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The Parliament Building in Bridgetown, Barbados

The Parliament Building in Bridgetown, Barbados. Photo: David Stanley - Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY 2.0 / License linked below

Renewed republicanism in the West Indies should be another nail in the coffin of the British monarchy, writes Sean Ledwith

The Caribbean island of Barbados this week staged an elaborate ceremony to celebrate the creation of a republic, and the abolition of the Queen’s status as national Head of State. The celebrity-obsessed British media was predictably more interested in covering singer Rihanna’s simultaneous elevation to official national heroine than in examining the factors that led the people of the island to support overwhelmingly the removal of the monarchy from their constitutional system. Sandra Mason, a former teacher and lawyer born in the working-class district of St Philip on the island, was sworn in at the ceremony as first President of Barbados.

Reclaiming history

Prime Minister Mia Motley from the Barbados Labour Party was elected in 2018 with 70% of the popular vote, and with a clear commitment to implement the transition to republican status. More recent polls indicate 60% of the population of 300 000 back the process and only one in ten would have preferred to retain the monarch as Head of State.

Hillary Beckles, one of the West Indies’ most renowned historians, is among this decisive majority welcoming the development. Commenting on the outgoing monarchical arrangement, Beckles notes:

‘It cuts into your dignity as a citizen. It reduces you psychologically in terms of being a citizen of your nation, and then you have public officials who have to swear allegiance to this sovereign who is not a part of their reality.’

Local poet Winston Farrell added his voice to the republican cause:

‘Full stop this colonial page. 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. End all that she means, put a Bajan there instead.’

The British media, with typically royalist fawning, focused on the supposedly contrite speech made by Prince Charles at the ceremony, in which he mentioned the crimes committed by the British during their four hundred years of control on the island:

‘The creation of this republic offers a new beginning. From the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history, people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude.

Throne of blood

What Charles conspicuously failed to mention is how his royal ancestors were up to their elbows in the blood of slaves, or the shameful complicity of the British monarchy in the transatlantic triangle of death. In the 1560s Elisabeth, I commissioned privateers such as Drake and Hawkins to round up thousands of men, women, and children on the west coast of Africa for sale to the Spanish colonial power in the Caribbean. A century later, Charles II set up the Company of Royal Adventurers which delivered 3000 slaves to Barbados.

Slaves carried on ships owned by Charles’ brother, the Duke of York, were branded with his initials, DY, as marks of royal ownership. Another monarch, George III, in the late 1700s, used his influence to undermine the abolitionist movement and prolong the slave trade. George also ordered the violent suppression of a slave uprising on Barbados in 1816 which cost 1000 lives, including through 144 public executions. Unsurprisingly, the latest in this long line of royal parasites opted not to mention any of these inconvenient facts in his speech in the same location.

Windrush blowback

The current monarch is not blameless either in Barbados’ decision to cast off the royalist paraphernalia of the empire. Many on the island have noted the Queen’s failure to speak out on the Windrush affair, in which hundreds who left the Caribbean to help Britain rebuild after World War II were later denied citizenship by the Tory-instigated hostile environment at the Home Office. Guy Hewitt, a senior Barbadian diplomat, noted: ‘She could have acted in her role as head of the Commonwealth when the Windrush scandal erupted on the eve of the Commonwealth summit in 2018. She did not.’ 

Long to reign over us

Homegrown royalists may be consoling themselves that this outbreak of republicanism is taking place on island thousands of miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. Their complacency may not be long lasting, however. A YouGov poll earlier this year shows that, for the first time, most 18-24-year-olds want to see an elected head of state in the UK, with only 31% saying they want the monarchy to continue. Hopefully, this generation may live to see the scene witnessed in Bridgetown this week repeated in London one day.

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Tagged under: Nationalism colonialism
Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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