Royal blessing or crowning injustice?

The beautiful island of Saint Lucia has just been given a command performance.

To set the scene, a quote from “What if the Caribbean refused royal visits until reparations were paid?” by Nalini Mohabir (The Guardian, 20 March 2019). Recalling the legacies of slavery and empire, the journalist writes:

“The British government supports the royal family through a sovereign grant, but this does not cover local costs for royal visits. So St Lucia will essentially be paying the former imperial power to be the guest of honour at its independence celebrations – to legitimise independence? The Barbadian government will be subsidising Charles to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in honour of those who died during the world wars, many of whom fought as a way to demonstrate they were deserving of the elusive civil rights promised by the British empire. The prince will also attend a demonstration of hurricane preparedness in Barbados, even though the British Virgin Islands has still not been able to fully rebuild and repair its infrastructure after hurricane Irma despite being a British territory. Charles and Camilla will visit Grenada (in the same month as the 40th anniversary of the revolution) to learn about the history of cocoa; do they know cocoa is a plantation crop?”

Saint Lucia was “discovered” by Spanish and then French sailors in the 1500s. Its subsequent history reflects the economic brutality of colonialism (sugar was the major crop). During the 1700s, the island changed hands several times before being forced to accept British domination in 1814 under the Treaty of Paris that ended the Napoleonic Wars.

Slavery was abolished on the island in 1836. After abolition, former slaves had to serve a four-year “apprenticeship” to accustom them to the forgotten idea of freedom. During this period, they worked for their former masters for at least three-quarters of the week. Full freedom was granted by the British in 1838. By then, people of African ethnicity greatly outnumbered those of European background.

In the mid-20th century, Saint Lucia joined the West Indies Federation and in 1967 became one of the six members of the West Indies Associated States, with internal self-government. In 1979, it achieved full independence and this year is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

Today, this tiny island has a population of some 180,000, whose official language remains English, despite the fact that 95% speak a French Creole known as Kwéyòl. Saint Lucia is a Commonwealth realm, whose head of state is Queen Elizabeth II represented on the island by a Governor-General appointed by its Prime Minister. This explains the royal visit (although not why this relatively poor island should foot the bill), but what does it say about self-identity, and cultural and linguistic imperialism?

Given the recent Windrush and Chagos Islands scandals, why would Saint Lucians wish to perpetuate colonialism and receive a relatively costly visit from an elderly British gent who has no interest whatsoever in their well-being? Far better to rediscover their true identity – as many are now doing through the work of cultural heritage groups.

The Saint Lucian Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott, who is buried on the island, offered his answer in the poem “Love After Love”:

“The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored
For another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

The photographs, the desperate notes,
Peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.”

Saint-Lucia

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Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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