The country became the world’s newest republic this week. While Britain is still racked by arguments over empire, others have already passed judgment
The contrast could hardly be more striking. In Britain, the removal of the statue of a slave trader, name changes for institutions and apologies from some who profited from slavery have produced reams of fevered arguments and fulminations. In Barbados, this week’s removal of the Queen as head of state was as calm and straightforward as the process leading to the change.
Yes, there was a ceremony to swear in the new president, Sandra Mason (at which Rihanna provided rather more excitement than Prince Charles, as the prime minister, Mia Mottley, had savvily realised). But this symbolic moment was not one of high passion or drama.
The difference is revealing. For much of the world, decolonisation is not an argument but simply a fact – a work begun several decades ago, and now re-embraced with greater vigour in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The new republic is the first former colony for almost three decades to cut its ties to the monarchy, but is unlikely to be the last. While several Caribbean countries have voted to retain the Queen as head of state over the years, many wonder if this could prove a tipping point; republicanism in Jamaica has been growing stronger. The movement is also tied to the growing demands for reparations for the devastating impact of slavery.
This week’s change is vital to those who, like Ms Mottley, see it as a moment of mental emancipation. For many outside the political elite in Barbados, it is of less moment. Criticism comes not from questions about identity, but the sense that the change in status is a distraction at a time when the pandemic has pummelled tourism, on which the island is heavily dependent, and a feeling that the population should have had their say in a referendum.
The suggestion that it reflects a growing closeness to Beijing is both baffling and telling. Baffling, since a symbolic figurehead is unlikely to have much effect either way on the impact of billions of dollars. Telling, because the warning that Beijing is trying to “replace a symbolic Queen with a very real emperor” implies Barbados is incapable of pursuing its own path.
Though “global Britain” hopes to reinvigorate its ties with Commonwealth countries in the wake of Brexit, it fails to recognise that many do not share one jot of its nostalgia. It must look to itself if it wishes to persuade others. A beginning might be to recognise slavery and colonialism not as an anomaly in Britain’s story, but a critical part of its foundations. This is hardly a new insight; in his powerful new book Born in Blackness, Howard French points out that the 18th-century economist Malachy Postlethwayt called the rents and revenues of plantation slave labour “the fundamental prop and support” of Britain’s prosperity and social effervescence.
Slaves in the sugar industry had an estimated life expectancy of seven years or less. Barbados was a model for brutal systems imposed across the Caribbean and Americas, and laws that defined black people as inferior, as well as a vital source of the sugar that fuelled the Industrial Revolution. Prince Charles this week spoke of “the appalling atrocity of the slave trade, and the unimaginable suffering it caused”. That was a start. While Britain remains reluctant to address the past, others will – and are.