‘Colonialism lingers’: Belize shrugs off coronation amid calls for reparations – The Guardian

Commonwealth country bearing scars of slavery may become first nation to remove Charles as head of state
When Dr Harold Young, an eminent Belizean political scientist, takes visitors on a journey around Belize City, the first stop is an unremarkable building, whose basement entrance is partly shrouded by creeping pink bougainvillea.
Its padlocked gates and broken windows back on to a parking lot in the city’s historic centre. Most passersby ignore the innocuous plaque outside. Belize, a country of 400,000 citizens, is geographically located in Central America but a part of the English-speaking Caribbean. A former British settlement and then colony, it is one of the region’s eight remaining Commonwealth realms – independent countries where the monarch remains the head of state. Belize is the only Commonwealth realm King Charles has never visited.
The building is blocked from public entry but is known locally as the former headquarters of a TV station and production company once owned by the Conservative peer Lord Michael Ashcroft, who has sprawling business investments around Belize.
But for those who are aware, the building serves as a horrifying reminder of the brutality of British rule here. “It’s the last remnants of a holding dungeon for slaves,” Young says. “Before they were put out for sale.”
Unlike the island states in the Caribbean, where plantation slavery underpinned the colonial economy, enslaved labour in Belize revolved around the logging of mahogany at camps in the country’s interior.
The major settlements in British Honduras, as it was known until 1973, were thus sparsely populated, and the remnants of violent enslavement are now mostly absent from public view.
The building’s story has been passed down for generations, and is noted in certain tourist literature. But the historic plaque outside, while acknowledging its use in the mahogany trade, presents its connections to slavery merely as “local folklore”.
“When you live in a colonial environment, the colonialists don’t want you to prove what they were doing was a horrendous trade, right?” says Young, who is Belizean Creole, meaning of mixed African heritage. “But a hangover from colonialism too is a lack of confidence: that local things are not of value or historic importance.”
As Young describes it, the building is a symbol of a broader identity crisis here, associated with the intimacy of colonialism itself and wounds that have not healed well into independence. History is still not fully told. Crimes remain unacknowledged.
“That colonialism,” he says. “It still lingers.”
But as the United Kingdom prepares to crown its new king, the citizens of Belize are laying the groundwork for a similarly historic event: they could be the first nation to remove Charles as head of state.
In November last year, the recently elected centre-left government announced that a people’s commission would review the country’s constitution – written at the time of its independence in 1981. A year earlier, a resolution in parliament called for reparatory justice from the United Kingdom “on behalf of the former slaves and their descendants”.
The process, the prime minister, Johnny Briceño, acknowledged in an interview with the Guardian, means it is “quite likely” that Belize will be the next country to leave the Commonwealth realm, following Barbados’s seismic decision to become a republic in 2021.
Asked what relevance the coronation has to the lives of Belizeans, Briceño was honest: “There is no excitement,” he said. “We are so far away from the UK … You don’t see people taking out their Union Jack flags or anything.”
Briceño is unable to travel to the event in London, although Belize’s governor general will attend. There will be no public holiday here.
Walking around Belize City’s historic downtown, where an old Post Office building still bears the insignia of Elizabeth II and an occasional red post box is spotted on the street, it is hard to dispute Briceño’s frank assessment.
Many people have no idea the coronation is due to take place at all. Some express a vague fondness for the late Queen, who still adorns the currency and visited twice during her reign. But there is also mild disdain for the new monarch and the extramarital affair that led to the breakdown of his first marriage.
“It is time that the head of state, both ceremonial and legally, be Belize and Belizian,” says Orson “OJ” Elrington, an attorney and member of the constitutional commission. . He admits he did not know the coronation was due to take place within a week. “It is more than just symbolism. Ultimately it is the last stage of our decolonization. It is the last stage of true independence.”
Belize is not alone in pushing forward constitutional reform efforts. Following the Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley’s decision to use her party’s parliamentary supermajority to transition the country into a republic, discussions over the future of the British monarchy have accelerated throughout the region.
