In Barbados, it’s out with the queen, in with a president as the Caribbean island nation becomes the first Commonwealth realm in nearly three decades to declare itself a republic.
The move, debated for years, gained momentum amid the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States and growing demands for reparations for slavery on the island. Prime Minister Mia Mottley announced last year that the nation of 300,000 would become a republic by Tuesday, the 55th anniversary of its independence.
That means removing Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, a break with nearly four centuries of history in the former British colony.
Prince Charles, who has long used the island dubbed “Little England” as his polo playground, plans to join the celebrations in Bridgetown. The heir to the British throne will be the next head of the Commonwealth, the association made up almost entirely of former territories of the British Empire.
Barbados, the easternmost island of the Caribbean, known for cricket, rum and the international pop star Rihanna, plans to remain a member of the group.
Its new government is to be led by Mottley, a London School of Economics-trained former chairwoman of the Caribbean Community, fresh from her turn lecturing world leaders on vaccine hoarding at the U.N. General Assembly and the need for climate finance measures at COP26. Governor General Sandra Mason, until now the queen’s representative on the island, will be its first president.
The move from constitutional monarchy to republic enjoys broad support on the island. Mason was elected president last month by two-thirds votes of both houses of Parliament. But Mottley’s political opponents have questioned her timing and her refusal to put the move to voters in a national referendum. They also want to know more about her plans for a new constitution.
“We are moving blindly into something, because Ms. Mottley has not taken us into her confidence and let us know the type of republic that is in her mind,” said Verla De Peiza, president of the Democratic Labour Party. “I call it a breech birth.”
The Rev. Guy Hewitt, an Anglican priest who served as the island’s high commissioner in London from 2014 to 2018, calls the declaration a diversionary tactic.
“The republican debate serves to distract attention from the economic reality of covid-19, which crippled the Barbados tourism-based economy,” he said. “The Barbados economy was one of the worst performing globally, which, coupled with high unemployment and a phenomenal increase in the cost of living, has raised serious questions about some of the economic management by the government.”
Hewitt said more discussion and consultation with voters “would have averted the suspicion among the people as to the nature of this journey we have been thrust upon.” He pointed to Guyana, which became a republic in 1970 only to endure the authoritarian rule of President Forbes Burnham, a period characterized by election fraud and violence.
Barbados became a Commonwealth realm in 1966, gaining an independent government but retaining the British monarch as head of state – an arrangement similar to that of Canada and Australia.
Mottley has described the next step as inevitable.
“The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,” she declared in her September 2020 Throne Speech, which was delivered by Mason. “Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state.”
Mottley’s government has pursued a pan-Africanist and liberal agenda, opening embassies in Ghana and Kenya and advocating for reparations.
The republican debate in Barbados dates to the 1970s, a period when the global Black Power movement inspired Caribbean neighbors Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Dominica to abolish the monarchy. The most recent country to cast off the queen was the Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius in 1992.
All have remained in the Commonwealth as independent republics. For Barbados, the transition is expected to be smooth but symbolically powerful.
“Abolishing the Crown in Barbados is being presented as an important moment in the development of the country’s identity,” said Nathan Tidridge, first vice president of the Institute for the Study of the Crown in Canada. “And that has to be respected, especially in light of the institution’s historic links to the enslavement of Africans.”
Last November, Mottley ordered the removal of a statue of Lord Horatio Nelson from a prominent position in Bridgetown. The birth of the republic on Tuesday suggests the twilight of the British Empire; it leaves Queen Elizabeth II with 15 Commonwealth realms, including the United Kingdom.
That number could remain stable, for the time being. In Australia, the Commonwealth realm where interest in abolishing the monarchy might be the strongest, a 1999 referendum on declaring a republic was defeated.
Recent polls show republican sentiment in Canada growing, but following through would require the approval of the House of Commons, Senate and all 10 provinces. Past efforts to change Canada’s constitution led to a referendum on Quebecois secession.
The late Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite described the Caribbean as “a whole underground continent of thought and feeling and history,” a nod to the seeping influence between islands.
Voters in St. Vincent and the Grenadines rejected a referendum to cut ties with the queen in 2009. The idea has also been discussed in Antigua and Grenada. In Jamaica last month, opposition leader Mark Golding pointed to Barbados and said the largest English-speaking nation in the Caribbean should follow its example.
Cynthia Barrow-Giles, professor of constitutional governance and politics at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, said Barbados could serve as a model.
“The approach adopted by the government of Barbados is more clinical, more efficient and more fruitful compared to other efforts since the 1970s,” she said. “Over the last 40 years, the English-speaking Caribbean has displayed too much timidity when boldness was required.”
Anthony Bogues, director of the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice at Brown University, said Mottley “has a vision of how the Caribbean can navigate the current world post-British Empire by trying to install a certain Caribbean-ness beyond the symbolic order of the crown.”
“Moving to a republic status is her vision of having the Caribbean find a way for itself. She’s taking up the cudgels of thinking differently about the Caribbean and what it means to navigate the world today on our own terms. And some of the important elements to tackle are the symbolic ones.”
De Peiza, the Democratic Labour Party leader, likened the process to becoming an adult.
As a constitutional monarchy, she said, “you’re making your own decisions, but you’re still living at home with your parents.” Then, “at some point in time, you do move out.”
“It doesn’t mean that you stop speaking to your parents. But it also doesn’t mean that you’re seeking their counsel, that you’re managed or financed by them. You are now a self-sufficient unit in your own right.”