Barbados has completed its transition to a republican system of government. From 30 November, which marks the 55th anniversary of its independence from Britain, Barbados’s head of state is no longer the British Queen. The word ‘royal’ will be removed from the names of its institutions, which will no longer bear the insignia of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In her place, the tiny Caribbean island has its first elected president, Dame Sandra Mason, who represents the Barbadian struggle for self-determination and whose term won’t last a lifetime.
To many around the world, the move away from the British monarchy is a mature and progressive separation from the island’s former colonial master. For Barbados’s population of just under 300,000, it is a hugely significant period ending more than 400 years of British rule, which included centuries of the most inhumane form of the slave trade.
Barbados was “Britain’s colonial site of the first ‘black slave society’,” notes Hilary Beckles, a Barbadian historian and chairman of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Reparations Commission. “The most systemically violent, brutal and racially inhumane society of modernity”.
Many of my fellow young Barbadians view 30 November as the start of a new national journey. In fact, many of us are not content with the simple tokenism of having a Barbadian head of state. Instead, we see the need to move on from a centuries-old order that vested tremendous power in a concept of hereditary sovereignty that was never consistent with our identity. As sovereign, the British monarch owns all state lands, buildings, equipment, state-owned companies, the copyright on government publications and employs all government staff.
Most Barbadians between the ages of 18 and 35 are aware of the key details of the transatlantic slave trade. Our ancestors toiled after being kidnapped from their West African homes, stripped of their dignity and forced to work on sugar plantations under backbreaking conditions as the property of Britain’s bourgeoisie.
This barbaric and brutal form of human trafficking, murder, torture, and rape made rich men of the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. They amassed huge fortunes, which laid the foundations for multi-generational wealth. Young Barbadians now know that over time, those ill-gotten fortunes were considered so glorious by the slavers that the island was commonly referred to as ‘Little England’ and regarded as an almost perfect model for the trade.
That was just the start of a period of unspoken atrocities, which lasted for more than 300 years. It continued well beyond the 1807 abolition of the transatlantic slave trade and the formal abolition of slavery by colonial assemblies in the Caribbean in 1838.
The slave trade was, of course, endorsed by the British royal family. Along with other wealthy British families, British royalty played its part in this most despicable form of capitalism. The Barbadian, a Bridgetown newspaper that was published from 1822 to 1861, reported an 1824 proclamation by King George IV, asserting that the “Slave Population…will be undeserving of Our Protection if they shall fail to render entire Submission to the Laws, as well as dutiful Obedience to their Masters”.
Slavery’s legacy is underdevelopment and dependency. This dependence ran so deep that when Britain responded to the diminishing returns from its colonial project with the ‘gift’ of independence, Barbados was compelled to accept the British monarch as their own. We also inherited the Westminster system of governance, the British Privy Council as the final Court of Appeal and many old laws, including the criminalisation of same-sex relationships.
After gaining independence, Barbados created systems that could help to lift up the average Black citizen, who was invariably descended from slave ancestors. Everyone was given access to education, healthcare and free school meals. A social security scheme was established under the first prime minister, Errol Barrow.
Even so, Barbados retained some admiration for the British royal family in the years immediately after independence. That has now diminished, as young Barbadians learn about their history and that of the West Indies. In fact, many have even questioned Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s decision to invite Prince Charles to be guest of honour at our republic celebrations. A young lawyer tweeted: “Is he coming with reparations?”
What the British royal family represents is uppermost in the minds of Barbados’s youth as they think about real self-determination. Fifty years on from independence, a more educated and aware class of Barbadians is able to identify the glaring deficiencies of a society that suffered 400 years of oppression.
There is an overwhelming acceptance that now is the time to begin a process of deeper social reform, to write a new constitution and enshrine a system of governance and social order that reflects who we are as a people and addresses the historical struggles that define us.
That is why the ten-point plan outlined by the CARICOM Reparations Commission makes sense. It offers a “path to reconciliation, truth and justice” for victims of the slave trade, beginning with a full, formal apology from various European governments. It also suggests plans for psychological rehabilitation, debt cancellation, the eradication of illiteracy and the transfer of technology from the Caribbean’s former slave masters.
That said, the coming transition for Barbados has also prompted some questioning. Some academics and commentators are sceptical that change to a republic is somehow meaningful or revolutionary. They argue that this step has already been taken by at least five CARICOM countries – Haiti, Dominica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname.
The sceptics also say that for all intents and purposes, Barbados has already had a measure of control of its own destiny since independence in 1966.
In 2003, for example, the country replaced the London-based judicial committee of the Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice, located in Trinidad, as its final appeals court. But its entire parliamentary system, which was adopted from Westminster, continues to vest tremendous power in the prime minister. There are few checks and balances on the cabinet and little opportunity for the kind of civic engagement necessary for the thriving participatory democracy desired by many Barbadians. Like many others, I hoped that Mottley’s large parliamentary majority would have compelled her to institute meaningful changes to the colonial governance structures.
There are also some moral internal conflicts between liberals and conservatives about how much of the old order ultimately needs to change. Liberals are convinced that many of the rigid requirements of European-imposed religion are responsible for subservient attitudes to slavery and colonialism. The traditionalists, on the other hand, abhor even the slightest ‘anti-God’ sentiment. Humanists Barbados, a human rights organisation, is asking for the removal of all references to God in the island’s legislation, starting with the constitution, which recognises the ‘primacy’ of God. The group is also lobbying for the elimination of prayers in school and the adoption of rights for the LGBTQ community.
There is also important discussion ongoing about the extent to which the use of corporal punishment in homes and primary and secondary educational institutions represents an inhumane form of punishment inherited from the slave system. At a higher level, the retention of capital punishment for murder falls squarely into these discussions.
But for now, Barbados is enjoying a time of great excitement, though it unfortunately comes amid a period of economic hardship for the island’s people, who depend heavily on the fortunes of a tourism industry that continues to be crippled by the COVID-19 crisis. The country is in its deadliest wave of the virus since the start of the pandemic, which has led to the introduction of restrictions on gathering and a midnight curfew. The five days of celebrations planned for this momentous occasion will, for many, be experienced at home.
In the immediate future, some of the old ways will remain even after the republican transition is ceremonially complete. But there is a moral obligation for the government and the people of Barbados to submit themselves to an extended period of respectful dialogue about the type of country that we desire for ourselves, our children, and every generation that follows.
Kareem Smith is a journalist with Barbados Today
Photo: PMO Barbados / Wiki Commons
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