Oceans Rise, Empires Fall

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As many of you may have seen, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge just wrapped up an eight-day tour of Belize, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. You may have also seen that this tour went a little differently than we’re used to – specifically, this wasn’t a multi-day deluge of glowing news coverage. So, let’s get into what happened and what this week signifies for the Royal Family. (And for everyone who was offended by my criticism of The Duchess of Sussex in the last post, today’s your lucky day – I am an equal opportunist with criticism, thank you very much.)

Let’s start with the basics. The grand plan behind this specific Cambridge tour is that it is but one leg of a multi-continent, multi-royal household campaign throughout the Commonwealth to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee (70-year anniversary) of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. It’s probably worth clarifying the different ways “Commonwealth” is used – Commonwealth realms are different from Commonwealth nations. The latter acknowledge the Queen as the Head of the Commonwealth, but not necessarily as their Head of State. Commonwealth realms have the Queen serving as Head of State, and while her role is primarily that of a figurehead at this point, government documents from those nations do cross her desk, etc.

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While this Jubillee milestone is unprecedented – the Queen is the longest-reigning monarch in the UK’s history – the template roughly mirrors the festivities that surrounded her Diamond Jubilee in 2012, which saw the working members of the Queen’s family embark on domestic and international travel to include every corner of the Commonwealth in the celebration and, of course, promote Brand UK…and Brand Royal.

As such, it’s worth noting that plans for this tour have been in the works for a very long time. Royal calendars, by necessity, aren’t flexible. Given the security, publicity, and implications, your run-of-the-mill royal engagement in and around London, for example, takes considerable advance work. Layer in multiple engagements over several days in a foreign country, relying on coordination with a foreign government, which then has its own agenda and varying resources, and we’re talking months upon months of pain-staking planning.

Then, there is the COVID of it all. William and Kate haven’t embarked on a tour outside the UK since Pakistan in 2019. They’re a bit rusty and their team is a bit rusty. With those factors at play, you then have to calculate that the world has fundamentally changed socially, politically, and economically. Widespread physical and financial insecurity has altered attitudes towards celebrity, the upper-class, and people in power – the Royal Family is thus quite the trifecta.

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Against that backdrop, the events of the summer and autumn of 2020 have resulted in fundamentally different standards in how we address and discuss race and racism. As I would imagine is glaringly obvious, it is thus wildly relevant that William and Kate – symbols of white, European privilege no matter how you slice it – have just finished visiting racially diverse, some of which are primarily Black, countries that were once colonized by the British Empire and negatively impacted by the slave trade.

If that’s not enough, there is also a war going on. Images of Kate showing up at evening events in ball gowns are usually bubblegum no matter the political landscape, but they are arguably a little more jarring right now given the atrocities we’re otherwise absorbing from the news of the day.

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Finally, it was only a few months ago that Barbados, another Caribbean nation subjugated by the Brits, removed the Queen as their Head of State, a concrete rejection of ties to colonialism. The Prince of Wales, William’s father and the Queen’s eldest son and heir, flew to Barbados as his mother’s representative to attend a ceremony marking the occasion. Barbados’s decision was not a move for Charles, or the Royal Family, to endorse or approve, but his presence was a necessary showing of respect and acknowledgment. While there, he made a speech that addressed the role of slavery in Barbados’s history, as well as Britain’s participation in that trade. It stopped short of an apology, to which we’ll get.

So, this was the ecosystem in which William and Kate’s visit took place. At the time that this concept was dreamt up, it’s a safe bet – based largely on the engagements we saw and presented optics – that the overarching goal was to highlight the countries’ ties to the UK and, in theory, leverage global affection for the Queen. It was likely viewed – again, based on what we literally saw unfold – as a positive, proactive gesture to make these nations feel included in the broader Commonwealth family by celebrating the symbol and person of the monarch. And that, my friends, was the fatal flaw.

