LONDON – Almost 400 years after the first English ship arrived on its golden shores, the former British colony of Barbados woke up as a republic on Tuesday.
The tiny Caribbean nation ousted Queen Elizabeth II as head of state in a spectacular ceremony that began on Monday evening, severing ties with the British royal family – and with them, one of the last imperial ties of the island with the United Kingdom.
The event has taken place 55 years to the day since Barbados gained full independence, but has kept the monarch in the ceremonial role.
At the strike of midnight local time, the new republic was born to the cheers of the local crowds. The moment was marked by a salute of 21 cannons and the interpretation of the national anthem of Barbados.
A dazzling spectacle of fireworks, dancing and music was followed by Prime Minister Mia Mottley declaring singer Rihanna – from Barbados and world star – a national hero.
Sandra Mason, a Barbadian who had been governor general of the island – or representative of the Queen – was sworn in as the country’s first president. She was elected to the leading role of Parliament last month, but Mottley will continue to lead the country.
“This is a monumental step,” said Kristina Hinds, senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies in eastern Barbados, on a Zoom call from her home in Wanstead, north of the country. capital, Bridgetown, before the ceremony. “I think this is part of the evolution of our independence, and it is certainly long overdue.”
Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, was in attendance as Barbados celebrated the end of its formal ties with his 95-year-old mother. Elizabeth is the queen of 15 other kingdoms including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Jamaica.
Charles gave a speech saying that the creation of the republic “offers a new beginning”, while his mother addressed the island with “the warmest wishes”.
“From the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery that forever sullies our history, the people of this island have made their way with extraordinary strength,” he said.
Her presence may signal the Royal Family’s desire to maintain close ties with the island, which will remain in the Commonwealth – a voluntary association of 54 states that includes many former British colonies and which the Queen has defended throughout her life. life.
But for Hinds, Charles’s presence is symbolically “a bit strange”.
“It is problematic for those of us who believe that the British monarchy, as important as it historically has been for Barbados in a positive way, has also caused serious damage to the country,” she said.
In the 17th century, Barbados was claimed by the British and turned into a lucrative colony using the labor of hundreds of thousands of people brought in as slaves from Africa.
It became a major hub for the production of sugar, an increasingly crucial commodity that helped enrich British slave owners.
“The result of the desire to produce sugar, which responded to a growing tooth in England – white consumer lifestyles built on the backs of black exploitation and slave labor,” said Christopher Prior, associate professor of colonial and postcolonial history. at the British University of Southampton.
The island’s current population of around 287,000 is made up mostly of descendants of people brought in as slaves from Africa to work on the plantations.
Despite this history, there remains a level of respect for the monarchy and Britain in general, especially among the island’s older population, Hinds said.
Many places in Barbados are named after the Queen or her ancestors, and a lion’s share of the country’s tourists come from the UK, she added. The island is often called “Little England”.
Still, several people in Barbados have hailed their country’s decision to sever ties with its former imperial rulers.
“For Barbadians, it’s not something personal against the Queen, it’s about our national pride and our governance,” said René Holder-McClean-Ramirez, 45, community advocate and consultant. LGBTQ, on the phone from his home in Bridgetown.
“As we grow and develop as an independent nation, having a foreign head of state is just not necessary or practical,” he said.
For Ronnie Yearwood, a lawyer in Bridgetown, the positive sentiment of the move is combined with regret that the government has moved forward without consulting the public on what kind of republic it would like.
Barbados first pursued the idea of republicanism in the late 1970s and proposed in 2008 to hold a referendum on the issue, but the date has been pushed back indefinitely.
The decision to impeach the Queen as head of state was announced in 2020, but with little consultation on the transition, Yearwood said.
“There is a lot of disappointment,” said Yearwood, 42. “It could have been a great time for all Barbadians.”
NBC News contacted both the Prime Minister’s Office and Mason, but did not get interviews.
Barbados’ decision to abandon the Queen follows a wave of protests around the world inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. A more direct assessment of Britain’s imperial past helped bring down symbols of racism and colonialism from Cambridge to the Caribbean.
“This is a local manifestation of a very global conversation taking place about the legacy of the British Empire and its colonial exploitation,” Prior said.
“The move from Barbados is another part of our times of decolonization.”
So could the change underway on the beaches of Barbados be the start of a wave of kingdoms severing ties with the royal family?
“When the Queen eventually passes away, there will be new conversations emerging, especially in places like Australia, about whether they want to have Charles as head of state,” Prior said.
“I don’t mean to suggest that there is a fatality, but I think it is extremely likely that the issue of republicanism is not going to go away any time soon.”