Now, officials in seven of the remaining realm countries in the Caribbean have indicated they will seek to follow the same path – though timetables, procedures and government commitment vary in each country. Belize is the only remaining state in the Caribbean where, as in Barbados, the monarchy could be removed without a referendum. Briceño has committed to holding a referendum on the recommendations of the constitutional commission – but he did not rule out the possibility of removing the monarchy with a vote in parliament.
In Jamaica, where removal would require a two-thirds majority in parliament and a simple majority in a referendum, the government has committed to a vote before the next general election in 2025. In Antigua and Barbuda, the prime minister, Gaston Browne, said shortly after the death of Queen Elizabeth that he would hold a referendum within three years. A two-thirds majority is required to pass the threshold, making the hurdle even higher. The scenario is the same in St Vincent and the Grenadines, where a referendum on a transition to a republic failed in 2009. Last year, the prime minister, Ralph Gonsalves, articulated support for another vote but said he would only do so with bipartisan support, meaning no clear timetable is yet evident.
“Referenda come at the end of a long process, so change elsewhere [in the Caribbean] will not come overnight,” said Dr Kate Quinn, associate professor in Caribbean history at University College London. “And the outcome of referenda in general is unpredictable. There’s a danger that they become polls on the government of the day rather than the issues on the card. If the issue of moving to a republic becomes strongly associated with one party over another, they can be scuppered by partisan politics.”
Such debate is far from new to the English-speaking Caribbean and did not begin with Barbados’s decision in 2021, nor the death of Queen Elizabeth last year. Carried by a wave of Black nationalism and socialism, three former British colonies, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and the newly independent Dominica, removed the monarch as head of state throughout the 1970s. Alternatives to the crown had been debated in popular circles long before even then.
Quinn, who is part of a research project, The Visible Crown, examining the history of the Caribbean’s relationship with the monarchy, points to groups like the early Rastafarians in Jamaica during the 1930s, whose belief in the divinity of Haile Selassie was itself viewed as an act of sedition.
Still, symbolism and imagery of the current moment – from the impending coronation to recent royal tours – matter, particularly as relations between the English-speaking Caribbean and the UK fall to new lows in the aftermath of the Windrush scandal and both the government and the monarchy’s recent refusals to go beyond passive expressions of regret and offer a formal apology for the atrocities of slavery.
In March last year, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s visit to the Caribbean marking the Queen’s jubilee was punctuated by a series of protests that cast a long shadow over the exercise in soft power. In Jamaica, photographs of the pair shaking hands with children through a chainlink fence and later parading in white clothing in an open-top Land Rover were decried as a throwback to colonialism.
In Belize, the couple were forced to abandon plans to visit a Mayan village in the country’s south, following protest. William’s connections to a conservation charity involved in a local land dispute and plans to land their helicopter on a nearby football field without consultation were deemed offensive.
“There’s only so much the fig leaf of public relations and exercises in ‘soft power’ can cover,” said Quinn. “These images and videos were widely shared on social media, and undoubtedly were a gift to the republican cause as well as to the case for reparations.”
Outside St John’s Cathedral in Belize City, the remains of a semicircular brick wall mark the boundary from where, it is said, enslaved people were permitted to listen to services inside. The building itself was built by enslaved labour, but colonial authorities banned enslaved people from entering.
Bryton Codd, a 28-year-old government policy adviser and a founder of the Young Leaders Alliance of Belize, was baptised here. Towering and charismatic, he has conflicting emotions as we walk around the rows of mahogany pews inside. At the front is a bench that seated Queen Elizabeth during her visit in 1994 – pointed out with pride by a staff member showing us around.
Codd remembers the royal visit of last year with a calm disdain. “From my perspective it was a colonial celebration,” he says. “There should have been a deeper discussion on broadening the conversation on reparations, acknowledging the atrocities of our colonial past and for them [the royal family], condemning the actions of their ancestors.”
His organisation is represented in the People’s Constitutional Commission here, along with the National Union of Students, a recognition of the need for younger voices to have a say in the country’s reform efforts. Belize is a young country: the median age is just 25.5 years.
Like many, Codd articulates a perceived intergenerational divide among attitudes to the monarchy.
