Politics

Caribbean Matters: Congratulations to Barbados, a republic after nearly 400 years

The Reuters headline was blunt and to the point: “Barbados ditches British Queen Elizabeth to become a republic”:

At the strike of midnight, the new republic was born to cheers of hundreds of people lining Chamberlain Bridge in the capital, Bridgetown. A 21-gun salute fired as the national anthem of Barbados was played over a crowded Heroes Square.

Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, stood somberly as Queen Elizabeth’s royal standard was lowered and the new Barbados declared, a step which republicans hope will spur discussion of similar proposals in other former British colonies that have the Queen as their sovereign.

“We the people must give Republic Barbados its spirit and its substance,” Sandra Mason, the island’s first president, said. “We must shape its future. We are each other’s and our nation’s keepers. We the people are Barbados.”

Guests included Britain’s Prince Charles and Barbados’ most famous celebrity and charitable supporter, Robyn Rihanna Fenty, who was honored as a national hero of Barbados.

Here’s the livestream of the full ceremony, which opens with stilt walkers and includes steelpan players, poets, and dancers.

Dame Sandra Mason was sworn in as the first president of the Republic of Barbados:

Dame Sandra Mason was the first woman admitted to the bar in Barbados — and her place in the nation’s history was cemented when she was elected as the country’s first president.

Mason’s career began as a teacher, clerk and then a lawyer, before a string of legal and official roles led to her becoming governor-general — the queen’s representative — in 2018.

As president, Mason will hold the highest office in the country and her powers will no longer be vested in the monarch. But her duties will be largely ceremonial, in most cases requiring the co-signature of the prime minister.

I have featured Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley in this series twice recently. She tweeted out the jubilant celebration and spoke with British journalist Ayshah Tull prior to the ceremony:

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It is important to understand the history of Barbados as the crown jewel of British slavery:

In any case, this day has been a long time coming. It was on 14 May 1625 that the first English ship reached the island under the command of Captain John Powell, who claimed it on behalf of James I. It was from that time, 396 years ago, that “Los Barbados” (the bearded ones) became an English colony. It acquired its name from the Portuguese, earlier visitors who some claim were struck by the abundant fig trees, which have a beard-like appearance. Others surmised it was down to the presence of bearded people.

From 1627, the English settled on the island, wiping away any traces of the original inhabitants, the Arawaks, who had lived here for centuries. People with good financial backgrounds and social connections with England were allocated land in this new colony; Barbados’s strong connection and staunchly British attitude earned it the title of Little England. The English turned Barbados into a slave society, a slave economy, which would be replicated in several parts of the “new world.” It was known as the “jewel in the crown” of the Caribbean. It is a history that we can never be proud of, but one that we must understand.

Prof. Hilary Beckles, a Barbadian historian, the current vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies and a leading figure in the push by Caribbean islands to secure reparations, sums it up best. “Barbados was the birthplace of British slave society and the most ruthlessly colonised by Britain’s ruling elites,” he writes. “They made their fortunes from sugar produced by an enslaved, ‘disposable’ workforce, and this great wealth secured Britain’s place as an imperial superpower and caused untold suffering.”

Beckles’ article written for The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) is being cited frequently online.

For a deeper look into the history of the horrors of Barbadian slavery, which helped build the British empire, I suggest you read Beckles’ book The First Black Slave Society: Britain’s “Barbarity Time” in Barbados,1636-1876.

Barbados was the birthplace of British slave society and the most ruthlessly colonized. The geography of Barbados was ideally suited to sugar plantations and there were enormous fortunes to be made for British royalty and ruling elites from sugar produced by enslaved, “disposable” workforce, fortunes that secured Britain’s place as an imperial superpower. The inhumane legacy of plantation society has shaped modern Barbados and this history must be fully understood by the inheritors on both sides of the power dynamic before real change and reparatory justice can take place

One of the highlights of the ceremony was hearing Bajan poet Winston Farrell, who beautifully summed up what independence means for Barbados:

“Full stop this colonial page,” Winston Farrell, a Barbadian poet told the ceremony. “Some have grown up stupid under the Union Jack, lost in the castle of their skin.”

“It is about us, rising out of the cane fields, reclaiming our history,” he said. “End all that she mean, put a Bajan there instead.”

I searched for a full transcript to no avail; however, the text was posted to Twitter by Reuters bureau chief Guy Faulconbridge.

Yes. “Full stop this colonial page.” Now Barbados can move forward into the future, and I hope her example will inspire other colonies to do the same.

Read the first installment of Caribbean Matters here, and last week’s entry on the Caribbean holiday cooking here.




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