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Barbados’ Independence Movement Is Rippling Across the Caribbean

Barbados, the easternmost stretch of land within the Caribbean Sea, is a pear-shaped island surrounded by a dense network of vibrant coral. As you crisscross the island, gently sloped hills give strategy to mazes of sugarcane fields. The plantations that when controlled the sugar crop were a number of the first outposts of British colonial control in all the Americas. That history, dating back to when an English ship arrived in 1625, is just not as distant because it could seem. Though Barbados gained its independence as a constitutional monarchy in 1966, only last 12 months 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 method.

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, in addition to former U.S. territories resembling Hawaii. Still, Barbados is unusual even amongst nations once colonized by the British. I got here to the island because I wanted to know 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 discovered was a rare and deliberate expression of public memory that’s reshaping the best way Barbadians understand their place on the earth.

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

That is where the activist turned national hero Clement Payne once delivered rousing speeches to working-class Barbadians and have become famous for his motto “Educate, agitate, but don’t violate.” Payne’s 1937 deportation to Trinidad spurred the rebellions that began a multi-decade push toward independence from Great Britain in 1966. However 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 have become the world’s newest republic. After I arrived in Barbados, the Queen had recently died. On the island and amongst its diaspora, news of her death drew mixed reactions. On Barbadian radio broadcasts, including from listeners calling in, most individuals still referred to “Her Majesty the Queen.” The Queen was a titanic figure, beloved by many in Barbados for a similar reasons she is admired everywhere in the world: her steadfast grace and her enduring commitment to public service. But others here see her primarily as an emblem and beneficiary of the harm wrought by the British empire, they usually felt it was essential that she didn’t die as Queen of Barbados too. This tension represents the dramatic shift that’s now under way on the island. Technically, Barbados reclaimed full sovereignty nearly one 12 months ago. But in point of fact, true independence is a strategy of becoming.

David Comissiong, Barbados’s ambassador to the Caribbean Community, says that preparing the country for this massive change has taken a long time: “Barbadians have perhaps had a more profound focus and exploration of our history over the past 4 a long time 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 would like to discover with and valorize.”

Removing the Queen as head of state is just not a political endpoint, then, but one step toward reasserting Black Barbadian identity and sovereignty. “We ought now not to be found ‘loitering on colonial premises,’” the nation’s newly elected president, Dame Sandra Mason, said in a speech throughout the jubilant November 2021 inauguration ceremony. Mason was quoting the island’s first prime minister, Errol Walton Barrow, the “father of independence.” At that very same celebration, then-Prince Charles congratulated Barbadians on the momentous occasion, which he called a “milestone on the long road you will have not only traveled, but which you will have built from the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which endlessly stains our history.” Elizabeth issued a press release expressing her “warmest good wishes” for the nation’s happiness, peace, and prosperity.

As the top of state, Elizabeth did have constitutional duties, including the approval of new governments, granting state honors, and appointing certain officials. Outside the UK, any such duties are performed by the governor-general, a royal representative appointed by the top 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 US, where the president serves as each the top of state and the top of presidency, Commonwealth nations are governed by elected parliaments and led by prime ministers. That makes the role of head of state more ceremonial. Put otherwise, although Barbadians should 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, fairly 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 those countries are independent nations. But some, those considered Commonwealth realms, still have the British monarch—now King Charles—as head of state. Your complete 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 query will occur in time for the following election cycle, in 2025, however it could possibly be presented as soon as the primary half of 2023.) And this 12 months, 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, resembling Canada and Australia. Some nations where previous attempts failed, resembling Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, seem freshly emboldened by Barbados’s move: In July, the Vincentian prime minister proposed holding a new referendum inside the following 12 months, fairly than pushing aside such a vote as he’d been expected to do.

Amongst some political leaders, the urgency to push for complete self-governance within 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, “That is considered one of the vestiges of colonialism that we have now to deal with.”

Critics of recent sovereignty efforts generally are inclined to characterize them as nonessential—or on 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 proceed to devastate the region; unemployment rates haven’t fully recovered from the 2020 decimation of the labor market. Some argue that developing effective plans to deal with these matters is much more essential 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 structure simply wasn’t top of mind last 12 months. “I heard that this was occurring,” 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 actually didn’t put much thought into it.”

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

That heightened sense of regional leadership, and the accompanying national pride, got here up in a lot 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 hottest radio network. (Bajan is the more common local rendering of “Barbadian.”) The history show has quickly grow to be considered one of the network’s most beloved programs—second only to cricket broadcasts in its reach. Today in Bajan History covers past crises resembling food shortages or severe earthquakes, but a few of its hottest episodes are those who highlight little-known Bajan heroes or provide context for hard-fought social advances.

The show’s listenership, which spans much of the island and includes individuals who may not at all times have consistent access to television or the web, had at times seemed hesitant to embrace the move to full independence. Before she was the prime minister, Mia Mottley advocated for republicanism way back to 2007, but she and the Barbados Labour Party didn’t actually put it forth as a key issue throughout the 2018 campaign season, and as an alternative waited until the party held a two-thirds majority in each houses to carry a parliamentary vote. That’s actually drawn some criticism. “I believe there’s never really been an issue from the general public as as to whether or not we wanted to maneuver on this direction,” says Anthony Greene, the station manager at Starcom Network, which airs Today in Bajan History. “It might just be an issue of why now.”

