Barbados becomes a republic, renouncing British queen

Barbados swears in its own president as head of state as Caribbean island distances itself from colonial past.

Barbados' first president Sandra Mason, stands after being sworn in at midnight [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images via AFP]

Barbados has become a republic, replacing the British monarch as its head of state and severing its last remaining colonial bonds nearly 400 years after the first English ships arrived at the Caribbean island.

The new republic was born to the cheers of hundreds of people lining Chamberlain Bridge in the capital, Bridgetown, at the stroke of midnight. A 21-gun salute fired as the national anthem of Barbados was played over a crowded Heroes Square.

Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, stood somberly as the royal standard was lowered and the new Barbados declared, a step republicans hope will spur discussion of similar proposals in other former British colonies where Queen Elizabeth II remains their sovereign.

After a dazzling display of Barbadian dance and music, complete with speeches celebrating the end of colonialism, Sandra Mason was sworn in as Barbados’s first president in the shadow of Barbados’s parliament.

Singer Rihanna attended the event marking Barbados’ transition to a republic [Toby Melville/Pool via Reuters]

Mason was elected last month by a joint session of the country’s House of Assembly and Senate

“Full stop this colonial page,” Winston Farrell, a Barbadian poet told the ceremony. “Some have grown up stupid under the Union Jack, lost in the castle of their skin.”

“It is about us, rising out of the cane fields, reclaiming our history,” he said. “End all that she mean, put a Bajan there instead.”

Supporters of the transition say removing the British queen as Barbados’s head of state sends a powerful message.

“Tonight’s the night!” read the front-page headline of Barbados’ Daily Nation newspaper.

Celebrations in the lead up to Barbados becoming a republic and severing ties with the British monarch [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images via AFP]

“This is more of an emotional, historic, symbolic decision than a practical one,” said Al Jazeera’s Latin America Editor Lucia Newman, who was at the celebrations in the capital, Bridgetown.

The move to republicanism – which local leaders described as the “next logical step toward full sovereignty” – was announced last year during the annual Throne Speech.

“The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind,” said Mason, who delivered the speech on behalf of Mottley in her then-role as governor-general. “Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state.”

In Bridgetown, Barbadians have been preparing celebrations for their new republic, with Prince Charles expected to deliver a speech stressing that warm relations between the island and the UK would continue despite the constitutional change.

“I am happy. We are on our own now with no king or queen from England,” Nigel Mayers, 60, who sells oranges in the city centre, told the Reuters news agency. “This is the full drop after independence.”

The UK’s Prince Charles speaks with Barbados President-elect Sandra Mason as he arrives in Bridgetown on November 28 [Toby Melville/Reuters]

Barbados will remain a republic within the Commonwealth, a grouping of 54 countries across Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe.

But its withdrawal from the monarchy will bring the number of Commonwealth realms – countries that continue to have the queen as their head of state – to 15, including Australia, Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.

The last country to renounce the Crown was the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius in 1992.

Experts have said Barbados’s move may fuel republicanism in other Commonwealth realms, especially in Jamaica, where the two main political parties support breaking away from the monarchy completely.

Joe Little, managing editor of London-based Majesty Magazine, said Barbados’s decision was a “natural progression” of a trend that started with Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne in 1952.

“I think inevitably it’s one that will continue, not necessarily in this current reign but in the next – and probably accelerate,” he told the AFP news agency.

An island of nearly 300,000 people, Barbados gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1966.

“This has been a long process,” independent political analyst Kevon Edey told Al Jazeera. “Barbados has been looking to go for full sovereignty even back at independence.”

The country had been under British control since the 1620s, as British settlers turned it into a sugar colony dependent on the labour of thousands of enslaved Africans until emancipation in 1834.

That brutal history in Barbados and other Caribbean islands has spurred calls for reparations from the UK.

Barbados Coast Guard remove The Queen’s Royal Standard flag at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony at Heroes Square in Bridgetown as Barbados officially became a republic [Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images via AFP)

But the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a blow to Barbados’s economy, which is dependent on tourism, and some residents say people are more concerned with that than the looming constitutional change.

“I think everybody is more concerned with their dollar today and what that means for tomorrow, especially with prices of things going up,” Laurie Callender, a 43-year-old information technology specialist, told Reuters. “People are more talking about that, in my opinion.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies