Bridgetown, BarbadosA king was dead and a bloody civil war—cast as Parliament versus the Crown—was finally coming to an end. But for the ruling class and sugar tycoons in one of Europe’s richest colonies across the Atlantic, the conflict in the mid-1600s was just beginning as England sought to protect its economic interests and restrict trade.
The tightened grip on Barbados, the easternmost island in the Caribbean, coupled with the boiling tensions between those who supported the crown and those who did not, would lead to an unusual proclamation.
In 1651, as England sought greater control over its recalcitrant colony, Barbados Governor Lord Francis Willoughby would convene the legislature and declare independence from the mother country. The rebellion and “declaration of independence” would be short-lived. A dispatched Royal Navy fleet would blockade the island and force its submission.
Though the British would emerge victorious and quash other attempts, including slave rebellions, the 1651 act marked the island's first attempt at independence and its inhabitants’ burning desire to free themselves from British control.
Nearly 400 years later, the final step toward sovereignty is finally coming to fruition.
On November 30, the island nation long referred to as the “Little England” of the Caribbean will become a republic. Queen Elizabeth II will be replaced as its head of state by the island’s current governor-general, Dame Sandra Mason, who will become Barbados’ first president.
Mason’s new role was approved by both houses of Barbados’ Parliament last month. The transition comes after more than 40 years of debate, and 55 years to the day after the island nation went from being a colony to an independent state in 1966.
The move to a republic is the final step in the island’s journey that began in the early 1600s when English settlers claimed it for the British crown, which maintained control over its politics and trade. Even after it declared independence from England and became a parliamentary democracy, Barbados still recognized the British monarch as head of state therefore making it a constitutional monarchy.
For most Barbadians, the change won’t be that apparent, especially as the government drafts a new constitution to support its fully sovereign status. Mason’s role, like that of the queen’s, will be mostly symbolic. Barbados’ prime minister will continue overseeing the government’s day-to-day affairs.
As a republic, Barbados is cutting one of the last remaining ties to the British crown—except for one. The country will remain a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, an association of 54 member states, mostly former British colonies and dependencies working together to promote good governance, free trade, economic cooperation, human rights, and social development.
One significant change for Barbados is that it will no longer have to seek the queen’s blessing on appointments of ambassadors and other diplomats. For many Barbadians, the country’s move to sever ties with its colonial past is about self-identity and controlling its destiny.
Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley, who addressed legislators after Mason secured the necessary two-thirds of the votes in the country’s two Houses of Parliament, said the fact that the new head of state is a Barbadian woman is itself a significant achievement.
“After 396 years of British rule, and probably just over 386 years of British monarchical rule,” Mottley said in her remarks, “the time has come for us to express the full confidence in ourselves as a people and to believe that it is possible for one born of this nation to sign off finally and completely.”
The decisions of the country’s Parliament and its executive, Mottley added, should no longer be “signed off on by those who are not born of here, who do not live here, and who do not appreciate the daily realities of those who live here.”
Those realities came into full view as the country found itself battling the COVID-19 pandemic, and its historical ties to Britain offered neither life-saving vaccines when it had none, nor financial bailout when the pandemic’s travel restrictions, lockdowns, and closed borders decimated its tourism-dependent economy.
For the first time since independence, a country that still honors the British high tea tradition in 300-year-old plantation houses and has long prided itself as having one of the more stable economies in the Caribbean, had double-digit declines in revenues as unemployment in 2020 neared 13 percent.
The pandemic’s damage, combined with the ongoing effects of climate change and a shrinking labor force, Mottley said, threatens to undermine the country’s stability, and requires the confidence of Barbadians to confront.
“This is a seminal moment for this nation,” she said to Parliament of the move to a republican system. “This is about being able to use this as the springboard that we as a nation need in order to confront a completely different reality.”
Since 2018, Mason, 72, has represented the queen domestically as Barbados’ eighth governor-general. She announced the country’s transition in a speech last year, saying the time had come for Barbados “to fully leave our colonial past behind.”
“Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state. This is the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving,” Mason said.
Still, the push to remove the queen as the ceremonial head of state has triggered mixed emotions in this most British of islands of just under 300,000 residents. Some are wondering ‘Why now?’ while others assert, ‘It’s way overdue.’
