‘A long time coming’: Barbados celebrates a move decades in the making

Covid couldn’t dampen the celebrations in Bridgetown this week, reports Nadine White. Now the ceremonies are over, the island looks to chart its own course

Saturday 04 December 2021 14:30
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<p>Barbados PM Mia Mottley, former cricketer Garfield Sobers, President of Barbados, Dame Sandra Mason, Rihanna, and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales at the presidential inauguration</p>

Barbados PM Mia Mottley, former cricketer Garfield Sobers, President of Barbados, Dame Sandra Mason, Rihanna, and Prince Charles, Prince of Wales at the presidential inauguration

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As Barbados broke its centuries-old ties with the British monarchy, Covid restrictions meant Bajans were unable to watch history being made in person. Instead, they lined the streets, watching Dame Sandra Mason replacing the Queen as head of state on big screens.

The island nation’s road to republic has been a lengthy one; the move was on the agenda of various administrations since it became independent of Britain more than five decades ago. Just after midnight on Tuesday in the capital, Bridgetown, citizens celebrated their country’s next step.

One, named Sandra, said: “Barbados will continue to thrive now that we’re a republic. This change has been a long time coming.”

During the ceremony staged just after midnight on Tuesday, local time, applause rang out in National Heroes Square in the capital Bridgetown, when Dame Mason was sworn in by chief justice Sir Marston Gibson.

Addressing the attendees in her first speech as the country’s first president, Dame Sandra said: “Republic Barbados has set sail on her maiden voyage.”

Acknowledging the “complex, fractured and turbulent world” it would need to navigate, the former governor-general added: “Our country must dream big dreams and fight to realise them.”

Dame Sandra Mason arrives at the inauguration ceremony

Prince Charles was present as a guest of honour; in a speech congratulating Barbados on becoming a republic, the heir to the throne acknowledged the “atrocity of slavery” and added that he looked forward to maintaining a relationship with the nation through the Commonwealth.

Some campaigners criticised the royal family’s involvement in the ceremony and questioned the decision to confer the Prince with the Order of Freedom of Barbados – the country’s highest honour.

Dancers perform during the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony at Heroes Square on 29 November

Despite members of the opposition, including leader Bishop Joseph Atherley, and campaigners previously expressing concern about the process being “rushed”, the inevitability of it prevailed.

Behind the push for a republic – announced last year – was prime minister Mia Mottley. During interviews with The Independent, numerous Barbadians expressed deep admiration for her “inspiring” leadership in bringing the nation through this transition.

One shop owner, Carole, said: “I love Mia Mottley to the bone and respect what she’s doing.”

Addressing the nation in a speech on Wednesday morning at Golden Square Freedom Park in Bridgetown, Ms Mottley set out her plan for the future of Barbados with tough conversations about the transition in a perceived nod to those who have reservations about what lies ahead.

The leader, who told the crowd she was speaking with “a lot of emotion”, said: “The difficult discussions will come just as they do in our families and we must not shy away from them as a nation.

“The change is daunting,” she added. “The capacity for ordinary persons to manage that change is sometimes questionable but if we somehow hold onto each other, we can make that journey.”

Mia Mottley speaks at Heroes Square in Bridgetown, Barbados

Following on from Ms Mottley’s striking speech at the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow last month in which she implored leaders of rich countries to “lead”, Barbados will continue its battle against the environmental crisis while fostering closer relationships with countries in Africa, the leader said this week.

While discussing the shift that has swept the nation, Ian Douglas, a dancer and choreographer, told The Independent: “I strongly believe that it is a timely move in the right direction.

“If it will translate into swift and meaningful change for the citizens then this calls for a collective effort from both the government and the individual citizen.”

At Tuesday’s inauguration, the Barbados prime minister surprised guests by announcing that her government had recommended that singer Rihanna, who was in attendance, would be made a member of the Order of National Heroes.

Rihanna speaks after becoming Barbados 11th National Hero

Later that day, the honour was officially bestowed upon the 33-year-old star where she said: “I have travelled the world and received several awards and recognitions – but nothing compares to being recognised in the soil that you grew in. I’m so proud to be a Bajan.”

Speaking to The Independent following the nation’s move to a republic, Dr Marcia Brandon, of the Barbados Association of Non-Governmental Organisations, said she and others working within the not-for-profit sector, envisions a “Barbados that will be better” for it.

‘Barbados that will be better’ for move to republic status, one citizen said

“Our vision, while we know it will not happen overnight, is that since we are now under ‘self-rule’, there is no reason why anyone should be left behind,” she said. “We understand our challenges, and if we work together, relentlessly, we can overcome them. As we build forward better within a republic status, genuine equality and equity must be our hallmark.”

Moving forward, Barbados will begin work on a new constitution starting from January 2022 where campaigners are hoping that ministers eschew much of the British legislation that comprises this framework.

Issues from Covid to the climate crisis continue to dominate the agenda on the island. But after decades of preparation – and weeks of celebration – Barbados will now finally chart its own course as a republic.

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