April 14, 2024

© Jeff J Mitchell/Pool/Getty Images
Prince Charles speaks as Barbados President Dame Sandra Mason looks on during the inauguration ceremony on Nov. 30, 2021, in Bridgetown, Barbados.

When the Caribbean nation of Barbados finally ditched the British crown in November 2021, it had a royal guest in attendance. Prince Charles was at the ceremony that confirmed the country’s new incarnation as a parliamentary republic, 55 years after its independence from Britain. In lieu of Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state, it welcomed a new president. Global pop star Rihanna, a Barbadian, appeared resplendent onstage and was awarded the status of “national hero.” The message was implicit and suitably irreverent — who needs the Windsors when you have this queen?

Charles, for his part, assumed the role of retreating royal with conspicuous dignity. He delivered remarks that some analysts cast as perhaps the most significant statement made by any British potentate on the misdeeds of the British Empire.

“From the darkest days of our past, and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our histories, the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude,” he said, speaking about the experience of Barbados. “Emancipation, self-government and independence were your waypoints. Freedom, justice and self-determination have been your guides.”

Onlookers back home were impressed. Simon Woolley, the only person in the House of Lords of Barbadian heritage, told reporters at the time that the speech “enabled us to acknowledge, at the very highest level, the dark and tragic past from which the nation” — referring to Barbados — “was born.” He added that it “was the start of a grown-up conversation, which is being led by a future king.”

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How King Charles III will continue this “grown-up conversation” in the years to come is an open but increasingly urgent question. He is to be crowned Saturday in a spectacle steeped in centuries of tradition, if tailored for a gawking, bemused outside world. The ceremony will involve, among other things, a gleaming solid gold crown, a coronation chair, a scepter and rod, multiple swords, including a jeweled one, a tall mace, an orb, a “stone of destiny” and a vial of holy oil.

In all its flummery, the coronation represents less the genuine grandeur and might that once undergirded the British monarchy, and more the obscure anachronisms that help the monarchy endear itself to a 21st century public. There are many in Britain who balk at the lavish expense and general frivolity of the event, not least at a time when many ordinary families are struggling to make ends meet. Yet the coronation engenders a huge amount of pride among Britons, as well, and constitutes a significant exercise in British soft power.

To that end, Buckingham Palace has been at pains to stress the “inclusive” nature of the first coronation in seven decades, as well the more humble, modern profile the new king hopes to project. The ceremony that was once entirely the domain of the Church of England will feature Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders all presenting Charles with their own symbolic offerings. In the presence of female bishops — another sign of the times — Charles is expected to somberly intone the vow: “I come not to be served but to serve.”

The sensitivities surrounding the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which sits in the crown intended for the Queen consort Camilla, have also been taken into account. In South Asia, the existence of the famous stone among the Crown Jewels is a reminder of a history of coercion and loot carried out under British colonial rule. It was mined in India centuries ago, while governments in Pakistan and Afghanistan also voice their own claim to it. The South African diamonds that will sit in the crown instead are also the subject of calls for repatriation.

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Inseparable from Charles’s coronation is the reality of Britain’s changing place in the world. Attending the ceremony will be the Indian-origin prime ministers of Britain and Ireland, as well as the Pakistani-origin first minister of Scotland — a set of identities unthinkable in 1953, when Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne. And in the weeks and months to follow, Charles will assume his role at the head of a commonwealth that is fast fading in relevance.

Already, a number of other Caribbean nations have announced their plans to follow the path of Barbados and transform themselves into republics with no Windsor as the head of state. Even in countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand — long tethered to the crown — revaluations of the relationship to the monarchy are underway. Charles may not feature in new currency prints in some of these countries; Australia’s new five-dollar note will replace the royal visage with an indigenous design.

If Elizabeth represented a post-imperial monarch — the Windsor who stoically watched the British Empire shrink decade-by-decade — Charles could be Britain’s first post-colonial royal — the king who sloughs off the faded trappings of empire and directly acknowledges (if not necessarily apologizes for) a deep legacy of injustice. That work may have begun in Barbados, and it is sure to continue.

The calls at home to exhume the skeletons in the monarchy’s closet are only getting louder. Last month, in response to reporting in the Guardian that surfaced evidence of the British royal family directly profiting from the sale of enslaved people in the 17th century, Buckingham Palace announced that it would directly assist in research probing the “links between the British monarchy and the transatlantic slave trade during the late 17th and 18th centuries.”

Charles’s desire to participate in a rumored state visit to India may set the symbolic stakes in what was once Britain’s most prized colony — the British need to expand trade with the rising Asian power may, by necessity, also involve the king articulating a degree of atonement for the crimes of the past.

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To be sure, the politics of apology are complicated, and successive British governments have resisted calls to fully apologize for historic legacies, including slavery. A majority of Britons, according to at least one poll, don’t believe Charles should atone for the royal family’s historic role in the expansion of slavery and colonialism. And Charles in his personal life has been accused of engaging in casual racism, while Buckingham Palace is alleged to have fostered a culture of bigotry among the household for years.

Some analysts are optimistic about his capacity to be a transformative figure. “It was thought by some that becoming king at age 73 would present Charles with potentially insuperable challenges,” wrote Matthew d’Ancona, editor at large at the New European. “In fact, the opposite has proved to be the case (at least so far). The frustrated, prickly middle-aged prince has morphed into a twinkly grandfather of the nation who is strikingly popular with the public.”

Others are less sure. “Will the new King help build a more peaceful and inclusive Commonwealth?” asked Justin Vovk, a historian at McMaster University in Canada. “Will it even be possible for an aging white man, adorned in what to many are the symbols of repression, privilege and colonialism to do so?”