Jamaica: history of slavery explained, is nation part of the Commonwealth, and will it become a republic?

Prince William and Kate Middleton are on a tour of the Caribbean island

During a visit to Jamaica, the country’s Prime Minister, Andrew Holness, told Prince William that Jamaica would be the next country to remove the Queen as the head of state and “fulfil our true ambitions and destiny as an independent, developed, prosperous country”.

The move comes four months after Barbados became a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations, replacing Queen Elizabeth II with Sandra Mason as the head of state. Mason was elected into parliament and became the first President of Barbados.

On their visit to Jamaica, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have faced protests and demonstrations calling for an apology, a formal acknowledgement of slavery, and reparations.

This is what you need to know about Jamaica and Britain’s history.

What is Jamaica and Britain’s history of slavery?

Prior to Christopher Columbus’ arrival in Jamaica in 1494, the Caribbean island was inhabited by people called the Arawaks, also called Tainos.

On 5 May 1494, Columbus landed in Jamaica and, after his men attacked the Arawaks, he claimed the island in the name of the King and Queen of Spain.

When the Spanish came to the island, the indigenous Arawaks were forced into slavery. The Jamaican Information Service (JIS) explains that they were “so overworked and ill-treated that within a short time they had all died”. This process of wiping out the Arawak people was also aided by the introduction of European diseases, of which their immune systems had little or no resistance.

Christopher Columbus landed in Jamaica in 1494 (Photo: Spencer Arnold Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It was in the early 16th century that slaves from West Africa were imported into Jamaica.

On 10 May 1655, the English launched an attack on Jamaica, led by Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables. After the Spanish surrendered the island, they freed their slaves and fled. It was these slaves, and their descendants, which would later become known as the Maroons. The Maroons established communities of freed slaves on the island.

In 1660, the Royal African Company, an English trading company, was set up and from there Jamaica became one of the busiest slave markets in the world. African slaves eventually outnumbered Europeans on the island, five to one, and it became one of Britain’s most-valuable colonies.

At the time, the sugar industry was also growing rapidly, with African slaves continuously shipped to the West Indies to be sold and forced to work on the sugar plantations.

Workers operating a sugar cane crushing machine on a plantation in Jamaica, 1884 (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The JIS says that “the slave trade became a popular and profitable venture for the colonists” and that “the transportation of slaves became such a regular affair that the journey from Africa to the West Indies was known as the “Middle Passage””.

This is because the journey for a British slaver was three sided - start at English with trade goods, travel to Africa to exchange said goods for slaves and then to the West Indies where slaves were transported. Sugar, rum and molasses were then taken on board for the final journey back to England.

Slaves continuously resisted and rebelled against the traders and colonisers, with many able to escape the plantations and join the previously enslaved Maroons. There are a number of notable slave rebellions that occurred in the history of Jamaica, including the Easter Rebellion of 1790 and the Christmas Rebellion of 1831.

The frequent rebellions helped lead the way to the abolition of slave trade and slavery - other factors included the work of humanitarians who protested slavery and the slave trade, and formed an anti slavery committee.

Is Jamaica part of the Commonwealth?

Jamaica became independent from the UK in 1962, but it remains as a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, also known as just simply the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth is made up of 54 sovereign states, most of which were either British colonies or were dependencies of those colonies.

Jamaica is also a Commonwealth realm, which is slightly different to being a Commonwealth of Nations member state.

While Jamaica is independent from the UK, it has remained as a member of the Commonwealth (Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images)

A Commonwealth realm refers to a sovereign state within the Commonwealth of Nations in which Queen Elizabeth II is its monarch and head of state.

There are 15 Commonwealth realms, which are:

  • Antigua and Barbuda, since 1981
  • Australia, since 1901
  • Bahamas, since 1973
  • Belize, since 1981
  • Canada, since 1867
  • Grenada, since 1974
  • Jamaica, since 1962
  • New Zealand, since 1907
  • Papua New Guinea, since 1975
  • Saint Kitts and Nevis, since 1983
  • Saint Lucia, since 1979
  • Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, since 1979
  • Solomon Islands, since 1978
  • Tuvalu, since 1978
  • The UK, since 1801

Will Jamaica become a republic?

During a visit to Jamaica by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the Jamaican Prime Minister told the couple that the country intends to become “an independent” republic.

Prince William and wife Kate Middleton arrived in Jamaica on Tuesday (22 March), as part of a week-long tour of the former British Caribbean colonies. Their trip comes almost four months after Barbados became a republic after removing the Queen as the sovereign head of state.

(L-R) Prime Minister of Jamaica Andrew Holness, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Governor General of Jamaica Patrick Allen (Photo: Toby Melville - Pool/Getty Images)

Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the royal couple: “There are issues here, which as you know, are unresolved, but your presence gives us an opportunity for those issues to be placed in context, to be out front and centre and to be addressed as best we can.

“But Jamaica is, as you would see, is a country that is proud of its history and very proud of what we have achieved.

“And we’re moving on and we intend to… fulfil our true ambitions and destiny to become an independent, developed and prosperous country.”

According to Harper’s Bazaar, the process of becoming a republic has already begun behind the scenes. A senior government official reportedly told the magazine: “It’s a long and arduous process, but having already put the wheels in motion, it will be full steam ahead in the coming weeks and months.”

What did Prince William say about slavery during visit to Jamaica?

On Wednesday (23 March) Prince William denounced slavery as “abhorrent”, saying “it should never have happened” as he addressed the issue following days of protests calling for reparations from the royal family. However, he stopped short of issuing the apology that demonstrations and statements in Jamaica have called for.

During a dinner hosted by the Queen’s representative in Jamaica, Governor General Sir Patrick Linton Allen, Prince William echoed the sentiments expressed by Prince Charles when he attended the Barbados ceremony that saw it become a republic in November last year.

People calling for slavery reparations, protest outside the entrance of the British High Commission during the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Kingston, Jamaica on 22 March 2022 (Photo: RICARDO MAKYN/AFP via Getty Images)

The Duke of Cambridge said: “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.

“The strength and shared sense of purpose of the Jamaican people, represented in your flag and motto, celebrate an invincible spirit.

“It is this same spirit that spurred on the Windrush generation, who came to the United Kingdom to help rebuild after the Second World War.

“We are forever grateful for the immense contribution that this generation and their descendants have made to British life, which continues to enrich and improve our society.”

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