The UK’s first on-screen black female TV news presenter Barbara Blake-Hannah gives a local’s view on UK media coverage of the Jamaica royal tour.
I work for the Jamaican Government, so in light of my hardline views of slavery, colonialism, the need for reparations and an end to ties with the British monarchy, I felt it wise to stay out of arrangements for the visit of British royalty to Jamaica and work from home, deciding to learn instead about what was happening from media reports.
Apart from coverage in Jamaica’s two print newspapers and two nightly TV news broadcasts, I got news of the tour digitally from British media stories on Twitter, Instagram and online links to the British media, especially the Daily Mail. From these viewpoints, I believe I had an even more interesting and informative view of the Royal visit than if I had been on the ground following behind my indefatigable boss, the hardworking Olivia ‘Babsy’ Grange, Minister of Culture, Gender, Entertainment & Sport.
To Minister Grange fell the job of arranging the visitors’ first day and she followed their requests to a T, providing a football field with young players for William to kick a ball with his friend Raheem Sterling (brought to Jamaica as William‘s special guest), a Rasta group to comply with the royals’ request to ‘beat the drums’, and a photo opportunity acknowledging Jamaica’s most famous personality Bob Marley. The Daily Mail gave us full-page photos of Duchess Kate, declaring she had received a ‘Rock star welcome’ as she sat bare-headed in a sleeveless dress, legs astride a drum to beat time to Rastas chanting ‘Burn-down’ Babylon’ lyrics.
The embarrassing photo of the Royals standing awkwardly on either side of the not-so-lovely Marley statue went without much media comment. But traditional Rastas lost no time in pouring fiery criticisms onto Instagram, denouncing the violations of Rastafari tradition that demands women cover their heads and shoulders at such sacred events, do not spread their legs in public (for which reason women playing drums is seen by some as controversial), and most of all do not commit the ultimate violation of laying hands on the chief instrument of sacred Rastafari rituals. But, as the leader of the Rasta group declared to the howls of condemnation he received for allowing it all to happen, “If they ask to beat the drums, how can I refuse?”, confirming that he was fulfilling the Royals’ request, not a plan of Minister Babsy Grange.
Babsy, however, found herself part of two controversial actions that day, brought to our attention by posts from British media and some hate-filled trolls, when she reached out to take Kate’s hand to direct her to a photo-op, only to see Kate recoil at being touched. The media clip was repeated endlessly on Twitter by posters claiming it was evidence of Kate’s racism. Babsy had not even noticed.
“We are very much not a racist family” chiiiiile pic.twitter.com/ZDGBjkcOQ0
— Beas💃🏾(Bee-uh-s) (@scarletwoman19) March 23, 2022
‘Caged descendants of slavery’
On the opposite side of those claims were the calls of outrage, when Kate quite naturally stretched her hand to touch those reaching out to her through the fence erected around the football field. This became the media’s favourite photo to illustrate a negative image of ‘caged descendants of slavery’. I don’t think Jamaicans saw it like that, especially as both Kate and William had touched so many ‘uncaged’ hands on the football field that day.
But the view of the British media continued to overwhelm anything and everything. When William met with the Jamaican Prime Minister, the British media criticised him for using the opportunity to indirectly inform Jamaicans that the royal visit was not his Government’s idea, by telling William that Jamaica is well on the way to removing his grandmother as our head of state — certainly not something he would have done had he been the one inviting William to Jamaica. According to the British media, PM Holness should have written William a letter, not told him to his face in front of the media cameras. But Jamaica was very glad he had done so loud and clear on a topic that has grown strong in public opinion over the past few years, as we watched the racist treatment of the almost-white Royal wife Meghan Markle by the British media that went undefended by the Royal Family. We are a little envious of Barbados for becoming a Republic before Jamaica and the Royal Visit has encouraged us to step forward faster.
Anti-Monarchy sentiments were loudly expressed in the demonstration outside the British High Commission on the first day of the visit, by those who had signed a letter giving 60 reasons to do just that. I was surprised to see in Instagram videos that the demonstrators included many well-known ‘uptown’ personalities from among the 100 who signed the letter.
Reparations was the loud call, repeated the next day when equally well-known Rastafari leaders in Montego Bay held a demonstration at a stop on William’s itinerary. Told to move their sign calling for Reparations, they asked why the Government, through Minister Babsy, had declared its intention to continue its pursuit of reparations from Britain for slavery, yet Rastas — the first Jamaicans to call for reparations — were not allowed to make their statement.
No apology to Jamaica from William on Royal tour
The day had cooled when the ‘tappanaris’ (elite) of Jamaica arrived at Kings House for the State Dinner hosted by the Queen’s representative, the Governor General. It was clear he wasn’t wearing the controversial Order of St George, which created a scandal when it was shown to depict a white man with his foot on the neck of a Black man. But I was reminded of how Jamaican society is still headed by white people, among whom we saw the President of the Senate and his wife, the Leader of the Opposition, the Chief of Police and his wife, and the CEO of the leading hotel chain and wife, smiling happily with William and Kate.
