across the islands. Their lasting impact being the framed portrait of themselves (a bizarre custom on royal visits) gifted to a seemingly unimpressed prime minister of Saint Lucia.
I can understand why there has been a reluctance for members of the Royal Family to engage in conversations about Britain’s legacy of slavery across the Caribbean, beyond it being “abhorrent” (which, let’s be honest, is far from the apology that people are waiting for). For the royals to engage in conversation about the issue would be to also acknowledge that the family’s empire came to power and wealth, in part, by enslaving Africans and forcing them to work in colonies. It also means that the Windsor royals would need to acknowledge that their very existence is, also in part, the result of over 300 years of devastating atrocities led by some of their predecessors. But, as people across the world continue to learn about the importance of dismantling structural racism, it’s essential that these uncomfortable conversations are had by all.
The Queen has said herself that for the monarchy to survive it must evolve with the times and reflect modern day values. If not for the countries they visit, her children and grandchildren should at the very least be trying to uphold those principles to honour the monarch's 70-year reign.
Imagine how different these tours would have looked if the two couples arrived proactively looking to meet with and learn from those leading demonstrations instead of ignoring them. Imagine the lasting impact it could have had, not just on each country but on his legacy as a king in the making, if Prince William had gone a step further than saying slavery “should never have happened” and actually expressed remorse for colonialism, slavery and the destruction of Black families.
Later this month, Prince Charles will acknowledge the abuse of thousands of Indigenous children by Canada's now dismantled residential school system during a tour with Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. It’s an important moment that will include time with Indigenous leaders and community members in the spirit of reconciliation. As one of the only family members aside from the Queen to truly master the art of diplomacy, I can see why Charles has been tasked with such a sensitive trip.
The purpose of these visits, particularly in the Commonwealth, is often to strengthen relations between Britain and the host countries. But as more members of the realm announce plans to make like Barbados and divorce the crown (Saint Kitts and Nevis being the most recent to announce plans to “review its monarchical system of government”), it’s time for other travelling members of the family to realise they might be doing more harm to the royal establishment than good. And for palace officials, it’s time to accept that the royal tour as we know it is in dire need of a trip to the drawing board.
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