Cutting Colonial Constraints: Barbados Removing The Queen As Their Head Of State

Alice Whelan

With the 55th anniversary of Barbados’ independence from the UK approaching in November 2021, the country has announced its intention to remove Queen Elizabeth II as their Head of State and become a Republic. Yet, how is it that Barbados has been considered an independent nation since 1966 if the British Queen remained as their head of state?

This can be explained by the fact that the role of Head of State is primarily representative, serving to symbolize the unity between the UK and Barbados. As such, the Queen is the constitutional monarch of Barbados but is not involved with the daily business of Barbados’ government.

However, she is regularly kept updated by the Governor-general who is her representative there. The Queen’s role within Barbados may therefore appear harmless enough- a mere title, a formal link- but ultimately, it symbolises Britain’s enduring colonial grip on the country, tied to Barbados’ dark history of British-owned slave plantations.

This is not the first time that Barbados has considered the transition to a republican form of government

Highly significant is the first female Prime Minister, Mia Mottley’s, motivation for this move, stated in the Throne speech as a desire to “leave our colonial past behind“. Mottley’s speech announced that they want a “Barbadian head of state”, representative of their present country.

This is not the first time that Barbados has considered the transition to a republican form of government, with a constitutional review commission in 1998 advocating for a Republican status and Mottley’s predecessor, Freundal Stuart, also arguing for the conversion.

Even when Barbados became independent in 1966, the decision to keep the Queen as their head of state was considered a controversy, with the first leader of the free nation of Barbados, Errol Barrow, stating that the country should not “loiter on colonial premises”.

Barbados’ link to the UK stems back to the British colonisation of the land. The English first occupied Barbados in 1627, bringing settlers and slaves, after claiming the island on behalf of King James I in 1625. They rapidly deforested the land to make way for tobacco and cotton plantations before introducing sugar cane plantations in the 1640s. To meet labour demands, servants were indentured; white civilians moved to Barbados on the condition of performing several years of labour for a planter.

Thousands of Irish people were also shipped there during the Cromwellian period and the country subsequently acquired the largest white population of any of the English colonies in the Americas. However, the demand for labour also meant that servants were acquired through kidnapping and shipping convicted criminals to Barbados.

The Barbadians dominated the sugar industry for years, leading the economy to flourish at the price of the blood, sweat and tears of slaves

With growing business and therefore an increased need for labour, the Dutch merchants supplied Barbados’ plantations with thousands of slaves, largely from West Africa, many of which died on route to the country. Due to the intensive labour, the Barbadians dominated the sugar industry for years, leading the economy to flourish at the price of the blood, sweat and tears of slaves.

By the mid-1700s most white servants were free as their places were taken by Africans. However, the majority remained poor and isolated in a predominantly black society, looked down upon by rich white citizens and the black community. Furthermore, at the end of the 18th century, Barbados had 745 plantations worked by more than 80,000 African and African-descended slaves, making white people a minority.

The ruthless working conditions were the cause of many slave revolts, the largest being Bussa’s rebellion in 1816.  Although the revolt failed, slavery was eventually abolished in 1834. However, problems continued for Barbados as British merchants who had previously owned the slaving plantations dominated the country’s politics due to their wealth and the high-income restriction on voting.

The decision to remove the Queen as their Head of State, although logical, seems rather abrupt

In spite of this, in the 1930s a movement for political rights was started by the descendants of emancipated slaves, becoming what is now known as the Barbados Labour Party (BLP). In 1955 the BLP split, leading to the formation of the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), led by Errol Barrow who won election in 1962. After the federation of the West Indies dissolved, Barbados became an independent sovereign state in 1966, emancipated from the British Colonies.

The decision to remove the Queen as their Head of State, although logical, seems rather abrupt, considering that the last country to do so was Mauritius in 1992 whilst other Caribbean countries like Dominica, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, became republics in the 1970s. With this final shove away from Britain, Barbados aims to remove itself from its colonial past and celebrate its autonomous rule.

This may set a trend for other Caribbean islands that remain with the Queen as their Head of State, such as Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada Jamaica, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines. However, in the context of the exposure of Britain’s colonial past provoked by the international Black Lives Matter movement earlier this year, the move seems natural, as Barbados’ remaining colonial links have been contemplated.

The parallel between the symbolism of the removal of slave trader statues in the UK with the removal of Barbados’ Head of State is indisputable. It is impossible to view the Queen’s position beyond a reminder of colonial slavery, a celebration of British monarchy and a gesture of British dominance.

The removal of the British Queen as Head of State is therefore symbolic of Barbados’ freedom from their colonial past and British imperialism. This move will leave 15 countries under Queen Elizabeth’s rule, a number I believe is sure to decrease in the near future.

Alice Whelan

Featured image courtesy of Mark de Jong via Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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