Barbados—Britain’s first slave society—drops the British Crown
Barbados, an eastern Caribbean Island with an over 300-year history of British colonialism, is on the path to becoming a republic. In October, the nation's governor-general, Dame Sandra Mason, was elected President of Barbados by the Houses of Parliament. In this historic step, Barbados finally launched itself into the global community as a new republic. However, after nearly four centuries of a messy relationship with the United Kingdom, such a stride is not without its many social, political, and economic challenges. Nevertheless, Mason described Barbados’s decision as “…the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving.”
Photo Courtesy: Steve Parsons/NYT
From Slavery to Freedom
The complicated relationship between the U.K. and Barbados can be dated back to May 14, 1625, when the British Captain John Powell claimed Barbados on behalf of King James I of England and Ireland. The captain's brother, Henry Powell, arrived in Barbados in 1627 with 80 settlers and ten slaves. Barbados soon became the birthplace of the British slave society. The island was quickly deforested, and within a few years, tobacco, cotton, and sugar cane plantations covered Barbados. The growth and development of plantations prompted the English colonizers to establish a formal government—a House of Assembly was instituted in 1639, making Barbados the third parliamentary government in the World.
From the 17th to the 19th century, the main industry in Barbados was sugar production. The island was considered a plantocracy, with the population of plantation and slave owners being the dominant class. Western African slaves shed blood, sweat, and tears, facing brutal working conditions day after day at the expense of enriching their abusers. In the eyes of plantation owners, all that mattered was “[ensuring] that [the slaves] served the investors’ wealth creation,”
Yet, ever since Africans were captured for slavery, they demonstrated resistance however and wherever they could. Performing African cultural and religious rituals in private, refusing to work, purposefully damaging machinery, and running away were all strategies used by Africans to assert and affirm their agency in slave societies like Barbados.
The struggle between enslaved peoples and British slave-holders of Barbados culminated in the Bussa Rebellion of 1816. The carefully planned and strategized rebellion attempted to disrupt the slave state by burning extensive cane fields. This strategy affected over 70 estates in Barbados and forced several plantation owners to flee Bridgetown, the colonial capital. Despite the massive damage inflicted by the rebellion, Barbados's well-armed police force swiftly put it down in three days in an attempt to re-establish the unequal balance of racial power.
Beginning in the 1930s, a series of social movements including, but not limited to, the Black nationalist movement of the Jamaican leader Marcus Garvey and the global civil rights campaign, increased the drive for social and political reform in Barbados. Following Barbadian workers' demands for better wages and more just conditions, the British government legalized trade unions in Barbados. In response, the Barbados Workers' Union and the Sugar Producers' Federation quickly mobilized to protect workers' rights. An extension of the political franchise also led to the rise of Black autonomy on the island. Universal adult suffrage was implemented in 1951—previously, voting rights were limited to males with certain income and property qualifications. The extension of the franchise, in turn, made way for influential Black political leaders, such as Elton Walton Barrow, in the late 1940s. Furthermore, after calls for reform to the overarching power of the British government over local decisions, Barbados acquired internal self-government in 1961.
The various social and political changes of the 1930s through 1960s helped create momentum for Barbados’s independence. In 1966, Walton Barrow—Barbados’s Father of Independence and Social Transformation—led the island to independence from Great Britain and became the first Prime Minister of Barbados. Beforehand, he served in the House of Assembly representing the Barbados Labour Party (BLP). His desire to give Barbadian's a stronger voice in their own government led him to create the Democratic Labour Party along with other left-leaning politicians. Walton Barrow was also a key contributor in creating the Caribbean Free Trade Association (1968), known as the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), since 1973. Aside from playing an essential role in initiating the process of decolonization in Barbados, Walton Barrow helped to secure enhanced health services, free education, a national insurance, social security scheme, and a developed tourism industry for Barbadians.
A Post-Colonial Future Awaits
Now, after 55 years of independence, Barbados has opted to end all ties with the British Crown.
“The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind," announced Sandra Mason, Barbados's Governor-General, who serves as Queen Elizabeth’s representative to the nation. The move towards republicanism has been a long-standing topic of political debate in these last decades. Barbados’s Prime Minister, Mia Mottley—leader of the Barbados Labour Party and a strong advocate for republicanism—won a landslide victory in 2018. Her party even garnered all 30 seats in the House of Assembly. She began her term with the final objective of ending colonialism in Barbados. The island's government had announced its plans to formalize a resolution on becoming a republic in September 2020, and in May 2021, the Republican Status Transition Advisory Committee began to discuss and implement the measures that should be taken as Barbados becomes a republic. The decision became official on October 20, when Governor-General Sandra Mason received a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament to become the first President of the Republic of Barbados.
By November 30, Barbados’s government affirmed that the island would have its own president. When Barbados was a part of the Commonwealth of Nations, Queen Elizabeth's role as the ‘Queen of Barbados’ was largely ceremonial and symbolic since the nation’s independence. Her Majesty kept regular contact with Barbados’s Government, being notified of significant issues or developments, but she was not involved in the day-to-day decisions.
Barbados’s move to separate from the British Crown could potentially inspire other countries in the Caribbean to do the same. Barbados now becomes the fifth Caribbean country to remove their head of state, leaving only sixteen countries left in the Commonwealth of Nations, including Australia and Canada, who still voluntarily have the Queen as their head of state. Yet gaining independence from Great Britain and removing the Queen as the head of state may not be enough to compensate for the harm made by British imperialism in the Caribbean. Some argue that eeparations are necessary to bring full justice to the nations affected by slavery and colonialism.
As Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, Head of the Reparations Task Force and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies, put it: “there must be a compensatory approach to assist these people who are still living in mass poverty, illiteracy, poor public health, and whose development is being blocked because of the legacy of slavery,” Although multiple communities and nations have petitioned for reparations, the U.K .has yet to offer any form of financial compensation to the nations harmed by the actions of its antecedents.
Many citizens have also taken issue with the government’s independence decision, questioning if now is the best timing to address the issue. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on Barbados’s economy, which is largely dependent on tourism. The stagnation in global travel has left the island facing labor shortages and an unemployment rate reaching 13% in 2020, creating large instability and uncertainty in many Barbadian households. The Barbados Government assures that the shift to republicanism will not significantly impact the day-to-day lives of Barbadians, considering that there would be minimal changes in the political structure as the island separates from the Crown. The most significant difference lies in advisory, as the British Crown would no longer counsel or influence the incoming president and their governing body's decisions.
Despite criticism and concerns, the island’s shift to a republic takes an unequivocal stand against the inequalities brought along by imperialism and the post-colonial oligarchy that its people have had to endure. Cultural and artistic portrayals of this legacy are found all over the Island, demonstrating the strong influence of British imperial history on the Barbados identity. Murals record the progression of Africans from slavery to freedom. The Barbados Museum is dedicated to the emancipation of slavery. Historic sites, including slave burial grounds, show the different components of the plantocracy that shaped the Barbados economy for centuries. Local music and dances show how Barbadians are still connected to their African heritage. “Geographically, we are closer to Africa than any other place in the Caribbean,” says Mighty Gabby, a local calypso and one of the island’s cultural ambassadors.
The move towards republicanism seems to represent one more way in which Barbados can assert its economic, cultural, and political autonomy. “We’ve been independent since 1966, yet we are still clinging on to these vestiges of colonialism that aren’t doing us any good. I think a clean break would have been good for our country and good for us,” said Risée Chaderton, a Barbadian photographer and activist. Many remain hopeful that this new chapter in Barbados’s history will help to heal the scars left by centuries of imperial and racial oppression.