This Platinum Jubilee, don't pardon the Royal Family's inexcusable past

19th-Century Cartoon Satirizing Colonial Rule in Jamaica
6 min read
01 June, 2022
Is it possible to separate systemic racism and the monarchy? Or are they the same thing? As the UK celebrates the platinum jubilee, we must remember what the royal family was built on, the all-encompassing, homogenous rule over its subjects.

This week, the reality that the United Kingdom will celebrate a royal family who has immeasurable ties to the slave trade and the suffering of non-white folk throughout the world is a testament to how far this country has to go with its apparent reckoning with racism. 

The Royal Family and racism are inseparable. “The UK's system of an inherited head of state is institutional racism by definition,” says journalist Peter Tatchell and it is only when you unpack this statement that the truth hits home.

Having a head of state chosen by birthright is problematic enough, however, this is an all-white family.

To reiterate, this exclusion is institutional racism by definition and in the perfectly concise words of Stuart Hall: “Those who do not see themselves reflected in national heritage are excluded from it."

"The UK will celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee, but questions of racism are almost nowhere to be seen. It’s as if the royal family and structural racism are wholly unconnected"

As an obvious and rather underlining reference to monarchic racism, in 1562 Captain John Hawkins – a pioneering trader who was one of the first colonial captains to see African bodies as "less than forna" and at his disposal, thus signalling the start of the slave trade – was revered and celebrated by the royal family after he captured and exchanged 300 Africans for hides, ginger and sugar.

Although by his standards, and that of further hauls of African bodies, this was a small amount of ‘cargo’, those 300 Africans stand as a poignant and unmovable weight on the Royal Families' legacy.

It stands as their acceptance and celebration of slavery. A gesture they have made no attempts to rectify, change or condone since, and thus a prevalent one and one which we should remember when looking at British racism.

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge ride in a Land Rover as they attend the inaugural Commissioning Parade for service personnel from across the Caribbean with Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, at the Jamaica Defence Force on day six of the Platinum Jubilee Royal Tour of the Caribbean on March 24, 2022
The last remnants of the British Commonwealth seem to be withering away, with a host of Caribbean states stating their intentions for independence [Getty Images]

This seems an example that may exist in a bygone era but as we, as a nation, celebrate and honour an institution that to this day still are yet to apologise publicly for its past brutal behaviours and has only ever consisted of white leaders is evidence of an imbued racist past as well as contemporary misgivings.

It also creates a clearer narrative pointing to the general frustration and exhaustion among those who have been on the front line pushing for an apology, or even, change. 

The notion that "change has to come from the top" is a token one that floats around the lower to mid hierarchical rungs of most good meaning and white led British institutions.

It is a phrase that has burrowed deeper roots in businesses and organisational language, however, when observing racism as a collective and critical British problem, doesn’t seem actionable to a public overwhelmingly in support of a monarchy.

The majority monarchist public (61%) that support the Royal Family also supports the systems of racism that that family/institution upholds.

"It is in the revolutionary periods that the culmination of previous trends and the beginning of new ones appear"

By a further extension of this, the four-day jubilee holiday to which we are about to fall privy is a celebration of all of this and more. In reality, it is a celebration of Britain’s largest and most stinging racist shame – the monarchy.

Comparatively, the US, which is generally believed to have a far more entrenched reality of racism (a view that ignores the fact that the history of America and its relationship with whiteness/Blackness is a symptom of British colonialism) has torn down over racist 160 statues or statues celebrating slave owners since 2020, according to the Sothern Poverty Law Centre in the US.

By comparison in the UK, the 2021 trial of four individuals who tore down the Edward Colston statue (a man who led the Royal African Company in a time when it transported over 84,000 men women and children to enslavement) led to a lengthy trial to which the four were acquitted but ultimately also led to the tightening of laws around protest (10 years in jail) in the UK and the enhancing of police presence and powers at protests.

Amnesty International reported that “85% of Black people in the UK are not confident that they would be treated the same as a white person by the police.” The new Right to Protest Bill which gives the police more power will likely not change this, the truth being that everything points to it making things worse.

What does this mean, in a nation that over-police Black and minority ethnic folk already? Simply put it means that at points where protest should be a right held by all and something we should celebrate, folk will either be harshly punished for speaking out or will be in fear of protesting at all.

As Afua Hirsch recently put it "the UK will celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee, but questions of racism are almost nowhere to be seen. It’s as if the royal family and structural racism are wholly unconnected." 

This reticence to the royal and colonial tie is evidently coming to an end however, with recent Royal tours to Jamaica, Belize, The Bahamas and Canada all either disrupted or postponed due to protests around the Royal Family's part in slavery or in Canada's case the murder of 150,000 indigenous children.

Perspectives

Barbados has recently also claimed its own independent republic status, completely severing ties to the British head of state.

At the ceremony, a rather grey looking Prince Charles read: "The creation of this republic offers a new beginning", perhaps it will and perhaps with it also an understanding of his family's direct and indirect actions towards being, maintaining and nurturing racist structures.

CLR James said, albeit referring to wider colonial practice, ‘It is in the revolutionary periods that the culmination of previous trends and the beginning of new ones appear’, so let us hope these examples set by Caribbean islands instigate a wider collective reckoning in Britain.

It would seem then that globally we are at a point of a wider understanding of the Royal Families and Britain's innate connection to racism and its symptomatic spreading and a broader separation from this institution. What does it portray then that Britain is so ready to celebrate it without much protest? 

Rudi Minto de Wijs is a writer and curator based in South London. They have a vested interest in post-colonial histories both through their practice but also their background, as a child of immigrants to England.

Follow them on Twitter: @Rudi_MD