Unlike many other postcolonial countries, Barbados’s Parliament was in a position to enact the measure and not using a referendum because its structure 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 an incredible 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 value it even when a referendum fails. The way in which he sees it, the symbolism of the top 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 concept any child must grow up considering themselves able to someday 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 discovered myself fascinated by what it means—and the way 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 revolt. (Only a primary name is thought, but he is typically known as “King Cuffee.”) The perimeters of the constructing’s flat roof swoop up on either side in order that it looks just like the seat of a large stool. (On this case, it is supposed to resemble the Golden Stool, a royal symbol of the Asante people in Ghana, where a lot of Barbados’s enslaved Africans were born.) That is where I met Henderson Carter, who chairs the college’s history and philosophy department.

A jovial man wearing a green dashiki, Carter was animated as he told me in regards to the significance of getting African architecture on the university campus as we walked along. But he grew more solemn as we made our way toward the sting of campus. We were approaching Quaw’s Quest, a big picket statue of a person’s head. The piece is called after considered 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 4 large ledgers overlooking the ocean. The ledgers are supposed to resemble Nineteenth-century documents that list the primary name, race, occupation, age, and birthplace of every enslaved person living on the property on the time:

Addoe, black, labourer, 45, Africa

Kitty, colored, 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 unimaginable to not wonder about who these people were, what horrors they will need to have experienced. The disconnect between the great thing about the setting and the cruelty displayed by the records is staggering.

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

In fact, remnants of colonial rule are scattered throughout Bridgetown too. There are streets named for Queen Victoria, Prince William Henry, and the Tudors in the town’s downtown shopping district. The nearby Queen Elizabeth Hospital sits lower than a mile from Queen’s Park, the location of the unique residence of the British general who commanded the nation’s troops within 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 could sever its last monarchical tie, the statue was taken down and sent to a neighborhood museum.)

Ambassador Comissiong cited the calls to maneuver the Nelson statue as evidence of the country’s political evolution, arguably just as essential as removing the Queen as head of state and becoming a republic. In any case, a nation’s values are embedded in its sense of place—what it chooses to construct or demolish, whom it chooses to honor. He points to the development of a distinct statue as considered one of the earliest signposts within the country’s prolonged strategy 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 only as “Bussa,” the name of the enslaved man who led the most important revolt within the nation’s history.

That towering bronze monument “has played a vital subliminal role within the evolution of the consciousness of the Barbadian people,” Comissiong said. “For those who say to the common primary-school child in Barbados, ‘Give me a representation of freedom or heroic struggle,’ they may routinely adopt the classic Bussa pose—the arms upraised, breaking the chains of slavery.”

One strategy to look at what’s happening in Barbados today is to try to know how an idea morphs right into a movement, and the way a movement can change the course of history. The cynics will let you know otherwise—revolutions fail on a regular basis, way over they succeed. Enduring change, let alone actual transformation, is vanishingly rare. But it surely’s clear that Barbados’s influence on this moment extends in a single direction: toward reparations. That’s partly due to how Prime Minister Mia Mottley’s star is rising on the international stage, a very remarkable feat for a nation that was once known for its proximity to the Crown.

Many Commonwealth nations in search of to hitch Barbados in becoming parliamentary republics have also demanded that Britain begin to deal with the real-world economic disparities created by its centuries of domination. Inside the United Kingdom and its colonies, British elites maintained economic power long after the abolition of slavery (and subsequent independence struggles) due to what was essentially a state-sponsored handout. Within 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 lack of their labor force—enslaved people, primarily within 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 very same 12 months 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 that argue for reparations in Barbados today see the problem as very much unresolved. They’re 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 can be the vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies, has written at length in regards to the ruthless system of wealth extraction that the British employed within the Caribbean. In his book How Britain Underdeveloped the Caribbean, Beckles makes the case that this lucrative exploitation continued gone the abolition of slavery. For as much as six years after they were freed, enslaved people within the British colonies were forced to compensate their former enslavers within the very currency that had been violently extracted for 200 years prior to their supposed emancipation: unpaid labor. The worth 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 the same 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 hole platitudes.

The notion that Britain would comply with repay its former colonies within the Caribbean such sums stays improbable, partly due to immense scale of the empire’s wrongdoing all over the world. King Charles can have bucked tradition by acknowledging the horror of slavery, but an apology is free. Reparations aren’t. Even where reparations have been paid, they’ve 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 federal government had acted with “institutional ignorance and thoughtlessness towards the problem of race,” a program to compensate the victims was announced. Three years later, only 5 percent of those that qualified had received their allotted payments—and 23 eligible people had died within the interim. “Reparations” pledges from other British institutions, put forth within the haze of summer 2020, have mostly been offered within the language of vague program investments fairly than giving people actual money. And none of those initiatives have the burden or breadth of Germany and South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commissions, which preceded national changes resembling the establishment of remembrance holidays, updated educational curricula, and led to additional reparations for victims.

Yet the political and cultural chain response in the previous British West Indies today is unimaginable to disregard. Nowhere has the immediate pressure of Barbados’s decision to sever ties with Britain been more palpable than in Jamaica, the only Commonwealth realm through which residents are required to secure visas before traveling to the UK fairly than with the ability 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 duplicate 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 chance to inform William and Kate that Jamaica would indeed be “moving on,” and that it intends to grow to be a republic. That echoed and subverted the language of Cameron’s 2015 speech in regards to the have to “move on.” At the identical time, a coalition of 100 Jamaican business leaders, artists, and civic leaders wrote in an open letter: “It’s unconscionable that enslavers have been compensated … yet up to now there was 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 sixty fifth anniversary of independence, Mottley announced that in her capability because the chair of the Caribbean Community subcommittee on reparations, she can 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 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 something palpable has modified—something that calls to mind an earlier era: “Because, really, there’s been two waves—there was an independence movement, which was within the ’60s and ’70s with tremendous energy and really, very strong leaders across the Caribbean region.” And now the energy of that first era has come roaring back. “This is sort of just like the second independence movement,” he said.

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