Queen, emperor and republican status

Queen, emperor and republican status

Michael Burke

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

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Today is the 90th anniversary of the birth of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. This week also marks 50 years since the visit to Jamaica of His Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie. Although the desire of the Jamaican Government to become a republic was stated by the governor general in the throne speech last Thursday, many Jamaicans still revere "Missis Queen". At the same time, many in Jamaica either worship or honour Emperor Haile Selassie.

The crowning of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1930 was interpreted by some Jamaicans as the fulfilment of a prophecy from Marcus Garvey. They called themselves Rastafarians, since one of Selassie’s many titles is Ras Tafari, which means Prince of the Trinity. The Rastas, who suffered all sorts of oppression, brutality and victimisation, were actually the vanguard of pan-Africanism in Jamaica.

Evidence of the large Rastafarian population in Jamaica was seen in 1966 when Haile Selassie visited the island. I had the privilege of seeing Selassie at Jamaica College in April 1966. At the time, Bruce Golding was head boy. In its earlier years of existence most Rastafarians did not participate in Jamaican politics. Jamaica was seen as "Babylon" and most Rastas sought repatriation to Africa. This changed after Michael Manley, as leader of the Opposition, visited Haile Selassie in Ethiopia in 1969 and received what was dubbed the "rod of correction".

One irony is that there is no love lost between many Rastafarians and the Roman Catholic Church. But Haile Selassie never had any such animosity. Indeed, Selassie treated with contempt anyone who made disparaging remarks against the pope or high-ranking Roman Catholic clergy. Further, Haile Selassie worshipped in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which is closer theologically and doctrinally to the Roman Catholic Church than to the Church of England.

Both the Roman Catholic and the Ethiopian Orthodox Churches have unbroken apostolic succession and the differences are political rather than doctrinal. There is a resemblance between the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, but there are fundamental differences in doctrine.

At a luncheon for Jamaica College (JC) old boys in 1994, at which I was in attendance, former Finance Minister Hugh Small (now retired Supreme Court Justice of The Bahamas), as guest speaker, reminisced of being a student at JC in 1952: A special assembly was called by the then headmaster Hugo Chambers, who announced that His Majesty King George VI had died. There was weeping and wailing among the students. And many of the students shouted, "Long live The King!" according to Small. Please note that this happened only 10 years before Jamaica attained its political independence.

When Queen Elizabeth visited Jamaica in November 1953, St George’s College, a Roman Catholic school for boys on North Street in Kingston (the sixth form is co-ed these days), found itself "in hot water" from ‘high society’ because its students were not allowed to go on the route during school hours to wave British flags at The Queen. It is interesting that November 1953 was less than nine years before Jamaica attained its political independence.

In the election campaign preceding the 1959 General Election, the Jamaica Labour Party, led by Sir Alexander Bustamante, in one of its campaign advertisements printed in The Gleaner, came out strongly against any notion of Jamaica being made a republic after it attained Independence which came three years later in 1962. It was seen as taboo to express a desire to discontinue the British monarch as head of State by being a republic.

In 1975, the Government headed by Michael Manley set up the constitution reform commission with a view to establishing republican status for Jamaica. The 1976 General Election was run on the ideological lines of either democratic socialism as promoted by the People’s National Party (PNP) or capitalism as promoted by the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP). The PNP, led by Michael Manley, won the 1976 election. Edward Seaga, in his contribution to the budget debate in 1977, gave his views on republican status for Jamaica and called for a ceremonial presidency. In my opinion, Seaga’s views on republican status were a sort of a "if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them" stance.

In 1977, the road to republican status was officially launched on the day the four sevens clashed (the seventh day of the seventh month, July 1977). The launch, which took place in front of the Morant Bay Courthouse, was the culmination of a re-enactment of the seven-mile march in 1865 by Paul Bogle and his followers from Stony Gut to Morant Bay. According to Michael Manley, Jamaica would become a republic in 1981. The JLP, led by Edward Seaga, won power in 1980, but all moves towards republican status became dormant until the PNP returned to power in 1989.

All later attempts to revive the republican agenda (1989-2007 and 2011 -2016) were frustrated by the JLP while in Opposition. The JLP demanded a referendum on the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) or they would not vote for republican status, which requires two-thirds of both Houses of Parliament. Andrew Holness’s insistence on undated, pre-signed letters of resignation from Opposition senators in the previous Parliament was initially to ensure that they did not vote for the CCJ. But now a JLP Government is to initiate republican status. This is political irony at its best.

Footnote: In response to my last column, Dr D K Duncan wrote that there is no evidence that in 1974 the PNP went the route of democratic socialism just to forestall the JLP calling themselves ‘social democrats’. In my defence, I came to a conclusion not by ‘jumping’, but by weighing all of the available information. Despite the political education done in the PNP from 1972, the PNP did not put a label on its ideology. Would the PNP have used the label of socialism in 1974 had the JLP not contemplated a left turn? The verdict is yours.


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