Their first engagement in Belize was meant to be a visit to a cacao farm – it was canceled due to protests over land disputes involving an organization that William patronizes. A rocky start if ever there was one.

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By the time William and Kate touched down in Jamaica they were well-aware this wasn’t turning out to be the breeziest tour. Leading up to this past Tuesday there were calls for the Jamaican government to follow Barbados’s lead and remove the Queen as the Head of State; even more, there were open letters and petitions demanding both an apology and financial reparations from the British government and Royal Family for their role in perpetuating slavery and the subjugation of their colonies’ peoples. One such letter specifically called out the tone-deafness of a Jubilee-inspired visit given what the Queen – referred to specifically as William’s grandmother – symbolized in Jamaica.

The day before William’s speech in Kingston, Jamaica, a small protest gathered, chanting, “Apologies now, reparations now.” By the end of the first day, both Cambridges appeared solemn – a marked shift from how they usually approach even the most formal occasions.

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When William and Kate finally met with Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness, a normal part of an official visit, it was unsurprisingly awkward. The PM was very clear that this would likely be the last royal visit Jamaica saw in their current dynamic, and that the plan – no matter how warmly William and Kate were received by crowds – was to take the steps necessary to remove the Queen as head of state. While the PM was polite, he wasn’t unduly warm, a sense that very much permeated the resulting photos and quotes picked up by news outlets. It bears repeating that that wasn’t personal – that’s his job as an elected official leading the national government.

And standing there and taking it, so to speak, is very much William and Kate’s job. This is not about them, and this isn’t even really about the Queen – this is about the historical institution that they actively work to represent. Whether you admire it or resent it, the monarchy has a complicated and, at times, dark history that is inherently premised on beliefs that are both archaic and offensive to many. The monarchy has modernized and its role has evolved, yes, but the extent to which any nation wishes to engage with it is not a decision that belongs to the Windsors.

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In two separate speeches – in Jamaica and the Bahamas – William acknowledged slavery. In Jamaica, William condemned slavery and expressed “profound sorrow” for its practice. He didn’t apologize. Let’s be very clear, whether or not William apologizes is not his call to make. The Royal Family don’t conjure these visits up because on any given week they’d like to be cheered by Canadians or Australians. They are directed to visit specific countries at specific times at the behest of the government for specific purposes. The Jubilee tour is not about the Queen’s ego, it’s about the UK’s standing on the world stage as far as Whitehall and Westminster are concerned. The “Palace,” by which I mean the Queen’s household and staff, and those of her working family members, are thus deputized to carry out agendas that will help reach expressed goals.

In the Bahamas, William said this: “We support with pride and respect your decisions about your future. Relationships evolve. Friendships endure.”

According to chatter from aides picked up by royal reporters, the insertion of this language came on the ground, based on William’s experience of living the tour. “With pride and respect” and “your decision” – right there, William, a future monarch, clearly articulated that he understands the assignment. Him saying that means something. That he was given the greenlight to say that means something. Does this come close to addressing the issue of an apology or reparations? No, of course not. William isn’t empowered to do that. But for the purposes of how the Royal Family, and to an extent, Britain, intends to handle what will almost certainly be the continued dismantling of the Commonwealth, it is a consistent signal of intent. And I say consistent because it mirrors language used by the Queen and Charles over the years as they’ve addressed these dynamics.

I’m going to go ahead and draw this out a tad more lest there be any confusion: I am in no way arguing that what William said was anything more than the bare minimum in the grand scheme of things. I’m saying that the bare minimum is about all that the broader “we” can expect right now, today, from William, second-in-line to the throne, unless otherwise directed. The use of “relationships” given the history of racial and financial abuse is also, yes, a clumsy dance over the reality of what took place during colonization.

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So, that is the substance. But there is a strong argument to be made that royal tours aren’t really about substance. What survives from these tours – with some exceptions, granted – are not the words, meetings, or work, but rather the images. Only a portion of people who see the headlines and photos that accompany reporting from these tours will in fact read about them. Instead, what will be splashed in subsequent coverage and biographies will be photos. Thus, the optics of every engagement are crucial – and yes, that includes Kate’s clothes, like it or not.

