In Mia Mottley’s mind, there was perhaps no better time for tiny Barbados to drop Britain’s Queen Elizabeth as head of state than the opportunity presented to cabinet by the 55th independence anniversary celebrations being observed this week on the island.
The self-confident and highly respected prime minister palpably ignored calls for a referendum to determine whether Barbados, the Caribbean island chain’s most easterly island, should become a republic, elect its own Black or Brown head of state and join neighbors like Trinidad, Guyana and Dominica as regional republics with their own local, native-born presidents.
So earlier this year, Mottley, 56, laid down definite plans for the island of just over 300,000 to rid itself of Her Royal Highness and replace her with respected retired judge Sandra Prunella Mason, 72. The ceremony to facilitate Mason switching from the island’s last governor general to ceremonial president took place under glittering lights, a sea of blue and yellow of national colors and a swell of national and regional pride on Monday night as the Queen’s representative, son and heir to her throne, Prince Charles, watched as she was sworn in as not only Barbados’ first president, but the first woman to achieve such. In doing so, the two women now occupy the two most important positions in the country, a first in the 15-nation Caricom grouping.
For those who were paying attention, the road to Monday night was littered with major signals that “Little Britain” was in a hurry to take this bold and unapologetic step that could perhaps now hasten its Eastern Caribbean neighbors, Jamaica and far away places like Australia and New Zealand to follow its lead. A year ago this month, the government had removed the irritating oversized statue of colonial-era British war hero Lord Nelson from the heroes square, dumping it out of sight and away from a younger generation which often wondered why the statue was there in the first place. And, more than a decade ago, Barbados threw aside the British Privy Council as its final court and joined Guyana in taking criminal, civil and other appeals to the Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice. Dominica and Belize have since followed suit even as Jamaica and the smaller islands struggle to themselves do so because of local resistance from various sections of society.
As national heroes like Barbadian and international pop star Rihanna and world-renowned retired champion cricketer Sir Garfield Sobers looked on, Prince Charles could not help but, in his speech, acknowledge Britain’s role in the slave trade as he spoke to an audience of overwhelmingly Black and Brown people. “From the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery that stains our history forever, the people of this island have made their way with extraordinary fortitude,” he said as many in the audience took a deep sigh, wondering if he would have brushed over the island’s genocidal past with the Transatlantic Slave Trade. “Tonight, you write the next chapter of your nation’s story, adding to the treasury of past achievements, collective enterprise and personal courage, which already fills its pages. 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. As we will sing tonight, you are the guardians of your heritage, firm craftsmen of your fate.”
For her part, President Mason accepted the oath of office and said, “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. Since independence, our heroes and our humble citizens, our crews and passengers have built international reputations, anchored in characteristics, our national values, our stability, and our successes, drawing on the lessons of those intervening years, 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.”
Polls show that Barbadians overwhelmingly supported the move even though many are apprehensive that it might sour relations with the former mother country, even undermine the British contribution to its lifeline tourism sector. The one-seat opposition party said it wanted more consultations while some in civil society called for a national referendum to decide the issue. English and Irish settlers arrived on the island at the turn of the 1600s.
And as if to confirm fears in the Commonwealth that others would relieve the Queen of her head of state duties in the coming years, former St. Lucian Prime Minister Kenny Anthony says that time has indeed come.
“For my part, we should tarry no further and, collectively, act together in unison to commence the process to repatriate our constitution to where it belongs, in the sovereign will of our people. Surely, we have a duty to make final appeals in judicial matters accessible to the vast majority of our population, not only to the few who can afford it before the Privy Council. We ridiculed Barbados whenever we had the opportunity. There is no hope for ‘Little England’ we would say. Yet, among the nations of the region, Barbados in recent times has chosen to be the most courageous,” he said.