Shedding Colonial Ties

 

The World’s Newest Republic

How one nation’s sovereignty movement is setting off a chain reaction among former British colonies in the Caribbean

A Barbados flag flying in front of a British flag
Getty; The Atlantic

Barbados, the easternmost stretch of land in the Caribbean Sea, is a pear-shaped island surrounded by a dense network of bright coral. As you crisscross the island, gently sloped hills give way to mazes of sugarcane fields. The plantations that once controlled the sugar crop were some of the first outposts of British colonial control in all of the Americas. That history, dating back to when an English ship arrived in 1625, is not as distant as it may seem. Though Barbados gained its independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1966, only last year did the nation formally sever ties with Britain—removing Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and electing the nation’s first president in the process.

As in any postcolonial place, the complexities of the past occupation are omnipresent if not entirely tangible. The stakes of shedding colonial ties are under the surface of nearly every debate in public and political life. That’s true in nations across the Caribbean, as well as former U.S. territories such as Hawaii. Still, Barbados is unusual even among nations once colonized by the British. I came to the island because I wanted to understand what had made it possible for the country previously nicknamed “Little England” to distance itself from the monarchy, and what that distance actually means. What I found was a rare and deliberate expression of public memory that is reshaping the way Barbadians understand their place in the world.

On a recent afternoon in Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, a small crowd of pedestrians gathered under an expansive canopy in Golden Square Freedom Park. They had assembled there to seek shelter from a sudden rainstorm. The canopy they picked just happens to be one of the island’s most important historical sites.

This is where the activist turned national hero Clement Payne once delivered rousing speeches to working-class Barbadians and became famous for his motto “Educate, agitate, but do not violate.” Payne’s 1937 deportation to Trinidad spurred the rebellions that started a multi-decade push toward independence from Great Britain in 1966. But the opening of Golden Square Freedom Park took place more recently, on November 27, 2021, three days before Barbados removed Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and became the world’s newest republic. When I arrived in Barbados, the Queen had recently died. On the island and among its diaspora, news of her death drew mixed reactions. On Barbadian radio broadcasts, including from listeners calling in, most people still referred to “Her Majesty the Queen.” The Queen was a titanic figure, beloved by many in Barbados for the same reasons she is admired all over the world: her steadfast grace and her enduring commitment to public service. But others here see her primarily as a symbol and beneficiary of the harm wrought by the British empire, and they felt it was important that she didn’t die as Queen of Barbados too. This tension represents the dramatic shift that is now under way on the island. Technically, Barbados reclaimed full sovereignty nearly one year ago. But in reality, true independence is a process of becoming.

David Comissiong, Barbados’s ambassador to the Caribbean Community, says that preparing the country for this massive change has taken decades: “Barbadians have perhaps had a more profound focus and exploration of our history over the past four decades than many other countries,” Comissiong told me. That deep national introspection has been “very much an exploration of our history and what components of that history we want to identify with and valorize.”

Removing the Queen as head of state is not a political endpoint, then, but one step toward reasserting Black Barbadian identity and sovereignty. “We ought no longer to be found ‘loitering on colonial premises,’” the nation’s newly elected president, Dame Sandra Mason, said in a speech during the jubilant November 2021 inauguration ceremony. Mason was quoting the island’s first prime minister, Errol Walton Barrow, the “father of independence.” At that same celebration, then-Prince Charles congratulated Barbadians on the momentous occasion, which he called a “milestone on the long road you have not only traveled, but which you have built from the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history.” Elizabeth issued a statement expressing her “warmest good wishes” for the nation’s happiness, peace, and prosperity.

As the head of state, Elizabeth did have constitutional duties, including the approval of new governments, granting state honors, and appointing certain officials. Outside the United Kingdom, any such duties are performed by the governor-general, a royal representative appointed by the head of state. (Prior to being elected president by Parliament, Mason had served as governor-general to Barbados. Her appointment was approved by Elizabeth in 2017.) But unlike in the United States, where the president serves as both the head of state and the head of government, Commonwealth nations are governed by elected parliaments and led by prime ministers. That makes the role of head of state more ceremonial. Put differently, although Barbadians may still seek care at Bridgetown’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital or walk along streets named for other royals, the monarchy had long since stopped dictating life on the island. Its power was and is cultural, rather than actual.

