William’s ‘Sorrow’ a Sorry Excuse For an Apology

In 2002, Boris Johnson wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph in which he reported the following: “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.” Johnson’s use of the passive voice deliberately conceals the identity of whoever is supposed to have made that scandalous statement.

Of course, “It is said” does not mean that it is true. Rumour is notoriously unreliable. But Johnson’s declaration has the ring of proverbial authority. He does not need to provide any evidence to support his damning allegation. It’s common knowledge. Intentionally or not, the man who is now prime minister of the UK and Northern Ireland claimed that it’s widely known that the Queen is racist. Or, at the very least, is addicted to the adoration of the Commonwealth!

The Jamaican historian Howard Johnson brought Boris Johnson’s newspaper column to my attention. The study of the past is so vital to help us understand the present. As Marcus Garvey famously said, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Dead wood that cannot be revived! Believe it or not, history is not a required subject for high school students in Jamaica. No wonder so many young people have no sense of the past and no vision of the future.



I do not know if Prince William shares his grandmother’s alleged craving for the cheers of “flag-waving piccaninnies”. If so, he would have been rather disappointed on his visit here. As far as I can tell, the only widely publicised images of children were the truly alarming ones of the Duke and Duchess in Trench Town touching the hands of piccaninnies through a chain link fence.

That word ‘piccaninny’ has a complex history. The Online Etymology Dictionary confirms that, “as late as 1836 it was applied affectionately in English to any small child or baby, regardless of race.” The origin of the word is either Spanish or Portuguese. In both languages, ‘pequeno’ means small. Over time, ‘piccaninny’ became exclusively associated with black people and is now considered to be offensive. Our Jamaican word ‘pikni,’ or ‘pikini,’ comes from the same root. We still use it with affection.

Writing for The New York Times, Mike Landler described that now-infamous photo of the Duke and Duchess touching children through a barrier as “the kind of public-relations gaffe that afflicts other members of the royal family but has rarely tarnished this couple.” The choice of the word tarnish in this context is most unfortunate since it suggests the blackening of a once shiny image.


My sister Donnette sent me a collage of photos circulating on social media in which a comparison was obviously being made between the Jamaican children and a little black girl who was exhibited in one of the many human zoos that flourished in Europe and the US in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. In the years before commercial airlines allowed Europeans and Americans to travel the world freely, entrepreneurs put ‘exotic’ human beings on display at home for entertainment.

In 1958, there was a world fair in Brussels at which 700 Congolese were exhibited. Stephane Kaas, a Dutch filmmaker, did a brilliant documentary about that human zoo. He records his journey of discovery and asks two profound questions: “Did I fall asleep during history lessons at school? Or did it just not come up?” He was fortunate to have had history lessons, despite the gaps in the curriculum.

Kaas went in search of the poor lickle pikni in the photo. His investigation led him to Belgium’s Royal Museum of Central Africa. There, the anthropologist Bambi Ceuppens told him that visitors to the human zoo treated the Congolese people like monkeys, throwing nuts at them. The fair opened in April. Wikipedia reports that, “In mid-July the Congolese protested the condescending treatment they were receiving from spectators and demanded to be sent home, abruptly ending the exhibit and eliciting some sympathy from European newspapers.”


It is a delicious irony that the photo of William and Kate touching those children through the fence has revived a notorious image of colonial exploitation. This is especially disastrous since the whole point of the whirlwind tour of the Caribbean was to persuade us to not sever ties with the British monarchy. The old colonial relations of domination have not been fundamentally transformed. The barrier that separates commoner from royalty is firmly fixed in place.


Mike Landler argues in his New York Times article that, “For Prince William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, it has been a turbulent tour of the Caribbean – one that has dramatised, through a pileup of gaffes and miscues, how rapidly Queen Elizabeth II is losing her grip on these distant dominions, even when she sends her most popular proxies.”

Looked at from another perspective, the damning photo could also suggest that William and Kate are the spectacle. They are the strange creatures in the human zoo who are attracting the gaze of the piccanninies. Who is object and who is subject? It seems as if the children could be claiming the power to “tun history upside dung”, as Louise Bennett says so brilliantly in her revolutionary poem, “Colonization in Reverse.”


At a state dinner at King’s House, Prince William made a speech that would certainly not prevent this distant dominion, Jamaica, from slipping out of the hands of the Queen: “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.”

Like Boris Johnson’s anonymous “It is said,” the Prince’s “happened” fails to acknowledge the agency of those who enabled the trade in enslaved Africans. Slavery didn’t just “happen” like a natural disaster. It was a deliberate commercial enterprise that enriched Britain and the monarchy.

Prince William’s easy sorrow is a completely inadequate response to the catastrophe that was enslavement. It is not a formal apology for acknowledged wrongs. His history has, indeed, been stained with the blood of generations of Africans. Both the monarchy and the British state must make reparations for centuries of genocide.

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