Barbados is about to cut ties with the British monarchy, but the legacy of a sometimes brutal colonial past and the pandemic’s impact on tourism pose major challenges for the Caribbean island as it becomes the world’s newest republic.
Famed for its beaches and love of cricket, Barbados will this week replace its head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, with her current representative, Governor General Sandra Mason.
Ceremonies on Monday evening into Tuesday will include military parades and celebrations as Mason is inaugurated as president, with Prince Charles — heir to the British throne — looking on.
The dawn of a new era has fueled debate among the population of 285,000 over Britain’s centuries of influence, including more than 200 years of slavery until 1834, and Barbados finally becoming independent in 1966.
“As a young girl, when I heard about the queen, I would be really excited,” said Sharon Bellamy-Thompson, 50, a fish vendor in the capital Bridgetown who remembers being about eight and seeing the monarch on a visit.
“As I grow older and older, I started to wonder what this queen really means for me and for my nation. It didn’t make any sense,” she said. “Having a female Barbadian president will be great.”
Colonialism and slavery
For young activists such as Firhaana Bulbulia, founder of the Barbados Muslim Association, British colonialism and slavery lie behind the island’s modern inequalities.
“The wealth gap, the ability to own land, and even access to loans from banks all have a lot to do with structures built out of being ruled by Britain,” Bulbulia, 26, said.
“The actual chains (of slavery) were broken and we no longer wore them, but the mental chains continue to persist in our mindsets.”
In October, Barbados elected Mason to become its first president, one year after Prime Minister Mia Mottley declared that the country would “fully” leave its colonial past.
But some Barbadians argue there are more pressing national issues, including economic turmoil caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has exposed overreliance on tourism — which, ironically, is dependent on British visitors.
Eerie calm in usually bustling Bridgetown, paltry numbers at popular tourist spots and a dead nightlife scene all point to a country struggling after years of relative prosperity.
Unemployment is at nearly 16 percent, up from nine percent in recent years, despite sharply increased government borrowing to fund public sector projects and create jobs.
The country has just eased a longstanding Covid curfew, pushing it back from 9:00 pm to midnight.
Opposition leader Bishop Joseph Atherley said this week’s celebrations among dignitaries would largely not be accessible to ordinary people.
“I just don’t think we are doing ourselves a credit and a just service by having this when people are being admonished to sit in the comfort of your home and watch on a screen,” Atherley said.
“Increasing numbers of Covid cases, an increasing sense of stress and fear — I just don’t think that it is the right time.”
‘Stand on our own feet’
Some criticism has also focused on Mottley inviting Prince Charles to be the guest of honor, and to award him the Order of Freedom of Barbados, the highest national honor.
“The British royal family is a source of exploitation in this region and, as yet, they have not offered a formal apology or any kind of repair for past harms,” said Kristina Hinds, international relations lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.
“So I don’t see how someone from the family can be given this award. That is beyond me.”
Buoyed by Black Lives Matter movements across the world, local activists last year successfully advocated for the removal of a statue of the British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson that stood in National Heroes Square for two centuries.
And the end of the queen’s reign is seen by some as a necessary step towards financial reparations to address the historic consequences of the use of slaves brought from Africa to work on sugar plantations.
For many Barbadians, replacing the British queen is just catching up with how the nation has felt for many years.
“I think it’s a very good thing we’re doing, becoming a republic, because we were independent 55 years now and it’s time enough that we stand on our own feet,” said Derry Bailey, 33, owner of a beach chair and water sports rental business. “I expect that things will be better under this system. It makes no sense being independent and answering to the crown. So I really believe that being a republic is the way to go.”