Of course, no one expected William to apologise for slavery and promise Reparations in his State dinner speech. The world would have come to a standstill if he had, but we kept pretending he would as he stood at the lectern delivering his ‘whitewash’ comments, mentioning the Windrush to placate the Black British.
It was shocking to see Kate’s display of wealth, decorating her ballgown with dangling diamond and emerald earrings, a multi-diamond-studded star at her waist, a diamond-encircled broach bearing the Queen’s image and flashing her enormous diamond and sapphire engagement ring, as she made small talk with the (white) Leader of the Opposition. I scrolled the Daily Mail page on the Royal dinner to see who else was there, but the page contained only photo after photo of Kate and her jewelled dress. It was on the Gleaner’s social pages a week later that I saw photos of some of the guests.
Kate gave a speech at the Shortwood Teachers College, not far from my home, and it is clear motherhood has given her a genuine interest in and love of early childhood education, but she needs some practice in public speaking. And the Royals visited a country hospital known for some Covid scandals, that was hastily painted and cleaned up for the Royal visit, for which I am sure patients and future patients are very glad.
But the positives, if any, of the visit to Jamaica were totally dispersed on the last day by the terrible decision to have William and Kate review their Jamaican army dressed in white from head to toe while riding in a Land Rover relic of the Queen’s visit 50 years ago. The images showed without any doubt that Jamaica is still ruled by white people holding fast to their history, no matter that its roots in slavery and colonialism were pointed out to them many times during their visit.
For once, the British media were right, howling in criticism of the terrible negative image of this mistake. I felt a little sorry for the two of them as they were driven past the rows of Black soldiers, as I contemplated how the past few days had show me a vivid image of the future British Royal Family, controlled by their itinerary planners, speechwriters and even their dressers.
The image lessons seem to have been learned by the last night in the Bahamas, where Kate chose simple jewellery for her State Dinner gown and left the diamonds behind.
‘Come down, offa you pomps and pride’
It was the Daily Mail photo coverage of the last day of the Bahamas trip that showed me that the Royals seem to have learned a lot from their visit to the island colonies. William’s stiffness had disappeared when he stooped down to clasp a little Black girl’s hand in both of his while he spoke earnestly with her, pushed a crippled child’s wheelchair on the football field, and joked he wanted to stop longer at the beach bar to have a proper drink. ‘Come down, offa you pomps and pride’ sings the Rasta’s chant, and on that day the Royals did.
I also noticed that Kate is a much stronger personality than she has been given credit for, or been allowed to show. Looking at the photos it seems that she was the one giving William strength as well as comfort in all encounters, her big laugh opening the social doors for him, holding his hand and nudging him on whenever the moment needed an extra touch. I gained some respect for her and hope that she will be able to use the strength she gained on this trip to do more than just wear pretty clothes and smile. Her love of children can be put to good use, and I hope she allows her own children to grow with diverse racial friendships. Her brother-in-law’s children would be good company in this regard.
Coming home, it is clear that William has seen that his future has a bigger dimension than he was previously led to expect. He realizes that even if countries like Jamaica remove the monarchy from their positions of power over them, Britain is still linked in many ways and it is his job to keep those links strong no matter what. Reparations will be his responsibility and he knows that it is up to him to find a way to make it work. He must know by now that it’s not a matter of there being no more slaves to be compensated, but that as he still benefits from slavery as a descendant of the wealth and privileges of the Monarchy, so too do the descendants of slavery deserve compensation in some way.
“I know that this tour has brought into even sharper focus questions about the past and the future,” William said in a statement reflecting the end of their tour on Saturday. He clearly means it, and more.
For Jamaica, the Royal visit has made us more aware and even more determined to pursue the goals of becoming a Republic and getting compensated for the results of slavery and colonialism. As a writer in the Gleaner said:
“Much work will be needed to mobilize the Jamaican electorate to vote to expunge the British monarchy from our political system. Those against the monarchy need to urgently and earnestly organize an effective mass public education campaign to inform and convince fellow Jamaicans why Jamaica needs to be a republic. They should embark on a massive voter registration programme, as it is no secret that many open and closet royalists exist among us, and this is their right. Many republicans may be unpleasantly surprised and heartbroken that the result of the long-awaited referendum may very well be unfavourable owing to a low voter turnout, to prevail over the many motivated and mobilized monarchists in our midst.”
This is the reality that faces us, as we Jamaicans consider the road ahead after the interesting, controversial and somewhat unnecessary Royal Visit.
Picture: Ricardo Makyn / Getty Images