With the stroke of midnight, Barbados cut its last remaining bonds to the British monarchy after nearly 400 years. In a ceremony on Monday evening, Prince Charles acknowledged the “appalling atrocity of slavery” as the nation removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state and inaugurated its first-ever President.
Official festivities marking the island’s historic transition from realm to republic took place in National Heroes Square, decorated in the national colors of gold and ultramarine, in the heart of the capital of Bridgetown.
The heir to the British throne had come from London for the occasion and watched as the Royal Standard flag was lowered from the flagpole and the new Presidential Standard raised in its place.
Moments later, the Queen’s own former representative, Governor-General Sandra Mason – a well-respected 73-year-old former jurist – was sworn in as President by the Chief Justice. It was exactly 55 years to the day since Barbados declared independence from Britain.
“Possessing a clear sense of who we are, and what we are capable of achieving, in the year 2021, we now turn our vessel’s bow towards the new republic. We do this so that we may seize the full substance of our sovereignty,” Mason said in her first address as president.
“For decades, we have had discourse and debate about the transition of Barbados to a republic. Today, debate and discourse have become action. Today, we set our compass a new direction.”
After taking in a 21-gun salute to mark the historic switch, Mason bestowed the country’s highest-ranking honor, the Order of Freedom, upon the Prince of Wales – a move designed to highlight the continued close relationship between Barbados and the United Kingdom.
Reflecting on the transatlantic slave trade
Prince Charles said he was “deeply touched” to have been asked to participate in the commemorations before reflecting on the protracted process the island nation of just under 300,000 people has endured to become a republic.
He told the people of Barbados: “The creation of this Republic offers a new beginning, but it also marks a point on a continuum – 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, the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude. Emancipation, self-government and Independence were your way-points. Freedom, justice and self-determination have been your guides,” he said.
“Your long journey has brought you to this moment, not as your destination, but as a vantage point from which to survey a new horizon.”
Barbados’s decision marks the first time in nearly three decades that a realm has opted to remove the British monarch as head of state. The last nation to do so was the island of Mauritius in 1992. Like that country, Barbados intends to remain part of the Commonwealth – a 54-member organization of mostly former British territories designed to foster international cooperation and trade.
Charles, who had arrived late on Sunday as Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley’s guest of honor at the ceremonial changeover, also spoke of his long relationship with the nation, having first visited five decades ago. He was interrupted by cheers after saying he would always consider himself a friend of Barbados.
“Tonight you write the next chapter of your nation’s story, adding to the treasury of past achievement, collective enterprise and personal courage which already fill its pages,” he said as he brought his address to a close.
“Yours is a story in which every Barbadian, young and old, can take the greatest pride – inspired by what has come before them and confident about what lies ahead.”
The vibrant celebratory ceremony also showcased Barbadian music and dance but a highlight for many would have been when singer Rihanna was made a national hero. A huge roar of celebration erupted at the announcement. Prime Minister Mottley told the star: “May you continue to shine like a diamond and bring honor to your nation by your works, by your actions” – a reference to the pop star’s 2021 hit song “Diamonds.”
Opposition to Charles’ presence
The prince’s remarks were the furthest the UK has gone on the subject of slavery, but stopped short of a formal apology.
Some in Bridgetown have questioned why the Queen’s son had come at all, pointing out that the island’s historical relationship with the crown was rooted in slavery.
“No member of the royal family should participate in our major freedom day,” activist David Denny told CNN.
“The royal family benefited from slavery financially and many of our African brothers and sisters died in battle for change,” added Denny, general secretary of the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration.
An expedition for King James I of England claimed Barbados when his ships first arrived on its shores in 1625. A settlement was established two years later.
“It was the first laboratory for English colonialism in the tropics,” Richard Drayton, professor of imperial and global history at Kings College London, told CNN.
“Barbados also provided an important source of private wealth in 17th and 18th-century England,” he added, noting that many English families made substantial fortunes from sugar and slavery.
Citing that history, Denny described Prince Charles’ participation as “an insult to our people” and called for financial reparations from the royal family, as well as the British government and other institutions that profited from transporting people from Africa and enslaving them on plantations across the Caribbean.
Scott Furssedonn-Wood, British High Commissioner to Barbados told CNN: “Clearly people in Africa, in this region, in all parts of the world still feel that profound sense of injustice and it’s quite right that we recognize that, that we are determined that such a thing could never happen again.”
Denny said the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year “created a consciousness across the world” and sparked solidarity protests on the island. One outcome of the demonstrations: an empty plinth now sits in Bridgetown’s main square where a bronze statue of British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson – a defender of the island’s slave trade – once stood.
A stone’s throw away from the site of the ceremony in Swan Street, a popular shopping area among locals in downtown Bridgetown, many Barbadians also welcomed the change .
Roger Goodridge, a 59-year-old toy seller, described the move to a republic as “a long time coming” and said he was unsurprised by Charles’ visit.
“The time has passed for ‘Little England.’ We are now on our own and on to our biggest success – breaking the waters and moving onto another stage in our life.”
Victoria Norvill, a 16-year-old student enjoying the public holiday with some girlfriends told CNN: “I feel very good about Barbados becoming a republic because we get to be free and independent.”
In photos: Barbados celebrates the beginning of a republic
Others expressed support, but wondered if transition had been “a bit too fast.” The government created its 10-member group tasked with helping manage the transition from a monarchical system to a republic in May this year.
“It’s too hasty. Everyone hasn’t think about it yet and there’s so many people that don’t even know what is a republic,” said Andre Moore, 36.
“I think they should at least have taken a whole year to deal with this or at least two years. I think two years to really think about it, get the mind settled for what they have prepared for this whole republic thing.”
Barbados has parted ways with Queen, but she remains head of state in 15 countries. Republican movements in those nations will undoubtedly be observing the symbolic handover and hoping it adds to momentum in their own campaigns.
The Australian Republic Movement congratulated Barbados “on marking this important step towards full independence,” its national director told CNN.
Sandy Biar said the 95-year-old sovereign has always said that it is up to each nation to decide if and when they move on from the monarchy.
“Barbados shows this can be done while maintaining a amicable relationship with both the British monarchy and the United Kingdom,” she added.
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