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The optics of this tour weren’t great, plain and simple. As discussed above, there was a distinct push to highlight William and Kate’s Britishness and reference the Queen as a beloved icon. Specifically, there were moments both sartorially and logistically that attempted to mirror prior visits the Queen made several decades ago. The most glaring is William and Kate arriving in an open-top Land Rover, much like the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh did in 1953, 1966, and 1994. But in 2022, two white British royals traveling through majority Black crowds in countries colonized by their ancestors with the clear expectation of joy for their presence is, well, galling. And you can tell it was galling because there were moments where William and Kate looked deeply uncomfortable. At what point the light bulb went off – for them and for their team – I don’t know, but due to how baked these itineraries are, it was essentially the Cambridges job to put their heads down and continue performing, no matter the embarrassment or strain.

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Now, make no mistake, this tour *wasn’t* a disaster in many, many ways. William and Kate *were* warmly received almost everywhere they went. They *did* receive positive news coverage both on the ground and from the traveling press corp. But royal tours aren’t historically mixed bags, so the presence of any tension is newsworthy. Thus, that is what’s leading the news cycle. Even more, that is how this tour is going to be remembered.

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In Trench Town, Jamaica, a Kingston neighborhood known as the birthplace of reggae, William and Kate were enthusiastically cheered for a walkabout. In fact, crowds that had gathered at a nearby sporting match ran to the chain-linked fence surrounding the field to welcome them. They wanted to say hello. It is William and Kate’s job to say hello, and arguably an indication of their style that they made a point of walking right up to them and reaching out to grasp hands through the fence. These [positive] interactions were fleeting amidst an otherwise smooth, happy engagement. These interactions were also a failure for the Royal Family. The image that has run from this tour more than any other – and the image that will continue to haunt the Royal Family from this tour – is of William and Kate greeting a local Black population through a chain-linked fence that, out of context, looks like it’s there as a barrier for their protection and comfort.

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It’s inadequate to chalk that up to an unforeseen unfortunate turn of events. It is in fact multiple people’s job to anticipate these issues and make sure moments like this don’t happen. It quite literally undermined what was already an extremely difficult tour. That’s not on the media and that’s not on us for taking something out of context – these tours are the machinery of a massive PR effort. When they flounder, you don’t get to point fingers at the consumers of that PR.

There’s an argument to be made that this itinerary may have made more sense when this tour was first developed, but I’m not sure I agree with that. The disconnect between what was planned and how it looked is, I think, due in part to a lack of diversity among the final decision makers here – racial, generational, and socioeconomic. I’m not blaming William and Kate’s team, per se, because they don’t work in a vacuum, but the fact of the matter is, a tour that intends to replicate the imagery of how the Royal Family functioned in the mid-20th century is unhelpful. And what is unhelpful today would not have been more helpful in 2018, even if our attention to it was more muted.

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Even more, there is something offensive about the fact that the powers that be (shall we say), sent out William and Kate as the young, popular royal couple to help smooth things over in a region where there has been simmering tension and resentment. On the one hand, there is an argument to be made that the Cambridges are more of a “get,” but I would say that Charles and Camilla, as more senior royals, would have been more appropriate. At the very least, from the Royal Family’s perspective, there would have been less attention paid. Instead, it reads like there was hope the glamor and fashion would be dazzling enough to distract – akin to how public approval for the monarchy rose in Australia and New Zealand after William and Kate debuted Prince George there in 2014.

(As I wrote the above, it does occur to me that sending forth William and Kate was a way of not repeatedly setting up public occasions where it looks like Charles is being rejected as we approach his reign. Honestly, that is a distinct possibility. And look, there is absolutely a damned if they do, damned if they don’t aspect of this – if minor royals like the Earl and Countess of Wessex were shipped out, it could look like the Royal Family was cutting its losses by lack of investment. William and Kare are powerful royals – there was absolutely an element of this that was trying to remind the region what they’ll be missing. The problem is, it came across like one of George III’s songs from Hamilton.)

