What really just happened in Barbados? A generational shift.

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More than five decades after declaring its independence from Britain, Barbados severed its colonial ties with the removal of Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state and swore in Sandra Mason as its president.

What really just happened in Barbados? A generational shift.
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In the same week, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that the country’s Constitution — which ascribes central, but largely indirect roles to the queen and her representative, the governor general — would be reviewed in 2022. Though Holness said the review is tied to wanting to address gaps that have been exposed during the Covid-19 pandemic, many speculated that this was Jamaica signaling, as it has done in the past, that it too is ready to cut ties with the British monarchy. As I watched the historic moment and spectacular ceremony in Barbados, I thought about how my late 93-year-old great-aunt, Kathleen, from Jamaica would not be in favor of what just happened in Barbados happening in Jamaica.

That may seem like a random thought to some, but the push by Barbados to distance itself from the royal family should be seen as a symbol of a generational shift. Younger leaders of color, especially given the struggles that Black people have endured in 2020 — which echoes all the way back for 400 years — will continue to push their countries out of the shadows of colonial rule, possibly against the wishes of an older West Indian generation.

Aunt Kathleen was proud of her identity as a Jamaican and equally proud to be a citizen of the British Commonwealth. Such feelings are common among older generations. For them, the historic and contemporary links to the British Isles provided educational and career opportunities, and the occasional moments of besting Britain in the Commonwealth Games, or in test match cricket (where the West Indies teams of the 1970s and 1980s were among the best in the world).

But perhaps what happened in Barbados this week — and what it might portend for other formerly colonized nations in the Caribbean and beyond — can serve as a template for how we progress as a society in the 21st century

Like Jamaica, Barbados was part of the British Commonwealth, with an English settlement starting in the 1620s. Prince Charles, who attended the ceremony in Barbados, noted that “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.”

But many Americans, and I suspect people around the world, know little about the conditions of slavery in the Caribbean. The sugar and rum trade created some of the most brutal and inhumane conditions of chattel slavery — as well as the massive resistance on the part of enslaved Africans. In 1791, self-emancipated Africans started an insurrection in the island of Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti), which ended in 1804 with the declaration of independence in Haiti, the first successful rebellion of enslaved people in the Western Hemisphere.

In the Barbados town of Bridgetown, there is a statue of the Igbo enslaved hero Bussa who led the largest rebellion in Barbadian history in 1816. Subsequent rebellions in Guyana in 1823 and Jamaica from 1831-1832 (from December to the following January) were landmark events that swayed public opinion about slavery in the British Empire. Slavery was abolished in 1833, with the Abolition of Slavery Act (though it didn’t take effect until 1834). From this point in history, colonial power in the Caribbean among the British, Dutch, French, Spanish and the United States has cast a long and indelible shadow among the nations in the region.

What really just happened in Barbados? A generational shift.
© Toby Melville Image: Celebrations take place as Barbados becomes a republic, in Bridgetown (Toby Melville / Pool via Reuters)

Colonial power led to exploitation of the land, natural resources and people of the Caribbean. An odd symbiosis has developed between the inhabitants of these nations and the European colonial states. Many legal and constitutional influences are evident in the infrastructures of Caribbean nations; but it is also significant to note the intellectual, artistic and athletic influences on Europe. Yet these connections are fraught with complexities – racism, xenophobia, jingoism, colorism and classism.

The Caribbean contributions to the economies, defense, and cultures of Europe are frequently overlooked, which has led to moments of reckoning. For this generation of Caribbean citizens, there is an open question about how to reconcile these underappreciated and undervalued investments that have been made — and whether or not to continue contributing.

This speaks to the complex and confounding nature of these relationships. The example of Barbados presents one way of going forward. It was particularly powerful to have Charles, the heir to the British throne, discuss and acknowledge the systems of oppression subjected by his nation upon Barbadian people. Interestingly, at the same ceremony the Barbadian government awarded Charles the Order of Freedom, one of its highest national honors.

However in a nation that had protests in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and in memory of George Floyd, and which removed a statue of British Admiral Horatio Nelson, there are some who feel that independence was marred by the presence of royalty.

Barbados is navigating an interesting path — retaining membership in the Commonwealth (a trade partnership with over 50 former British colonies), honoring the British royal family and ending its colonial relationship. These actions might seem contradictory and confusing, but it speaks to the intricacies of this relationship, one that has become even more complicated in the post-Brexit era. Some scholars question if a commonwealth’s relationship with post-Brexit Britain is even necessary when strengthening a relationship with the European Union, a top world economic power, would be more beneficial.

Indeed, after the celebratory feelings subside, the new generation of leaders in Barbados (and other nations that are contemplating becoming a republic), will have several things to consider.

And while Charles acknowledged the brutality of slavery, he did not apologize for it. It’s additionally unclear if his comments are an acknowledgment of governmental recognition of responsibility about Britain’s role in killing, maiming and otherwise thwarting the lives of Barbadians. So what comes next is an open question, and of great interest to those of us with familial ties to subjugated nations — but interestingly, those from the former colonial powers, also.

Will the Barbadian government, along with nations such as Trinidad and Tobago and Mauritius, the previous two nations to proclaim themselves as republics independent of Britain, in 1976 and 1992, respectively, force this moment of reckoning?

And what does Barbados’ decision portend for the other nations in the Commonwealth realm? If a 2020 poll in Jamaica revealing that 55 percent of respondents supported removing Elizabeth as head of state is any indication, we could see more republics.

Aunt Kathleen wouldn’t be pleased, but it appears the newer generations see their relationship with Europe differently. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, perhaps this is not only a moment for the people of the Caribbean to rewrite their own story, but also a moment for a new generation of white Britons to learn from their country’s past atrocities.

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