Barbados’ transition to a republic is only symbolic, but for generations of Barbadians there has been something incongruous about the symbols and images that dominate spaces across the country. Symbols are important in the history of nation states and this marks the cornerstone of a much longer process of decolonizing Britain, writes Robert Godard (Emory University).
The small Caribbean country of Barbados has made headlines around the world for its November 2021 transition to political republic status after more than three hundred years with the British sovereign as head of state. The role once played by Queen Elizabeth will now be filled by the President of Barbados, a largely ceremonial post. With much fanfare and the attention of the world, the move is largely symbolic, with little noticeable effect as the island has been independent since 1966 and self-governing for a few years prior. Most of these will be in nomenclature: the “Royal” will be removed from the Royal Barbados Police Force and Imperial Honors like Knights will be replaced with Barbados Freedom Awards.
Nevertheless, symbols matter in the history of nation states. For Barbados, becoming a republic is an important transition that marks the cornerstone of a much longer process of symbolic decolonization. For decades after political independence, Barbados retained a legacy of monumental culture that preserved rather than challenged the colonial relationship between Barbados and Britain.
One of the many examples of this phenomenon was the fact that the main square in the capital Bridgetown, indeed the most important public space on the whole island, was called Trafalgar Square until 1999. Moreover, the The square was dominated by a life-size bronze statue of Lord Nelson, the British admiral who saved Britain from Napoleonic invasion in 1805 at a point in southern Spain called Trafalgar. The statue was erected by a slave-holding oligarchy to the hero of Trafalgar and “curator of the British West Indies”, according to the memorial. The epithet “Conservator of the British West Indies”, like any epithet, is historically conditioned.
It only takes a moment of reflection to realize that the West Indies “preserved” by Nelson in 1805 was a society structured to protect the rights and privileges of a small elite of wealthy white planters. Barbadian society at the start of the 21st century is radically different. Although imperfectly, it seeks to meet the needs of 290,000 mostly black descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought here by Nelson’s admirers to work on the sugar cane plantations in such conditions. difficult that they have become synonymous with inhumanity.
Barbadians had a flag and a national anthem, but admired a British admiral who served a slave-holding empire as they drove to work.
For generations of Barbadians, there has been something incongruous about the symbols and images that dominated the physical space around the island at the time of independence. Barbadians had a flag and a national anthem, but admired a British admiral who served a slave-holding empire as they drove to work. It is in this context that the world must understand the transition to a republic. It is the culmination of a process that has been accelerating since the end of the 1990s. in which a group of Barbadian activists pushed for a closer alignment between the ideological needs of an independent Caribbean state and the legacy of a colonial past.
Some of the changes during this process of symbolic decolonization have been more substantial and have more practical and immediate consequences. Chief among these was the decision in 2005 to no longer use a British High Court, known as the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, as the final judicial authority for the island. This court once heard the appeals of one-fifth of the world’s population, but today it only fulfills this role for 0.1%. Subsequently, the Caribbean Court of Appeal heard pleas, a decision consistent with a global trend of decolonization of parts of the former British Empire.
Female leadership for a new era
Despite its transition to republic status, Barbados will remain a member of the Commonwealth. This is not unexpected, as a fund of goodwill and a shared history binds Barbados and the British family together. The cultural and sporting contacts between Barbados and England are part of popular memory. Indeed, the first steps towards decolonization came just after the West Indies cricket team beat England for the first time, inspiring a famous calypso. This spectacle of shifting political relations mediated by intense sporting rivalry and cultural commentary is perhaps typical of Britain and its former imperial possessions. Most former British colonies, including many republics, chose to remain within the Commonwealth. The constitutional obstacle consisting in remaining within the association while becoming a republic is the one which was posed for the first time by India in 1949. Indeed, by agreeing to recognize the British monarch as “head of the Commonwealth “, India provided the model for the later admission of republics like Guyana and Dominica.
According to polls, just more than a third of Barbadians supported the move to a republic, with another largely neutral third party. Only 12% expressed a desire to remain a monarchy. Some of the movement’s supporters, however, noted a lack of popular participation in the process. A promised referendum on the measure never took place. And all this as the tourism-dependent economy grapples with the fallout from the covid-19 pandemic. Prime Minister Mia Mottley delivered an address to the nation on December 27 in which she spoke at length about the economic challenges facing the country and the steps her government has taken to address them. She then surprised viewers by announcing a snap election for January 19 so voters could “unite around a common cause.” Mottley’s Barbados Labor Party government currently enjoys a 29-1 majority in the House of Assembly, and experts speculate she will win another term, albeit with a reduced majority.
Remarkable for Barbadians and the rest of the world in this historical period is another significant symbolic leap: Mia Mottley is the island’s first female Prime Minister. With her outspoken leadership on the climate crisis, she is arguably this country’s most visible figure on the world stage. Throughout its history, women have taken on much of the work and development of this small island nation, but today they are taking the helm. In addition to Mia Mottley, the recently installed President of Barbados and the Opposition Democratic Labor Party, not to mention the most famous Barbadian woman alive today, global pop icon Rihanna are women. Even though the move to a republic is largely symbolic, the island’s strong profile of female leadership is a clear indication of the progress that has been made in political consciousness in the era of independence.