I shall confine myself to three objectives in this brief lecture.
1. I will give a condensed account of the historical-political process of Barbados becoming a republic and the significance of this achievement for this country.
2. I will elaborate on the implications of this achievement for Caribbean republicanism generally.
3. I will give some broad perspectives of the possible future of nationalism in the Caribbean.
From the outset, let’s get a basic fact right. The Anglophone Caribbean independent Caribbean countries have passed through similar historical trajectories of indigenous presence, European conquest, genocide, colonization, slavery, the process of decolonization toward independence, a similar political geography and these make for submarine similarities. However, each country is unique, having developed their own distinctive cultures including political cultures by which I mean how a country conducts its politics, the nature of its political ideas and political institutions and so on. Such factors as a country’s political history, political institutions and structures, political socialization, socio-economic structure, geo politics and geo-culture all contribute to a country’s unique political culture. Significant past experiences make deep impacts on the nature of a society’s psycho-social, socio-economic, and socio-political structures. Political learning from political experience, institutional change, and broad changes in the economic and social structure, international factors including colonialism, cultural diffusion and globalization are factors that shape how a people think about and practice their politics. So, all I am saying here is that even though Caribbean countries share a similar history and by virtue of that, some commonalities, each country is unique and so I will be looking at Barbados, as distinctive, even though as one of the English-Speaking countries.
On the beautiful Tuesday evening of November 30, 2021, with its flag fluttering elegantly in the cool Barbadian wind, with hundreds gathered in pride and a sense of moment, with visiting dignitaries including Prince Charles and his wife representing Queen Elizabeth, with music and fireworks, Barbados transitioned from a parliamentary constitutional Monarch under Queen Elizabeth the second, to a parliamentary republic with a ceremonial, indirectly elected president as head of state. The prime minister remained head of government while the last Governor-General, Sandra Mason, was elected as the country’s first president on 20 October 2021, and took office on 30 November 2021. It has been quite a process to get to this constitutional stage.
First let’s be clear as to what happened. Barbados became independent in 1966. Like the other countries which became independent, the social protests of the 1930’s, became the defining moment which really began the drive for eventual independence. A combination of economic deprivations made worst by the collapse of the global economic system resulting in the Great Depression of the 1930’s, inadequate opportunities for the masses to take part in the political process, for example, at the time voting was tied to class, race and privilege and a colonial structure that denigrated the cultural outputs of Caribbean societies, combined with the effects of the World War and the interwar year invasion of Ethiopia and the humiliation of Emperor Haile Selassie driven out of the only African country to that point that had not fallen to the yoke of Colonial rule, to find refuge in England, the influence of the works and ideas of Marcus Garvey, among other local and global factors, sent Caribbean people in their thousands, protesting in almost all of the Caribbean islands.
These social protests galvanized middle class leaders, and in the case of Barbados, leaders like Grantley Adams to establish political parties and Trade Unions and with these institutional frameworks, began to push a weakened post-World War two Britain to engage in constitutional decolonization in moving Barbados towards eventual independence. As with the rest of the islands, Britain pursued a policy of shared power which progressed these societies towards eventual internal self-government and then independence.
Upon attaining independence in 1966, then Prime Minister Barrow had cautioned his countrymen against ‘loitering on colonial premises’ which was to say that even though independence was a great achievement, the project of political decolonization was not truly completed until the country relieved itself of that link to the British monarch.
It took Barbados another fifty-five years to move the country to becoming a parliamentary republic. Why did it take so long even though both political parties, the Barbados Labor Party and the Democratic Labor Party had agreement on this? One reason was that the independence constitution that Barbados got from England described by an 1808 history text on Barbados as a ‘humble imitation of that great fabric of human wisdom, the constitution of England’ required a two third majority in both houses for this to happen. Even though various constitutional Commissions were established by both governments while they were in office to consider the question of Barbados becoming, such as the 1979 Commission which thought that Barbadians were not ready for that, and did not propose that the country went forward with it, the 1996 Commission that reported back in 1998 and recommended that Barbados should adopt a parliamentary republic, other constitutional commissions also continued to cement this proposal after consultation with Barbadians.
In March 2015, then Prime Minister Stuart told a meeting of his Democratic Labor Party: “We cannot pat ourselves on the shoulder at having gone into independence; having decolonized our politics; we cannot pat ourselves on the shoulders at having decolonized our jurisprudence by delinking from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council and explain to anybody why we continue to have a monarchical system. Therefore, the Right Excellent Errol Barrow decolonized the politics; Owen Arthur decolonized the jurisprudence and Freundel Stuart is going to complete the process.”
The completion of the process would actually be done by PM Mia Motley, the popular Prime Minster who has won all thirty of seats in the Barbadian House of Representatives, and who recently announced by Times Magazine as one of the 100 most influential persons of 2022. The required two thirds in both houses were in place but even more importantly, there was much evolution in the thinking of Barbadians on this subject. George Floyd, a black American, murdered by Minneapolis police on May 25 through “asphyxiation from sustained pressure” when his neck and back were compressed by Minneapolis police officers during his arrest was off course highly offensive. So influential was the Black Lives Matter protests in Barbados,
On June 16 a private member’s bill was presented in the Barbados House of Assembly to pay homage to the Black Lives Matter movement and was subsequently passed on June 23.
In July and August, several protests and demonstrations were held in the Bridgetown, the Capital, calling for the removal of the statue of Lord Nelson from outside the Parliament of Barbados. Lord Nelson was a stern defender of the slave trade upon which the plantation economy was based. The statue was erected in 1813 in honor of his role in the victory of the British navy over the French and Spanish in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The government subsequently agreed that such a removal would take place in November ahead of Independence Day that year. The Windrush scandal also helped, it would appear, to crystalize the views of Barbadians towards republicanism.