Barbados is going to become a republic! How about that? And the United Kingdom is going to let them, or it seems they cannot stop it. This is much more of a surprise. Why a surprise? Those idyllic, soporific sandscapes and palm trees, the Caribbean islands where you can see right to the bottom of the warm sea bed, were once a cesspit of unhappiness and despair. Forget all that postcard kitsch. Barbados was the birthplace of slavery.
Those British elites spared no one in their hunt for bigger and better profits from sugar cane. Tate and Lyle has some explaining to do. There is doubt over whether the company was involved directly in slave trading, but it certainly exploited slaves to cut sugar cane. Delving into the history of sugar and you wonder if the Tate Gallery should change its name, or the august All Souls College in Oxford should repent “paid for by the profits generated by the slaves who toiled and died at the Codrington estate in Barbados”, according to the historian of the book ‘Sugar in the Blood‘, written by Andrea Stuart.
Once the Portuguese and Spanish vacated the place – having given it the name of bearded fig trees – ‘Barbados’, the island was seized by the English, a British colony from 1625 until 1966. (Barbados was claimed from 1625 in the name of King James I of England.) Since 1966, it has been a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy modelled on the Westminster system, but with a lot more dignity. Elizabeth II, Queen of Barbados, is head of state, though not for long.
Longer than Scotland’s struggle
Barbados, shaped by the tradewinds of the tropics, but above all the historical sting of immigration, exploitation, and colonisation. The country got its independence in 1966. Longer than Scotland’s struggle, 361 years have past since the English walked in and imperiously instructed someone to help tighten their girdle. Now Barbados is to be a republic. They are taking their freedom. No fuss, no bother, no marches, no civil war, and definitely no referendum. When I write take, I mean grab.
Barbados, where every second person is called Clarke or Braithwaite, or it seems so, the home of natty chatter and writers who know their history, one of the finest actually called Brathwaite, Kamau Brathwaite, who died in 2020. One poet won the 1960 Nobel Prize for Literature, Saint-John Perse. Their writers do not run around in circles debating which currency Barbados will use – they have their own dollar and also use the US dollar – instead, they consider the challenges of rebuilding their societies following decolonization, the mature thing to do.
How did Barbados secure its independence? It used a poll. Scotland has not considered a poll. It should, if only to answer the defeatist asking, “What alternatives do you suggest to the SNP’s plan of infinite delay?” The Barbados poll asked the simple question, ‘Should Barbados be independent. ‘Why not?’ came the the sub-Arnold Brown reply.
A little history
Barbados has been at the beckon call of the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, passing pirates, tropical storms and of course, the British Crown, it’s a wonder it still exists. During the English civil war, when Oliver Cromwell was chopping off heads everywhere from Cornwall to Dundee, the islanders got very upset when Charles I was executed by order of Cromwell, another to lose his head, not that that put an end to aristocracy presiding over the masses.
The island’s government went all wobbly for the Royalists and in classic form, the Commonwealth Parliament opted to bring the recalcitrant colony to heel. The Commonwealth Parliament passed an act on 3 October 1650 prohibiting trade between England and Barbados. They blocked the Dutch too. This caused the First Anglo-Dutch War. (At some time or another, England has been at war with almost every nation, large and small, on the planet.)
Narked by Barbados supporting Charles II, the English parliament sent an invasion force under the command of Sir George Ayscue, which arrived in October 1651 using Scottish prisoners as a small army to beat the Barbadian Royalists. To cut a long story short, on January 11, 1652, the Royalists surrendered. The Scots were too much for them. They fought as if they hated royalist supporters. The conditions of the surrender were incorporated into the Charter of Barbados (Treaty of Oistins), signed on 17 January 1652.
The Irish connection
The Irish found themselves in Barbados. Starting with Cromwell who tried to ‘pacify’ Ireland – a euphemism for bloody genocide – a large percentage of the white labourer population in Barbados were indentured Irish servants transported from Ireland, treated very poorly. Barbadian planters had an evil reputation for cruelty. The word soon got back to Ireland, and once freely known, Irish refused to look for work in the plantations. That led to kidnappings and involuntary transportation as a punishment for crimes. Political dissenters were sent to the plantations as were vagrant labourers. It is estimated over 10,000 Irish were cutting sugar cane together with the poor indigenous slave population, the Irish all but slaves themselves.
There were any number of slave and worker rebellions, all put down by force by English troops. Even after the abolition of slavery, the plantocracy class retained control of almost everything political and economic, with workers living in relative poverty. If hurricanes did not kill them, 4,000 on one occasion, disease did its best. Soon, workers were emigrating in large numbers.
By the start of the 1900’s life on the sun soaked, tooth rotting (from chewing raw sugar cane) Barbados was pretty awful. By the 1930s resentment at living conditions and lack of democratic controls saw Barbadians begin demanding better conditions for workers, the legalisation of trade unions and a widening of wealth, which at that point was limited to male property owners.
Too far to suppress
Unlike Scotland, geographically linked to England, Barbados was too far away and costly to threaten with another trade blockade. In any event, Britain was recovering from the bloody First World War only to see Hitler threaten all sorts of new hell. Those ‘black fellas’ and the plantations were of secondary concern. The British sent a commission in 1938 which recommended enacting many of the requested reforms on the islands. As a result, Afro-Barbadians took a prominent role in the colony’s politics.
Once a majority of Barbadians held sway in their Assembly it was a simple matter of voting for independence. The Barbadian Labour party facilitated the conditions, unlike in the UK, where the Labour party is entirely set against an independent Scotland. It took Barbadians a mere ten years to achieve independence.
Come the challenge come the man … or woman
In time a champion of the people arose, Errol Walton Barrow, a trained lawyer, a QC and as it transpired, a first-class statesman. He evolved the theory of ‘liberation theology”. Removal from the pulpit for his beliefs did not dent his theology or his concern for poor black workers.
In 1938, Barbados still an exploited backwater British colony, seven black progressive activists established the Barbados Labour Party (BLP). From the beginning, lawyers were prominent in the BLP. As a result, close attention was paid to constitutional forms within the party and also on the wider political scene. The political culture of Barbados was irreversibly transformed. Grantley Herbert Adams (later Sir Grantley Adams), was chosen as political leader. The movement was left of center, challenging the conservatism of the white planter-merchant oligarchy. The BLP was an “historic necessity.”
In 1937 only 3.3 percent of the people had the right to vote – 6,299 out of a population of 190,000. The BLP became a voice for the voiceless. The party launched a sustained campaign of education in order to raise the political consciousness of the people and mobilize support. It took until 1951 for all adults to secure the right to vote.
With the BLP at his back, Barrow began a concerted campaign and strategy for independence. His family were political activists. He lifted their tactics and used them to cause as much inconvenience to the British authorities as possible: non-co-operation, delaying or blocking disliked laws, organising civil disobedience, one protest after another. With so many unemployed, thousands turned up to rallies. Britain with local problems to think about, keen on jettisoning small territories, independence was achieved on the 30th November 1966. Westminster looked for a quiet life.
Barbados ended 361 years of British rule and became an independent sovereign state.
After independence, and a tussle over the constitution, Barrow became the first prime minister. The declaration of independence saw a few compromises, the British ever guaranteed to extract a pound of flesh from a nation daring to walk tall: Barbados would throw off its colony status but stay a Commonwealth country, the Queen as its head.
Throughout the Seventies and Eighties Barrow was an indomitable advocate of Caribbean sovereignty, ferociously opposed to interference in Caribbean affairs, particularly by the USA. He spoke out forcefully against the United States invasion of Grenada and he was scathing in his criticism of other Caribbean leaders who kow-towed to Washington in the hope of getting economic handouts:
“Mr. Seaga thinks that the solution to Jamaica’s problems is to get President Reagan to play Santa Claus. I do not believe in Santa Claus.” [Prime Minister of Jamaica, Edward Seaga]
Like our own Alex Salmond, Barrow was smeared by accusations of infidelity, none proven. Later, the singer Nina Simone claimed in her autobiography to have had an affair with him, and the British press used that to belittle his popularity.
Prime Minister Errol Barrow died at his home on 1 June 1987. By an act of Parliament in 1998, Barrow was posthumously named as one of the ten National Heroes of Barbados.
[This biography is greatly attenuated for his achievements were considerable. Readers are recommended to study his work. GB]
And now for something completely different – a republic
And here we are in 2021 watching Barbados sever all British control as we in Scotland struggle to think of any way to achieve liberty other than by delayed referenda.
Last September, Barbados Governor General Sandra Mason, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in the country, happily announced that she would soon be out of a job. “The time has come to leave our colonial past behind.” A representative of the Queen using the ‘c’ word?! Yes sir.
Mason added that by Nov. 30, 2021, on the 55th anniversary of the country’s independence, Barbados will break up with dear old Lizzie and instead swear in a local Barbadian president as head of state. In doing so, Barbados is going to become a republic.
The announcement was not a surprise for Barbadians: The debate on republicanism has been alive and well for around 40 years. So, where is Barbados in the modern world? 280,000 people depend heavily on the tourism industry pretty well holed under the waterline by the Covid pandemic. Like Scotland, Barbadians are harangued by the enemies of democracy told beating the disease is more important that becoming a republic. Mia Mottley, the country’s popular and charismatic prime minister, just laughs and gets on with the task.
Mama Mia Mottley
The criticism of Mottley is based on a fear that with radical changes looming in the British Royal family, Barbados could give other Commonwealth nations the cue to leave the fold. It needs only an amicable settlement to see how easily full freedoms can be restored. Advocates of a republic point to Brexit and a self-weakened Britain. They want a republic now, now is the time to strike. The opposition leader, Guy Hewitt, reiterates the same things Scotland’s parties say, republicism is all very well, but “now is not the time”.
Mottley campaigned on republicanism, winning a landslide victory in the 2018 elections on that platform, her party winning all 30 seats in the House of Assembly. She shows her confidence openly. In her own words, she has “a mandate from the people”.
Under Barbados rules, she needs a two-thirds majority vote in both houses. Since parting with the United Kingdom has long been popular – old wounds never healed – she is likely to get all the support she needs. One suspects a sex smear may be in the offing.
Inequality is rising on the island, in part due to remnants of colonialism and “post-colonial oligarchy.” And Barbadians, including the prime minister, are still fighting to get reparations from Britain and Europe after a commission established by Caribbean heads of government called for the implementation of a 10-point reparation plan.
Moreover, Mottley has decided to go ahead without a referendum. “We were elected to achieve a republic, why should I ask the people a second time?” In this ambition she is opposed by right-wing newspapers. Recently, the Nation, (there’s another coincidence with Scotland), Barbados’s largest newspaper, opined in an editorial, writing: “a referendum should not be off the table.”
Unlike the SNP, Mottley’s party is preparing for the nation’s liberty. It gave no warning to the British government of becoming a republic, assuming Westminster would spot that the Barbados Labour Party had been canvassing and got elected on a platform of installing republicism. Barbados did not warn the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office the separation was coming officially before the throne speech, though it told Buckingham Palace. There’s cheeky for you!
The Barbados government announced the creation of a Republican Status Transition Advisory Committee, a 10-member committee with the mandate of thinking through what the republic should look like, how to say tata to Lizzie, and what the role of the president should be. The committee will “examine previous work done on the topic, such as a 1998 report on republicanism and proposed 2004 constitutional amendments; will hold discussions with the public and influential examinations”; and will come up with recommendations.
Mottley is known for having the last word, which I give her here:
“Barbados’ desire to become a republic is a matter for the Barbados Government and its people, no one else. The UK enjoys a warm, long-standing relationship with Barbados and will continue to do so, but it is time to say goodbye to our colonial past. Republicanism will not change everything. We will still drive on the left.”
Biography: Born in 1920, Errol Walton Barrow, PC, QC was a Caribbean statesman and the first Prime Minister of Barbados. Born into a family of political and civic activists in the parish of Saint Lucy, he became a WWII aviator, combat veteran, lawyer, politician, gourmet cook, publishing a book on his recipes, and author.
Biography: Born in 1965, Mia Amor Mottley QC, MP, EGH, OR is a Barbadian politician and attorney who is the current Prime Minister of Barbados and leader of the Barbados Labour Party. Mottley is the eighth person to hold the position of Prime Minister in Barbados and first woman to hold either position.
Sugar in the Blood, Andrea Stuart
The Sugar Barons, by Matthew Parker
The Black Carib Wars, by Christopher Taylor
Fathering a Nation – the Legacy of Errol Walton Barrow, by Guy Hewitt
The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth, by Philip Murphy
Empire and Nation Building in the Caribbean – Studies in Imperialism, by Mary Chamberlain