As Barbados becomes a republic, there’s a bizarre disconnect between the way foreign media and local people are framing what’s happening.
I feel fortunate to be here in Barbados on the day that the country becomes a republic, with Barbadian jurist Dame Sandra Mason becoming the new head of state.
Because the Barbados government is taking COVID-19 seriously, they discouraged crowds from gathering in Bridgetown to witness the swearing in of the president last night, so I just went early in the evening to look around, and then watched the ceremony and celebrations on TV until 2am.
Despite the COVID restrictions, it’s wonderful to be here at such an important time for a country that means a lot to me (my wife is Barbadian, I’ve been visiting regularly for 20 years now, and we lived here for a year or so before starting our life of permanent travel).
The Divide Between Local and Foreign Media
What’s interesting, too, is how little relation there is between the way people are talking about the republic here in Barbados and the way people are talking about it in the British and international media.
Most of the stories from overseas frame it as Barbados “ditching the queen”, a shocking act of rebellion for which various reasons are given: Chinese bribery, the Black Lives Matter movement, Brexit, the British monarchy’s treatment of Meghan and Harry, etc. A sample headline in The Daily Mail: “Will Barbados live to regret kicking out the Queen and being seduced by Beijing’s billions?”
What all of these disparate explanations have in common is that they deny Barbadian people any meaningful agency. They put Britain (or the spectre of China) at the centre of the issue.
Here in Barbados, I’ve spoken to loads of people, listened to radio call-in shows, devoured the local TV and newspaper reports, and I’ve never heard any of these issues come up. What people here are mostly talking about is a natural step of cutting colonial ties—one that has been in the works for decades.
When Barbados became independent in 1966, its first leader Errol Barrow made a famous remark that his country would “not be found loitering on colonial premises long after closing time.” Subsequent governments initiated commissions to investigate and plan the move to a republic—the Cox Commission in 1977 and the Forde Commission in 1994—and politicians from both main parties have long agreed on the need to move to a republic. Former Prime Minister Freundel Stuart, from the now-opposition DLP, had it on his agenda but never brought it to fruition. The BLP’s Mia Mottley now has.
So this is not some kneejerk reaction to current events in Britain or to investment from China. This is a country wanting what most countries in the world have—its own head of state.
The Importance of Symbols
The post will be purely symbolic, as the Queen’s role was. But symbols are important. Having a black woman from relatively humble origins in rural Barbados as your head of state gives a very different and very inspiring message to young Barbadians about what’s possible.
Having the Queen as your head of state, on the other hand, is a constant reminder of what Prince Charles last night called “the appalling atrocity of slavery.” He could also have talked about the appalling exploitation that followed emancipation, when slave-owners were compensated and slaves were not. White Barbadian and British sugar plantation owners still ruled the island for another 100 years, still blocking any attempts at progress for former slaves, and also trying to prevent them from leaving the island because they wanted a pliant, low-cost labour force.
In the decades before Britain finally relinquished power over Barbados, the island had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, endemic poverty, almost no education or healthcare provision, and a system of de facto racial apartheid—older Barbadians can still show you areas of Bridgetown where they were not allowed to go, and even the country’s first (pre-independence) black Prime Minister, Sir Grantley Adams, was barred from the whites-only Aquatic Club of which his white wife was a member.
Would any country want as its head of state someone who represented that particular legacy?
Although the move to a republic will not have any practical benefits in the day-to-day lives of Barbadian people, it won’t have any downsides either. The Daily Mail’s question about whether Barbados will “live to regret” its decision implies that it will lose something by “ditching the Queen”, which is simply not true. Britain has given Barbados zero support in the 55 years since independence.
A recent example: during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the early days of the vaccine’s availability, Britain ended up with a huge stock of millions of vaccines, while Barbados had none. Given the island’s small population (less than 300,000), Britain could have vaccinated the entire population without putting a serious dent in its supplies, but it shared nothing. Barbados got donations and did deals with India and other countries to get vaccines, and now it has a surplus too. But the relationship with the Queen meant nothing in practical terms. Shedding that relationship will mean nothing too.
It’s true that China has invested money in Barbados and will want a return in some form or another. But that’s also true of many other countries around the world with pressing human needs and shortages of capital. They’re making a deal with the devil, just as they do when they call in the IMF. It’s risky, but they have no choice. I can’t think of a single reason why Beijing would care about whether Barbados’s head of state is Dame Sandra Mason or the Queen. The economic calculus is the same either way.
This is not about China. It’s not about Britain. Hard as it may be for people outside the country to comprehend, it’s about the people of Barbados.
The Fight Still to Come
Despite the lack of practical implications, this is an important and long-overdue symbolic step. I’m happy to be here and to sample a little of the atmosphere, despite the COVID restrictions.
I’ll also be interested to see what happens when the extensive process of public consultation over the details of the new constitution begins in January. A fight is looming over what kind of constitution it will be: a secular document granting rights to everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc., or a religious document that reflects the narrow, homophobic version of Christianity that still has a depressing amount of currency here.
That fight has already begun, with some people voicing their opposition to the proposed Charter of Barbados, which states:
All Barbadians are born free and are equal in human dignity and rights regardless of age, race, ethnicity, faith, class, cultural and educational background, ability, sex, gender or sexual orientation.
That mention of “sexual orientation”, combined with the reference to a non-denominational “Creator” that reflects the existence of Barbadian people of other faiths, is a major sticking point. The current constitution, handed down by the British and modified over the years, emphasises the “supremacy” of the Christian God and grants no explicit rights or protection to the LGBTQ community. An old British law criminalising “buggery” is still on the books here, and although it’s very rarely enforced, there’s still significant opposition to removing it. It’s a fight that’s likely to be ugly, to be honest, and it may not be the heroic nation-building narrative that outsiders like me would hope for, but it’s a necessary step in the development of a nation.
Most importantly, it’s an internal fight for Barbadian people to wage on their own terms. The outcome will determine what kind of country this is, and it’s nobody’s business but theirs. That’s exactly how it should be.