LONDON — Prince William expressed his “profound sorrow” for the slave trade in rare remarks during a trip to Jamaica. But the prince, second in line to the British throne, stopped short of the formal apology that many activists in Jamaica and beyond had wanted to hear.
William’s comments — and his omissions — have sparked a debate about how the British royal family should address its historical links to slavery. William may have directly referenced the topic of slavery, which is unusual for a senior royal, but he did not heed the call from campaigners to apologize for the actions of his forebears.
William and his wife, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, are on a week-long visit to Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas — a trip that was hit by some turbulence early on.
Cindy McCreery, a cultural historian focused on the British royal family, said, “What you see is a collision of two agendas.” One is the campaign for reparations and redress for the crimes of slavery that have gained momentum in recent years, including in some former British colonies.
The other is that the British royal family sees an opportunity in the year of the queen’s Platinum Jubilee to “renew interest and support for Queen Elizabeth.”
“Those two things have collided in Jamaica, where you have the opportunity of William and Kate’s visit actually giving more oxygen to the reparations campaign,” she said.
In Jamaica, a group of protesters gathered outside the British High Commission, and more than 100 prominent citizens wrote an open letter to the royal couple calling for an apology and reparations for slavery.
“Many of us are not charmed,” said Rosalea Hamilton, a trade policy specialist in Jamaica who is also an organizer for the Advocates Network, a group that helped to issue the open letter. In an interview she called William’s speech “tone-deaf” and said that it “doesn’t rise to the level of a formal apology, which not only requires taking responsibility but a commitment to non-repetition and, of course, reparatory justice.”
A formal apology is seen as an important step by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), an alliance of 20 Caribbean countries that are seeking reparations from former colonial powers, including the United Kingdom.
Many were surprised when Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness officially welcomed William and Catherine on Wednesday and told them, in front of rolling cameras, that their visit was a chance to address “unresolved” issues.
Jamaica was “moving on,” he said, and “in short order” it intended to “fulfill our true ambition” of becoming an “independent, developed and prosperous country.”
William did not mention the prime minister’s independence remarks in his speech later that evening, but he did refer to a speech last year by his father in Barbados as it was becoming a republic.
William said, “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.”
Some have suggested that William could have gone further in his speech.
Peter Hunt, a royal commentator, tweeted: “Windsor caution wins the day. The defence is saying sorry is too political. The reality is William could have apologised for the active role his ancestors played in the slave trade. An opportunity to shape history has been ducked.”
Others have said that William should not have had to apologize for something his ancestors did hundreds of years ago.
Corinne Fowler, an expert in British colonial history at the University of Leicester, said that links between the British royal family and the slave trade trace back to Queen Elizabeth I, who gave ships to John Hawkins, a British slave trader. In the 1560s, Hawkins sold Africans into slavery to Spanish settlers in Central America.
But it wasn’t until a century later, during the reign of King Charles II, that the slave trade started to take off. Fowler said Charles II signed a 1663 charter that “marked England’s official entry into the slave trade” and bolstered the fortunes of the Royal African Company, which shipped more enslaved Africans to the Americas than any other company — many of them branded with the initials DY for “Duke of York.” The company was led by the king’s brother, the then-Duke of York, who would go on to become King James II.
Fowler said that other royals profited directly from the slave trade, including Queen Anne, who ruled from 1702 to 1714. She had a 20 percent stake in a company that sold enslaved Africans to the West Indies.
“It upsets many Caribbeans and Black Britons that no royal has ever acknowledged the family’s role in sending ships, signing charters, enabling, then investing in the slave trade,” she said. William’s family, the Windsors, “are different royals, but it’s still the British royal family. They can now directly acknowledge the royal involvement in the slavery business and play a role in educating British people about that link.”
William’s comments come at a time of a broader reckoning in Britain with its colonial past, triggered in part by the Black Lives Matter movement as well as a scandal involving the “Windrush” generation.
In 2018, the British government was forced to apologize to Caribbean leaders for its treatment of the Windrush generation, nearly a half-million people who moved from the Caribbean to Britain between 1948 and 1971. They were invited by the British government to help rebuild Britain after World War II. Decades later, some found they were threatened with deportation after the British authorities questioned their legal status.
Referring to the Windrush generation, William said: “We are forever grateful for the immense contribution that this generation and their descendants have made to British life, which continues to enrich and improve our society.”
Ahead of the final leg of the trip in the Bahamas, the country’s reparations committee also published an open letter decrying slavery, demanding an apology and calling for reparations. In the letter, the Bahamas National Reparations Committee says the British monarchy “has looted and pillaged our land and our people for centuries, leaving us struggling with under-development, left to pick up the pieces.”
Lisa Hanna, a Jamaican politician, wrote in the Guardian that her country needed more than expressions of regret. (She also said that she didn’t “snub” the Duchess of Cambridge, as a “two-second manipulated clip” of the pair suggested. The clip went viral.)
“Condemning slavery with no action, as both Prince Charles and Prince William did, is not particularly bold, nor does it show courage,” she wrote. “I would hope that this rhetoric is a start and not an end to their journey on the issue of reparations and justice.”
Sammy Westfall and Maite Fernández Simon contributed to this report.