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All of this also relates, of course, to Kate’s fashion. I understand the argument that what women in the public eye are wearing shouldn’t be the point, and that’s great. By all means, let’s get there. But working royals exist as symbols and the reality is, the majority of the time we are taking them in visually. How they appear – from their expression, to their environment, to, yes, their clothing – paint a picture and inform our perception of them.  Historically, a tour has seen Kate wearing tried and true British labels with which she is closely associated – Alexander McQueen, Jenny Packham, Emilia Wickstead, to name a few – and layering in designers and labels local to the host countries she’s visiting. This addresses two prongs of a tour – waving the British flag to elevate British industry, while also making a point to honor the local culture.

For example, when Kate was in Canada she debuted new Erdem and Sentaler. When she was in the United States she debuted Tory Burch and J.Crew. When she was in Paris, she wore head-to-toe Chanel at one point. You get the picture. This is a practice that Kate has slowly evolved, in my opinion, though I think it’s fair to say I don’t follow her fashion choices as meticulously as many others do. My view is that she has stuck more and more closely to British brands while abroad, and excepting a few notable moments in Pakistan, she has slowly scaled down her incorporation of local designers to distinct moments or accessories.

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I don’t want to get too far in the weeds on the “why” of this because that’s not the point of this post, but for our purposes it raises two issues: 1) a lot of the goodwill Kate could have generated by showcasing local designers and Black-owned brands was surrendered and 2) the full-on “Britishness” of how Kate appeared – and at times, William – only underscored the sense of them seeming like foreign anachronisms having the audacity to show up cheery in the face of a lot of anger and pain. For example, when William and Kate mimicked the Queen’s open-top Land Rover moment. Kate wore an updated version of the Queen’s look back in 1953, this time via a custom-made Alexander McQueen dress and Philip Treacy hat. She looked gorgeous – honestly, the entire look would have been perfect if she was attending Trooping the Colour or Ascot. That’s the point – she wasn’t. And that was but one moment of a few that felt more like an homage to the Queen than to the host country.

One news article described this tour as a “perfect storm,” and I think that’s right. It was the wrong place and wrong time, and it called into question the very nature of royal tours. Who are they for? And what purpose do they serve? I would argue that in a post-2020 world, and in light of the massive reckoning our world has undertaken in the last two years, some thought should be put into adjusting the structure of these royal visits. Yes, they are important, and yes, they are generally demonstrations of goodwill. But maybe let’s re-focus them a bit so they seem less like Windsors showing up to take in the cultural curiosities of the countries their ancestors conquered.

This issue isn’t distinct to this tour – it’s absolutely come up in the past, from Australia to New Zealand to the U.S. to Canada. It’s been background noise, it’s starting to come to the forefront, and it’s time to listen to it.

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As the tour closed, William released the following statement:

“Foreign tours are an opportunity to reflect. You learn so much. What is on the minds of Prime Ministers. The hopes and ambitions of school children. The day-to-day challenges faced by families and communities.

“I know that this tour has brought into even sharper focus questions about the past and the future. In Belize, Jamaica, and the Bahamas, that focus is for the people to decide upon. But we have thoroughly enjoyed spending time with communities in all three countries, understanding more about the issues that matter most to them.

“Catherine and I are committed to service. For us that’s not telling people what to do. It is about serving and supporting them in whatever way they think best, by using the platform we are lucky to have.

“It is why tours such as this reaffirm our desire to serve the people of the Commonwealth and to listen to communities around the world. Who the Commonwealth chooses to lead its family in the future isn’t what is on my mind. What matters to us is the potential the Commonwealth family has to create a better future for the people who form it, and our commitment to serve and support as best we can.”