Barbados’s independence has set off a cultural and political movement of its own, including a renewed push for full sovereignty across the Commonwealth, the 56-country association that traces its roots back to the British empire. All of these countries are independent nations. But some, those considered Commonwealth realms, still have the British monarch—now King Charles—as head of state. The entire region is watching Barbados closely. After Barbados elected Mason as president, Jamaica announced its own preliminary work to formally cut ties with Britain. (The country’s political leaders have said the referendum in question will happen in time for the next election cycle, in 2025, but it could be presented as soon as the first half of 2023.) And this year, especially following the Queen’s death, talks of separating from the monarchy have intensified in several of the remaining 15 Commonwealth realms, including some outside the Caribbean, such as Canada and Australia. Some nations where previous attempts failed, such as Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, seem freshly emboldened by Barbados’s move: In July, the Vincentian prime minister proposed holding a new referendum within the next year, rather than putting off such a vote as he’d been expected to do.

Among some political leaders, the urgency to push for complete self-governance in the aftermath of Barbados’s transition and the Queen’s passing is axiomatic. As Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister, Gaston Browne, put it to me, “This is one of the vestiges of colonialism that we have to address.”

Critics of recent sovereignty efforts generally tend to characterize them as nonessential—or at the very least, low-priority—at a time when the region is facing several crises: Inflation and the coronavirus pandemic have had dire consequences for Caribbean islands’ economies, which rely largely on tourism; climate catastrophes continue to devastate the region; unemployment rates have not fully recovered from the 2020 decimation of the labor market. Some argue that developing effective plans to address these matters is far more important than the more symbolic win of distancing Barbados from the monarchy.

For Valerie King, who works in a small shop modeled after the easily movable chattel houses where the island’s formerly enslaved people lived, the status of the Barbadian constitution simply wasn’t top of mind last year. “I heard that this was going on,” King told me. “But because we were in a pandemic and so many other things were happening—not only the pandemic, but then the country went into the ash [after] the eruption of volcanoes in Saint Vincent … I really did not put much thought into it.”

King and several others I spoke with in Barbados were initially far more occupied with material concerns—finding new jobs after losing theirs in 2020, feeding their families, trying to avoid or at least treat physical ailments, COVID included. The outside interest in Barbados’s political future wasn’t going to solve any of those problems for them; neither would new parks or murals in the country’s capital. But as the one-year mark of severing ties with the Queen approaches, with the tourism economy slowly beginning to rebound and Barbados continuing to receive international attention, King and others have come around. “Now we’re seeing what’s happening in the other parts of the world,” she said. “I now started to look at it like, Okay, we’re standing on our own.”

That heightened sense of regional leadership, and the accompanying national pride, came up in many of my conversations. So, too, did an appreciation for one charming vehicle of historical information: Today in Bajan History, a program on the island’s most popular radio network. (Bajan is the more common local rendering of “Barbadian.”) The history show has quickly become one of the network’s most beloved programs—second only to cricket broadcasts in its reach. Today in Bajan History covers past crises such as food shortages or severe earthquakes, but some of its most popular episodes are those that spotlight little-known Bajan heroes or provide context for hard-fought social advances.

The show’s listenership, which spans much of the island and includes people who may not always have consistent access to television or the internet, had at times seemed hesitant to embrace the move to full independence. Before she was the prime minister, Mia Mottley advocated for republicanism as far back as 2007, but she and the Barbados Labour Party didn’t actually put it forth as a key issue during the 2018 campaign season, and instead waited until the party held a two-thirds majority in both houses to hold a parliamentary vote. That’s certainly drawn some criticism. “I think there’s never really been a question from the public as to whether or not we needed to move in this direction,” says Anthony Greene, the station manager at Starcom Network, which airs Today in Bajan History. “It may just be a question of why now.”

Unlike many other postcolonial countries, Barbados’s Parliament was able to enact the measure without a referendum because its constitution doesn’t require one. The road to sovereignty elsewhere is longer and more arduous. In Antigua and Barbuda, twin islands some 300 miles north of Barbados, such an amendment would require a public referendum to pass with a supermajority. Given how commonly people simply vote along party lines, that poses a tremendous challenge to any governing parliament, even when a voting item has popular support. “It’s not a fait accompli,” said Browne, Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister.

To Browne, the labor of bringing the constitutional issue to his constituency is worth it even if a referendum fails. The way he sees it, the symbolism of the head of state role isn’t an empty one. It’s no less meaningful than the American tendency to ascribe significant moral and patriotic value to the idea that any child ought to grow up thinking themselves capable of one day becoming president. “A head of state, for any country, is the embodiment of the aspiration, the unity, and the continuity of its people,” Browne told me.