“My grandmother was from the colonial era. She grew up singing God Save the Queen,” he says, “But I don’t even know the words.
“There has been a paradigm shift in terms of the culture of young people today. We are independent thinkers. We challenge the status quo.”
Nonetheless, research conducted by the Visible Crown project, examining attitudes to the monarchy in Barbados prior to the transition, revealed that the highest level of support for republicanism came from those over 65 years old. The key determinant, the survey found, was education, with those completing college or university far more likely to support ending ties with the monarchy.
Codd is attuned to the need to keep people informed and educated about the work of the PCC, which held its first private workshop meetings last week. He is mobilising an information campaign over WhatsApp, preparing bite-sized chunks of pertinent discussion to share with hundreds of his young members.
The review extends well beyond the future of the monarchy, into issues like enshrining human rights, reforming the judiciary and changing the country’s electoral system, currently based on the Westminster system, meaning most members of the ruling party also serve in government cabinet.
Beyond the Caribbean, the coronation of a new monarch has so far done little to outwardly shift the needle in remaining realm states.
For the three largest, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, all former British dominions with majority-white populations and established republican movements, the dynamics of the debate are different by historical design, and the political will mired in other issues.
In Australia, for example, the recently elected Labor prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has long articulated his support for a republic. But his government’s priority in its first term is a referendum on a constitutional amendment to formally recognise Indigenous Australians and establish a permanent Indigenous advisory body to parliament.
Albanese has said any vote on the future of the monarchy would occur if his government wins a second term after 2025. He has appointed a new minister overseeing Australia’s transition to a republic.
The sentiment is similar in New Zealand, where parliament has the power to remove the monarchy without calling a referendum. In the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s death, the former prime minister Jacinta Ardern predicted the move would happen but laid out no timeframe.
The complexities in New Zealand, in part, are tied to the treaty of Waitangi, an agreement between crown and the Māori people, which, however poorly honoured, placed the monarchy as the guarantor of Māori rights to resources and preservation of culture.
Charles’s position as head of the Commonwealth of Nations, the broader political association of 56 states, mostly former territories of the British empire, has also been cemented for the immediate future. In 2018, Commonwealth leaders voted at the request of Queen Elizabeth to install Charles as her successor, ensuring that, for the time being at least, the crown remained symbolically atop of what is essentially a voluntary club of member states with little political or economic sway.
“The Commonwealth’s obituary has been written so many times, but it’s never been true,” said Dr Harshan Kumarasingham, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Edinburgh. “Somehow it keeps surviving. And one of the reasons is that it does continue in the fabric of British society, and in the societies of all the member states.”
Nonetheless, said Kumarasingham, there is nothing to guarantee Charles will remain its ceremonial head throughout his reign if a significant number of member states raise dissent at a heads of government meeting. The next meeting is scheduled for 2024 in Samoa. .
In Belmopan, Belize’s capital city, Briceño acknowledges that should Belize move away from the monarchy, the country would remain in the Commonwealth of Nations, as Barbados has done.
There are no guarantees, however, and despite Briceño’s optimism he realises that there are still challenges to dispel the many myths that surround transitioning into a republic. Primary among them is a fear that departure from the crown would re-intensify an ongoing border dispute with neighbouring Guatemala, which has long laid claim to swathes of territory in Belize. (There are no guarantees of British military assistance in the current constitution.)
But above anything else, Briceño says, the constitutional reform effort must overcome a broader apathy in Belize, where 42% of citizens live in poverty and the climate crisis poses an ever-evolving threat.
“I just don’t think it [the monarchy] is up there in the minds of people at the moment,” Briceño says. Aside from the pressing issues of the economy, crime and climate, Briceño focuses repeatedly on the need for reparations.
“The United Kingdom became great on the backs of the colonies and they do have a responsibility to have some form of reparations. They will never be able to pay back what was plundered and probably the millions of lives that were lost.”
But, he adds: “A public apology is a start.”
This article was amended on 4 May 2023. Belize was known as British Honduras until 1973, not 1964 as an earlier version said. The latter year is when it became self-governing.

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