“It’s a done deal,” Norman Alleyne, a taxi driver in Bridgetown, said in a phone interview earlier this month after hearing that Prince Charles had accepted an invitation from Mottley to visit the island for the transition.
Alleyne, 60, believes it’s time for a change, and says he’s all for it. But three months earlier, as he drove through the streets, pointing out the historical Anglican and Catholic churches, and their British influenced architecture, he was still unsure.
“The British have done a lot for us; anybody who says that the British haven’t done anything for Barbados don’t know what they are talking about or are not familiar with the history,” he said, showing this reporter the historical landmarks. “Our system is based on the British system.”
When he finally arrived at the capital’s main square, National Heroes Square—formerly named Trafalgar Square after the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 where British forces defeated French and Spanish troops during the Napoleonic Wars—Alleyene thought it was a fitting representation of where Barbados presently is in its history.
On the left side of the square sits an empty base where until November of last year stood a bronze statue of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the British naval commander and a slavery sympathizer who won the Battle of Trafalgar but was killed by a French sniper later in the battle. Erected in 1813 by Barbados’ ruling class to commemorate Nelson’s victory over the Franco-Spanish forces, the statue was hauled away two months after Barbados announced its break with Queen Elizabeth II and following an online petition campaign. The petition was part of an international movement to remove colonial statues deemed symbols of racism, spurred by the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Opposite the now vacant spot of the Nelson statue stands two stone, neo-Gothic-style buildings completed in 1874 that house Parliament, the third oldest in the Commonwealth after the British established it in 1639. Adjacent to the historic Parliament building is a more modern-looking Royal Bank of Canada.
“We are at a crossroads,” Alleyne says, pointing out the juxtaposition of the three structures as symbols of Barbados’ past, present, and future. He said removing the Nelson statue is a reflection of the current moment where Bajans, as the locals call themselves, are reassessing their history and relationship with colonialism.
“I think in life, you always have to go forward,” he says. “You can’t say you’re independent and still be under British rule; you can’t have it both ways. But I do have a problem with wanting to destroy everything the British have done. Some things should still remain because it’s part of our history; you shouldn’t destroy history.”
Sandy Deane, the editor-in-chief of Barbados Today news site, said bidding farewell to the queen is not about deconstructing the past but rather building a future.
“I don’t think it’s that people oppose the move” to become a republic, Deane says. “The British monarchy, it’s not like they are involved in our daily affairs. They’re a nice family we admire from afar; we know that you take an oath and you owe allegiance to the queen, but really and truly, they are not a dynamic part of Barbados in any way.”
Even so, British customs, traditions and even architecture run deep in this windswept Caribbean island, whose geographical location made it a crown jewel in global trade with the British first shipping tobacco, then cotton and finally sugar. Historical Bridgetown and its Garrison are listed as outstanding examples of British colonial history and inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Cricket and polo, brought to the island by the British, attract large crowds. And to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012, the nation held a U.K.-style parade through its streets.
“The British have been so much a part of our history, but we are moving past that as a country,” Deane says. “After 55 years of independence…we’re ready to make that move.”
Roots of republicanism
Barbados’ push toward republicanism dates back at least 40 years for some—and longer for others. Though it gained momentum during the global Black Lives Matter protests following Floyd’s death—and garnered even more force following claims of racism within the British monarchy publicly expressed by Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle—those who support the push for a new system of government say it has no relation.
“This is about the future of Barbados; this is about inspiration for Barbados to let young Barbadians know that they too can aspire to be head of state,” says the Reverend Charles Morris, an outspoken Anglican priest.
“We’re not talking about race here,” he says, “we’re talking about a concept called republicanism. There is no rush to republicanism.”
Barbados will now be the fourth Caribbean country to cut ties with the monarchy, leaving just eight other former British colonies in the region pledging allegiance to the crown. Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Dominica all replaced Queen Elizabeth as head of state in the 1970s, soon after gaining independence from the United Kingdom.
Some are hoping that Barbados’ decision will be a catalyst for more changes in the region, or at the very least renew conversations about colonialism, reparations, and the legacy of the British monarchy, which built its wealth on the backs of enslaved Africans. Caribbean leaders have long complained that the days of receiving financial assistance and other benefits from the UK went out the door the minute they decided to strike out on their own.
