Seeking election last year, Jamaica's prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, declared Jamaica would seek full independence from Britain by becoming a republic. Statements in the British media suggest that this simple desire for sovereignty has been interpreted as a somewhat hostile action. This is a pity. Worries were expressed about how Prince Harry, representing his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, on a three-day visit to Jamaica, would be treated.
But by now Jamaica's warm and gracious embrace of Prince Harry should have reassured those who expressed such concerns. In August this year, Jamaica celebrates 50 years of independence and both Simpson Miller and former PM Bruce Golding are united in their view that there could be no better time for Jamaica to completely free itself from all vestiges of its colonial past. This is not a decision prompted by anger or resentment towards Britain or its monarchy; on the contrary, the Queen is deeply admired and respected here.
It may seem odd that, in contemporary Jamaica, Elizabeth is seen by citizens as someone to be cultivated and celebrated rather than reviled or rejected as a symbol of colonial privilege and prestige. Having been born in post-independence India, I find Jamaicans' non-antagonistic relationship with Britain a constant surprise despite having lived here for 23 years. Anti-colonialism here seems rather to take the form of outdoing the British at their own game through a painstaking reproduction and deployment of the ceremonial aspects of English culture.
The truth is that there is little or no hostility towards the British monarchy in Jamaica. On the contrary, many ordinary Jamaicans feel very warmly towards the Queen, something that dates back to the days of slavery when the enslaved saw the crown as a sympathetic authority, often interceding on their behalf in the face of cruel and callous plantation owners.
Perhaps such residual feelings of goodwill explain the otherwise startling finding from polls conducted as recently as 2011. These showed that as many as 60% of Jamaicans surveyed felt that the country would be better off under British rule, while only 17% thought things would have been worse had Jamaica remained a colony. Clues to popular sentiment on the subject of becoming a republic can also be found elsewhere. A surprising number of people in Jamaica are very reluctant to part with the privy council as the final arbiter of justice in this postcolonial society, and the newly constituted Caribbean court of justice is viewed with suspicion by many.
One factor that is sure to influence the way people vote is bound to be the visa programme instituted by the British government in 2003. Previously, Jamaicans did not need a visa to travel to the United Kingdom. Now they have to pay exorbitant fees and obtain a visa. Naturally, many Jamaicans are asking why this is the case when the Queen of England is their head of state.
The country may be almost 50 years old but most of the young people I spoke to at the University of the West Indies during Prince Harry's visit expressed doubts about Jamaica's ability to go it alone. Does it have the wherewithal, can it afford to become a republic? Although there were one or two voices demanding reparations for slavery and criticising Britain for the role it played in the slave trade, these views weren't widely held.
So switching Jamaica's constitutional status is by no means a done deal. The government has promised to hold a referendum before any decision is made, and retaining the monarchy might well turn out to be the more popular choice when all the votes are counted.