As I walked across Barbados’s University of the West Indies at Cave Hill campus on a recent morning, I found myself thinking about what it means—and how it looks—for a nation to immortalize its heroes. Right alongside the university’s European-style buildings stands an imposing structure that pays homage to Cuffee, the enslaved man who led a thwarted 1675 rebellion. (Only a first name is known, but he is sometimes referred to as “King Cuffee.”) The edges of the building’s flat roof swoop up on either side so that it looks like the seat of a giant stool. (In this case, it is meant to resemble the Golden Stool, a royal symbol of the Asante people in Ghana, where many of Barbados’s enslaved Africans were born.) This is where I met Henderson Carter, who chairs the school’s history and philosophy department.

A jovial man wearing a green dashiki, Carter was animated as he told me about the significance of having African architecture on the university campus as we walked along. But he grew more solemn as we made our way toward the edge of campus. We were approaching Quaw’s Quest, a large wooden statue of a man’s head. The piece is named after one of the 295 enslaved people still living on plantations here when Britain abolished slavery throughout most of its empire in 1833. Beyond the statue are four large ledgers overlooking the ocean. The ledgers are meant to resemble 19th-century documents that list the first name, race, occupation, age, and birthplace of each enslaved person living on the property at the time:

Addoe, black, labourer, 45, Africa

Kitty, coloured, domestic, 20, Barbados
John, black, ?, 26, Dominica

Harriet, black, labourer, 53, Antigua

Betsy, black, labourer, 20, Barbados

The list goes on and on. Reading the names is a jarring experience. It’s impossible not to wonder about who these people were, what horrors they must have experienced. The disconnect between the beauty of the setting and the cruelty displayed by the records is staggering.

Carter tells me this hilltop marker is the only place in Barbados where the names of so many enslaved Black people are on display. “The Africans who came here lived, died, and we know about them. They did not die in vain,” he said. “We now have the names paraded for all to see.” In 2018, amid caustic debates about the removal of Confederate statues in Richmond, Virginia, one professor pointed to the Barbadian monument as inspiration for a local model.

Of course, remnants of colonial rule are scattered throughout Bridgetown too. There are streets named for Queen Victoria, Prince William Henry, and the Tudors in the city’s downtown shopping district. The nearby Queen Elizabeth Hospital sits less than a mile from Queen’s Park, the site of the original residence of the British general who commanded the nation’s troops in the West Indies. There’s National Heroes Square—which until 1999 was called Trafalgar Square. And until recently, National Heroes Square also featured a statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, a British naval hero and vehement defender of slavery and the colonial system. (Soon after Barbados announced that it would sever its last monarchical tie, the statue was taken down and sent to a local museum.)

Ambassador Comissiong cited the calls to move the Nelson statue as evidence of the country’s political evolution, arguably just as important as removing the Queen as head of state and becoming a republic. After all, a nation’s values are embedded in its sense of place—what it chooses to build or demolish, whom it chooses to honor. He points to the construction of a different statue as one of the earliest signposts in the country’s extended process of historical introspection. Created by the famous Barbadian sculptor Karl Broodhagen in 1985 to commemorate the abolition of slavery, the Emancipation Statue is more commonly referred to just as “Bussa,” the name of the enslaved man who led the largest revolt in the nation’s history.

That towering bronze monument “has played a very important subliminal role in the evolution of the consciousness of the Barbadian people,” Comissiong said. “If you say to the average primary-school child in Barbados, ‘Give me a representation of freedom or heroic struggle,’ they will automatically adopt the classic Bussa pose—the arms upraised, breaking the chains of slavery.”

One way to look at what’s happening in Barbados today is to try to understand how an idea morphs into a movement, and how a movement can change the course of history. The cynics will tell you otherwise—revolutions fail all the time, far more than they succeed. Enduring change, let alone actual transformation, is vanishingly rare. But it’s clear that Barbados’s influence at this moment extends in one direction: toward reparations. That’s in part because of how Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s star is rising on the international stage, a particularly remarkable feat for a nation that was once known for its proximity to the Crown.

Many Commonwealth nations seeking to join Barbados in becoming parliamentary republics have also demanded that Britain begin to address the real-world economic disparities created by its centuries of domination. Within the United Kingdom and its colonies, British elites maintained economic power long after the abolition of slavery (and subsequent independence struggles) because of what was essentially a state-sponsored handout. In the years immediately after Britain abolished slavery throughout most of its empire in 1833, its government used the equivalent of 40 percent of its annual income to repay British slaveholders for the loss of their labor force—enslaved people, primarily in the Caribbean. Largely funded by a loan from two bankers, the £20 million sum—an estimated $20 billion today—paid to the aggrieved British owners was so massive, it was not fully paid off until 2015. Incidentally, that same year is when David Cameron, then Britain’s prime minister, told the Jamaican Parliament it was time for its country to “move on from this painful legacy.”

