BARBADOS’ republican surge reflects a nation tired of being under the thumb of the Empire a half-century after it declared independence.
The Caribbean nation, which sensationally declared last week it plans to become a Republic in 2021, was one of many island nations subjugated by the British Empire for centuries.
However, officials and academics have now claimed that modern issues and movements like the Windrush Scandal and Black Lives Matter make it the perfect time for Barbados to break free – emulating the spirit of the stunning Bussa statue in Bridgetown.
Guy Hewitt, who served as Barbados High Commissioner to the United Kingdom from 2014 to 2018, said this week: “The Windrush scandal and the Black Lives Matter movement have altered perceptions of the colonial ‘mother country’.”
It goes even further than that, however – public pressure and education on the role of the British Empire means the anti-monarchist movement is getting ever stronger, Dr Jenny Shaw, an expert on the Caribbean, told Redaction Politics.
Dr Shaw said: “Barbados has been debating this for a long time, and I’d leave it to Barbadians to answer the “why now?” question. I certainly don’t want to speak for them.
“There was a commission in the late 1990s that recommended it become a republic, and in the mid-noughties there was talk of a referendum on the subject.
“I wouldn’t presume to explain on behalf of Barbadians as to why they are making this decision right now.
“But as a historian, I think that making this declaration in the broader global context of Black Lives Matter means that when Mia Mottley says it is ‘time to fully leave our colonial past behind,’ and that ‘Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state,’ her words have a resonance that reaches far beyond the shores of Barbados.
“Demonstrators forced the ugly truth of Britain’s reliance on colonialism, enslavement, and the slave trade onto the world stage this summer.
“But it is impossible to understand that story without paying attention to Barbados’s central role in Britain’s imperial ambitions, or to the ways that Barbadians themselves forced the issues of emancipation, citizenship, and independence throughout the almost 400 years of the colony’s existence.
“When Barbados becomes a republic the moment will take its place in the long history of anti-colonialism in Barbados, in the Caribbean, and around the globe.”
A Downing Street spokesperson said: “It’s a decision for Barbados and we will continue to have an enduring partnership.”
The nation has seriously posed the question of becoming a republic – and joining the likes of Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica and Guyana – twice.
In the 1970s, a commission deemed there was insufficient public support, while the country delayed acting on the 2015 declaration by Prime Minister Freundel Stuart that Barbados must move away from a monarchy and towards a republic.
Barbados’ history could provide a solid standpoint from where to extrapolate the nation’s growing republicanism.
“The English first laid physical claim to Barbados in 1627 and for the few decades of its existence, including during the interregnum, it was what is known as a proprietory colony,” Dr Shaw explained.
“Essentially, elite men with titles were given permission by the Crown to lay claim to territories overseas and embark on settler colonialism.”
Two competing interests – the Earl of Carlisle and the Sir William Courteen – vied for control in the early years.
Initially, island leadership tried to remain neutral, or at least not overtly Royalist, during the period of the English Civil Wars, according to Dr Shaw.
However, in 1660 with the Restoration, Barbados came under the direct control of the Crown under Charles II.
The Crown now appointed Governors (although the Lords of Trade and Plantations did much of the actual liaison work). Members of Council still served at the pleasure of the King, although they were appointed by the Governor.
However, the 17th century represented the first Barbadian resistance to the Empire – and perhaps foreshadowed events almost four centuries later.
With the Royalists defeated in England, Francis Willoughby was appointed Governor of Barbados – but was swiftly defeated by Cromwell’s forces, who heard of the rebellion.
It meant that the relationship between the British empire and Barbados was “good, or good enough during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries”, according to Dr Shaw.
“Both the imperial administration and those who were invested in Barbados plantations benefitted enormously from the profits that came from the slave trade, and from sugar, the latter produced by enslaved Africans. Jamaica (or those with land in Jamaica) ultimately had more clout in Parliament, but Barbados maintained itself very well over the course of this era.
“It was only with the abolition movement that gained ground in Britain in the late eighteenth century that the relationship became more contentious, but this was largely between Parliament and the West Indian interest more broadly, rather than with the Crown.
“The Crown was happy enough to have Caribbean sugar islands continue to produce huge revenues, and in Parliament there were many MPs who owned plantations in Jamaica and Barbados and who fought vociferously against the banning of the transatlantic slave trade.”
It was only as sugar profits fell in the nineteenth century that the Empire considered improving the lives of ordinary Barbidians – yet they still insisted on their enslavement. Colonial officials and local enslavers were keen to maintain the system.
Dr Shaw said: “Rumours that the King was about to declare an end to enslavement were part of what spurred Bussa’s famous rebellion in 1816; similar rumours surrounded additional uprisings in Demerara in 1823, and Jamaica in 1831.
“Moves for independence from the British Empire began after WW1 and accelerated considerably after WW2.
“Fighting for an empire while not being fully imbued with citizenship within it brought the inequities of the system to the fore in new and dramatic ways. Combined with an ever-more powerful labor movement, and rising nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s, Barbados, like most of Britain’s Caribbean colonies, moved ever-closer to demanding independence.”
Barbados finally became an independent state on 30 November 1966, with Errol Barrow its first Prime Minister – though Queen Elizabeth II remains its monarch, for now.
Mr Barrow famously claimed at Lancaster House that Barbados would not “be found loitering on colonial premises after closing time” – 54 years later, his words may finally be bearing fruit.
Dr Jenny Shaw is an Associate Professor at the University of Alabama. She has previously written the book ‘Everyday Life in the Early English Caribbean‘, which can be found here.
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