By Gemma Handy
“Open and objective” talks on slavery reparations was the call from Prime Minister Gaston Browne yesterday to the Earl and Countess of Wessex during their whistle-stop tour of Antigua.
Striking a conciliatory tone, Browne said he had no desire to embarrass Prince Edward and Sophie on what he acknowledged was a controversial issue.
But he urged the royal couple to use their “diplomatic influence” to help the twin island nation seek reparatory justice for both the transatlantic slave trade and the effects of climate change.
Browne told the Wessexes it was time to “build bridges” and that compensation in the form of educational opportunities and health infrastructure would be welcomed.
He acknowledged the absence of placard-bearing protestors which plagued the couple over the weekend in St Vincent – the second leg of their brief Caribbean tour to mark the Queen’s platinum jubilee.
Prime Minister Browne said Antigua and Barbuda believed instead in “constructive engagement”.
“We understand the nature of your job is not to get involved in any contentious issue but it’s important for you to understand these issues so you can use your diplomatic influence to help us achieve the reparatory justice we are seeking here in the Caribbean,” the PM told the Wessexes during a meeting with the Cabinet on Monday morning.
“The reality is we have been left bereft of important institutions” and “left behind” as a result of slavery’s enduring legacy, he said.
Royal visits to the region to commemorate the Queen’s 70th anniversary of ascension to the throne have triggered an uptick in calls for Britain to apologise for its role in the slave trade – and begin to make amends.
Prince William and Kate’s trip to Jamaica, Belize and the Bahamas last month saw a series of demonstrations condemning their visit along with renewed demands for Caribbean nations to ditch the Queen as head of state.
PM Browne also told Prince Edward – the Queen’s youngest son – and Sophie of how the region continued to suffer the devastating impacts of climate change. He spoke of the November 2020 floods which submerged much of Antigua, and how ongoing drought had left the island entirely reliant on reverse osmosis to create potable water.
He said Barbuda was still recovering from Hurricane Irma almost five years after it struck, and that it would take “until 2028” for Dominica to fully bounce back from Hurricane Maria, also in 2017.
PM Browne asked Prince Edward to pass on his thanks to his brother, Prince Charles, for the assistance he had lent to Barbuda’s recovery through his charity, the Prince’s Foundation, describing him as “an inspiration”.
He ended his remarks by wishing the Queen well and congratulating her on her milestone.
The Prime Minister’s comments come days after the country’s Reparations Support Commission issued a strongly-worded open letter to the Wessexes claiming previous acknowledgements of slavery’s barbarism by the royal family were nothing but “phony sanctimony” and urging them not to repeat such a mantra.
The letter added that British royals continue to “live in splendour, pomp and wealth attained through the proceeds of the crimes”.
Prince Edward was reticent on the subject of reparations, appearing to deflect the issue with a quip about the purpose of a button on the table in front of him.
He said it was a pleasure to be back in the twin island nation – which he viewed as an opportunity to rebuild connections – and lamented the fact it had been 10 years since his last visit.
The Earl also sent “warm greetings from Her Majesty who always takes immense interest in what happens in all the islands – but particularly here in Antigua and Barbuda”.
And he congratulated the country on its fight against the “common enemy” of Covid-19 and what he said had been a successful national vaccination drive.