William is correct that this tour brought a lot into focus. Arguably the heightened attention of the Cambridges’ presence in these three countries accelerated their process towards greater independence. Through no personal fault of William and Kate’s. Sometimes the marching orders aren’t fun and they served as good foot soldiers.

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I also commend William for releasing this statement. It feels reflective of what we saw and heard from the Cambridges over the last eight days, and it also feels like the correct tone for a more modern monarchy – responsive, thoughtful, and respectful.

I flagged on Instagram that I believe the third graf is a bit of a dig at Harry and Meghan. I still do. I don’t think that was the point of the language, but I’m going to be honest, Meghan’s presence, or general lack thereof, felt a little haunting this week. William’s use of “commitment to service” mirrors a lot of the statements we’ve seen from the Sussexes over the last two years. “For us that’s not telling people what to do” – a thing that Harry and Meghan are absolutely accused of doing (lecturing about the environment, for example), and a trait that performs particularly poorly in the UK, as opposed to the U.S. And finally, “Using the platform we are lucky to have” – unlike Harry and Meghan, William and Kate are grateful to leverage their position in the Royal Family and work within the system. More bluntly, it feels like William is saying, “*This* is what service looks like.”

And however you feel about this tour, the Cambridges, or the monarchy in general, what William and Kate did this past week was absolutely public service.

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BUT, Meghan – as disappointed as I am in how the Sussexes have handled their departure, part of that disappointment stems from how goddamn good she was at the public portion of her job and what a powerful tool she could have been. And, yes, I hear myself – she didn’t want to be a tool on behalf of the Royal Family, which brings us back to the service issue. Her marriage to Harry was an incredible opportunity to reach a new audience and bring a very fresh and much-needed perspective to how the Royal Family operates. Not just because she is woman of color, of course, but because of her specific life experience, her professional accomplishments, and her very real skill and interest in communicating and engaging. Like I said, I felt like she haunted this tour a little bit – her critiques and accusations about her experience as a working royal very much lived in the back of my head as I watched this play out.

While I stand by my criticism of how Harry and Meghan handled their royal tenure – and the last two years – that doesn’t change the fact that I also think the Palace fumbled the ball massively. She was – and should have remained – an incredibly valuable asset. And moments like this really underscore what a shame that rupture was.

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It’s a weird time to be a Windsor. As quiet and abnormal as the last two years have been in terms of the usual fanfare, there have been massive dynamic shifts as we inevitably approach Charles’s reign. This tour leaves us on a very uncertain note and it remains to be seen what impact it has in the long-term.

Okay, this was a crazy long post. If you made it this far, thank you – you’re awesome. I’d love to hear what you thought about this past week.

5 thoughts on “Oceans Rise, Empires Fall

  1. Michelle in the USA

    No you’re awesome!! I was getting so bogged down and depressed by some of the other coverage of this tour that I was very eager to jump into your post when I happily saw it in my email. I’ve always enjoyed your perspective on the royals, and you didn’t disappoint this time. Thank you. This was a lot of work for you. I appreciate it.

  2. Thank you for this post. The failures of those that planned these appearances was very surprising. I’m curious about that, including in the historical context. This had to be one of the worst.

    It is such a shame that the Sussexes couldn’t remain as working Royals. Yet I’ve worked closely with two individuals over the past 30 years or so that share a very similar profile to Meghan, and as a result can’t see how she could have compromised enough to remain in the UK and be a true asset to the “team”. People like her are better suited to being the total boss and/or a bit of a loner.

    Looking forward, I trust the Cambridges to not repeat mistakes such as those made on this tour. My only question is if this is truly “public service”. Maybe using those words as a guiding star will allow their next tour to effectively portray that. I was just thinking that with war in Eastern Europe, countries like Jamaica may feel prouder to be part of a Commonwealth with ties to Europe, but then I remember the UK doesn’t consider themselves to be part of Europe. So that’s tricky.

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