Yet those who argue for reparations in Barbados today see the issue as very much unresolved. They are demanding remuneration for what the Barbadian historian Hilary McDonald Beckles refers to as “the liability on Britain’s side of the balance sheet.” Beckles, who is also the vice chancellor of the University of the West Indies, has written at length about the ruthless system of wealth extraction that the British employed in the Caribbean. In his book How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean, Beckles makes the case that this lucrative exploitation continued long past the abolition of slavery. For up to six years after they were freed, enslaved people in the British colonies were forced to compensate their former enslavers in the very currency that had been violently extracted for 200 years prior to their supposed emancipation: unpaid labor. The value of that “in-kind” contribution to slaveholders’ economic bailout constituted an estimated £25 million, an estimated $25 billion today. Haiti itself was forced to pay France a similar sum in francs after gaining its freedom in 1804, and calls for the French to return the crushing “independence debt” that gave rise to Haiti’s ongoing instability have been met with silence or hollow platitudes.

The notion that Britain would agree to repay its former colonies in the Caribbean such sums remains improbable, in part because of the immense scale of the empire’s wrongdoing around the world. King Charles may have bucked tradition by acknowledging the horror of slavery, but an apology is free. Reparations are not.

 

Even where reparations have been paid, they have been small in scale and deeply flawed in execution: In 2018,reports revealed that the British government had been wrongly detaining, threatening, and in some cases deporting members of the “Windrush generation,” retirement-age West Indian immigrants who had first arrived to rebuild Britain after World War II. Soon after an official inquiry into the mistreatment found that the government had acted with “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the issue of race,” a program to compensate the victims was announced. Three years later, only 5 percent of those who qualified had received their allotted payments—and 23 eligible people had died in the interim. “Reparations” pledges from other British institutions, put forth in the haze of summer 2020, have mostly been offered in the language of vague program investments rather than giving people actual money. And none of these initiatives have the weight or breadth of Germany and South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commissions, which preceded national changes such as the establishment of remembrance holidays, updated educational curricula, and led to additional reparations for victims.

Yet the political and cultural chain reaction in the former British West Indies today is impossible to ignore. Nowhere has the immediate pressure of Barbados’s decision to sever ties with Britain been more palpable than in Jamaica, the sole Commonwealth realm in which citizens are required to secure visas before traveling to the United Kingdom rather than being able to enter the country freely. A March 2022 visit from Prince William and Kate Middleton, then Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, prompted widespread protests and a call for the monarchy to formally apologize for colonialism and pay reparations for slavery. Many in Jamaica and across its diaspora saw the couple’s trip as an attempt to replicate the state visits that had once endeared Queen Elizabeth to her former subjects—and, in doing so, subtly discourage other Caribbean nations from following Barbados’s transition away from the monarchy.

The country’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, took the opportunity to inform William and Kate that Jamaica would indeed be “moving on,” and that it intends to become a republic. That echoed and subverted the language of Cameron’s 2015 speech about the need to “move on.” At the same time, a coalition of 100 Jamaican business leaders, artists, and civic leaders wrote in an open letter: “It is unconscionable that enslavers have been compensated … yet to date there has been no compensation paid to the descendants of enslaved Africans.”

Earlier that month, Barbados’s prime minister had taken up the mantle of reparations too. Speaking in Ghana during celebrations for the country’s 65th anniversary of independence, Mottley announced that in her capacity as the chair of the Caribbean Community subcommittee on reparations, she would be lobbying for reparations from European countries that gained their wealth from exploiting African and Caribbean countries alike. The speech built on the connections that Barbados has already been working to deepen by establishing an embassy in Ghana and a high commission in Kenya. If removing Queen Elizabeth as head of state was one decisive step away from Barbados’s colonial past, then these are clear-eyed strides toward the nation’s future as a key player shaping the Afro-diasporic world.

Clive Landis, the principal of the University of West Indies at Cave Hill, told me that something palpable has changed—something that calls to mind an earlier era: “Because, really, there’s been two waves—there was an independence movement, which was in the ’60s and ’70s with tremendous energy and very, very strong leaders across the Caribbean region.” And now the energy of that first era has come roaring back. “This is almost like the second independence movement,” he said.

Hannah Giorgis is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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