On the eve of the 55th anniversary of its independence, hundreds of years after it was claimed for King James of England, the tiny island of Barbados is set to become the youngest republic on Earth.
Early Tuesday morning, Governor General Sandra Mason will be sworn in as president and officially cease being a representative of Queen Elizabeth, thereby severing the government’s final official ties to the monarchy of the United Kingdom.
“If we are going to face the world with confidence, then we need to do so as whole as we can,” Prime Minister Mia Mottley explained in an interview with CBC News. “Which is having the confidence that we can be responsible for our affairs, in every respect — and that means having a Barbadian head of state.”
The move to position a native Barbadian in the highest office in the country — and not simply as a representative of the Queen — is a powerful one that helps to alleviate colonial baggage extending back centuries.
While Mottley’s party — which won every seat in parliament in the most recent election — decided on the move more than a year ago without a public referendum, historians and academics in the country believe it is just another inevitable, though admittedly slow, step toward liberation.
“The British monarchy has fallen like a leaf in autumn in Barbados, and that’s basically what I am sensing as the general response to it,” explained Tennyson Joseph, a lecturer in political science with the University of the West Indies in Cave Hill, Barbados. “Something that was due to happen — it happened very late, but it is happening anyway.”
That lateness, Joseph said, has led to muted excitement from the people of Barbados over the declaration of a republic, which has been in discussion since at least the late 1970s.
Even so, politicians have firmly cast Mason’s transition to president as a symbolic yet definitive departure from its colonial past, and one that can help the nation move toward self-determination.
“What it does is … give us the confidence that we need at this particular point in time so that we can literally confront all of the crises that are facing us,” Mottley said, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and the echoes of the colonial past.
“There are some who said, ‘Well, why not wait?’ And we said ‘Why?’ Because what we need more than anything else is the resilience of the people, the courage of the people, the confidence of the people.”
While generally positive about the prospect of a republic and throwing off the yoke of colonialism, many Barbadians are doubtful about the real-world benefits, while others resent the general lack of public participation in a political and societal move meant to be about liberation.
‘This is a majority Black society’
Barbados was established as a colony by England in 1625, and was subsequently used as a slave society for more than 200 years, in which enslaved Africans were forced to work on sugar plantations throughout the island.
Enslaved Barbadians gained full emancipation in 1838, but it wasn’t until 1966 that the country gained full independence as a constitutional monarchy within the British Commonwealth, with the Queen represented as head of state by a governor general.
While it is doing away with the Queen’s role — the first country to do so in nearly 30 years, after Mauritius in 1992 — Barbados will stay in the Commonwealth.
This association of 54 countries with social and economic ties to Britain has always been of particular importance to the monarchy. Kristina Hinds, a senior lecturer in political science and international relations at the University of the West Indies, said the decision to remove the monarchy but remain in the Commonwealth evinces the uniquely complex relationship between the two nations.
“The difference, in some way, between Barbados and, let’s say, Canada and Australia is that this is a majority Black society,” Hinds said. “This is a society in which most of us are descended from enslaved Africans. So there is some very painful baggage attached to this colonial legacy.”
In the years since independence, that baggage has caused both major political parties — Mottley’s Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) — to at times propose a republican system when in power and oppose it when in opposition.
“Despite the results of the last election, we are not in a dictatorship. It is not a decision that one person can make,” said Verla De Peiza, the president of the DLP, at a No Referendum! No Republic! meeting in August. “We need to know what it is we are getting … especially since it is not as simple as a name-change.”
While the country’s distancing from the Crown could be seen as a political cudgel or repudiation of the British royal family, politicians have said the opposite.
Barbados has long been labelled “little England” due to its ties with the United Kingdom, and earlier this year, government officials stressed Barbados and Britain remain “good friends.” Mottley told CBC she remains close personal friends with Prince Charles, heir to the throne.
Award ceremony for Charles
In fact, Barbados invited Charles to attend the independence festivities as guest of honour and even award him with the Order of Freedom of Barbados, which is now the country’s highest distinction. Barbados Sen. Lisa Cummins described the invitation as solely about “diplomatic relations.”
The mood on the ground is a little less warm, as public demonstrations have been organized to coincide with Charles’s arrival. While Hinds says she doesn’t plan to attend due to risks associated with COVID-19, she agrees it was a poor decision to include him.
The invitation — and reaction to it — only showcases the fraught relationship the Barbadian government and its people have with Britain, the monarchy and the history between all three, Hinds said.
“Until we have some statement of ownership of the fact that the Royal Family and the British government have caused substantial harm to the people of the Caribbean and other parts of the world through slavery and colonization, and that they are willing to enter discussions with them about reparations, we should not be awarding them with anything,” Hinds said.
The award Charles is slated to receive is unlikely to have a large impact on citizens. While organizers have set up stages and signs in the centre of the nation’s capital, Bridgetown, there are few indications the public will be there to witness it.
Hinds points to COVID-19 infection rates, which have recently risen on the island, as one factor keeping Barbadians from getting more involved. But other factors have played a role in making this year’s celebrations somewhat subdued.
Ralph Jemmott, a social commentator with newspaper Barbados Today, explained that he is in favour of the move to a republic, but dislikes the way the change was introduced.
While previous governments had introduced the republic idea — and in fact passed legislation in 2005 to allow for a referendum on the issue — no such vote was ever held. That made the change feel less like the legitimate will of the people and robbed young people of the opportunity to get involved in the process, said Jemmott.
‘We don’t know what’s coming’
The lack of participation has left many Barbadians feeling like their future is unsure.
“We don’t know what’s coming — that’s the whole problem with this republic thing,” Jemmott said. He wondered whether Barbadians will wake up to a republic later this week, “and a few years after, will it just be more of the same? Or are we going to strike out on some new path?”
Rodney Hinds, a market vendor in the village of Oistins, echoed that concern.
“We were not asked any questions, we were just told … that we’re going [to move to a] republic,” Hinds said. “That was wrong…. You have to get the people of the country involved.”
The proposed real-world changes are few, in fact, and mostly relate to names and titles. For example, the Royal Barbados Police Force will be renamed the Barbados Police Service, while Government House — the official residence of the governor general and soon-to-be-president Sandra Mason — will be renamed State House.
Another change would be to the way the country honours its most distinguished citizens. Sir Henry Fraser, a Barbadian physician and historian who was knighted in 2014 for his contribution to the medical community and representation of Barbadian culture, noted he will be among the last of the Barbadian knights, as the country is doing away with imperial honours.
Knighthoods will be replaced by the Freedom of Barbados award.
Fraser noted the loss of knighthoods and other similar historical vestiges are a small price to pay in the effort to heal historical wounds.
“Having your own complete, final authority — head of state — as a Barbadian is important to many Barbadians, who have continued to dwell on the heritage of slavery, colonialism and imperial domination,” Fraser said.
“So although I don’t think it’s going to make a great deal of difference economically, financially, politically, I think it will make a difference to the psyche of many Barbadians … who have talked about, and have wanted it, for a very long time.”