Morris, the Anglican priest, takes it even further. He says that when the European Union was blacklisting Caribbean countries over their offshore banking laws, countries like Barbados couldn’t depend on the support of the UK, even though it fought to protect its crown dependencies and territories from such scrutiny.
“There are people who assume that we get so much from Britain,” Morris says. “We get nothing at all from Britain; we get no support.”
Barbados was first settled by the English in 1625, two years after an expedition landed on the island and saw its potential with its trade winds and isolated geography in the Lesser Antilles.
Its climate and soil would soon prove to be an economic boom for sugar production, and along with its slave-based plantation system, it would become one of Britain's wealthiest colonies. The industry would attract exiled prisoners, as well as free, indentured, and poor whites from Britain and Ireland.
Known as a penal settlement, it also had the unsavory reputation as a hub for the Transatlantic slave trade. From there, slaves would be re-exported to other places, and those who were kept became part of a brutal West Indian chattel slavery system where sugar profits were derived from forced servitude.
Eventually, the Africans would outnumber the whites, giving rise to several rebellions, including the island’s failed and largest slave revolt, the Bussa Rebellion in 1816. Two more revolts would follow in 1876 and 1937, all with the same goal as in 1651— emancipation. The social unrest that stemmed from racial and economic divisions in 1937 eventually led to independence in 1966.
“You will find that there was always this move toward republicanism, toward complete independence,” Morris says. “You find that there were a number of leaders emerging who would have removed the monarchy as head of state, as the colonial power over Barbados.”
Formerly cutting ties
Peter Wickham, a political analyst and pollster, said the fact is that Barbados has been quietly marching toward this moment for years, as it quietly did away with British symbols, customs, and practices.
“We ditched the wigs,” he says proudly, referring to the white wig often worn by Caribbean jurists, politicians, and lawyers in courts across the British Caribbean.
The other tie the country cut was Britain’s Privy Council as its court of last resort. Barbados is among four countries in the Caribbean that uses the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice, established in 2001, as its final appellate court.
The reality, Wickham said, is that Barbadians can have the conversation about an incoming republican system because its current constitution, unlike that of other former British colonies, allows for the change without a referendum.
“Many of the other Caribbean islands don’t have that luxury,” he says. “Some would love to do it, but they can’t: Antigua, similarly, in Grenada, the referendum failed; in St. Vincent, the referendum failed; Jamaica has wanted to for a long time, but they know that whenever it comes up, the referendum would become marred in some political controversy.”
Still, in this pear-shaped country that is barely 20 miles long and 15 miles wide, British traditions and service honors like the Order of the British Empire mean something. Though the latter will now go away—along with the word “royal” on state institutions—there is talk of replacing the queen’s recognition with a new system of national recognition.
Wickham understands the angst of his fellow Bajans. His own mother takes pride in the fact that she went to Queens College and was taught by British teachers. “She loves that stuff and she worries that we’re going to lose all of it when we become a republic. For me, it means nothing,” he said. “I think the younger generation doesn’t care.”
Perhaps Wickham is right. On a sun-drenched August afternoon, a group of young adults gathered at a spot on the beach near one of the many beachfront resort hotels. It was before Mason’s election and the talk of becoming a republic was heating up.
The young adults, all in their 20s, responded with a confused look on their faces, however, when asked about the pending move and whether it will change the relationship with England.
After a few bewildered giggles, one of the young ladies replied, “I didn’t know that we still had a relationship.”
While other leaders moved toward an end to monarchy representation throughout Barbados history, it is Mottley who took the leap.
Charismatic and outspoken, Mottley campaigned on republicanism to become the nation’s first female leader in 2018. She has used her time in office to put Barbados on the world stage by tackling such issues as access to COVID-19 vaccine, natural disaster clauses that allow a break in payments for countries after climate change disasters, and now, self-determination.
Where others ask, Why now?, Mottley and her supporters respond, Why not?
Jacqueline Charles covers the Caribbean for the Miami Herald. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas. Follow her on Twitter @Jacquiecharles.