Nelson, BLM and new voices: why Barbados is ditching the Queen
Michael Safi reports from the ground as island nation prepares to declare itself a republic
The first time, he stumbled on it by accident, after following a dirt track through fields of sugar cane that came to a clearing. There was a sign, Hakeem Ward remembers, beneath which someone had left an offering.
“The sign said it was a slave burial ground,” he says. “We went and Googled it, and then I realised it was actually one of the biggest slave burial grounds in the western hemisphere.”
Ward, 24, lives nearby, within sight of the turquoise waters that lap at Barbados’ south coast, but had never learned until then of the Newton Slave Burial Ground, where the remains of an estimated 570 enslaved people were found interred in unmarked graves. At school he says they brushed lightly over the history of the slave trade on the island. “We learned a lot of stuff about Christopher Columbus and how he discovered and colonised the world.”
But the past still agitates, making itself known. Dogs occasionally vanish into the bushland, returning with skulls and other remains, Ward says. He and his friends try to avoid hanging out near the site. “With the spiritual energy, we don’t want to see anything,” he says. “Because we see things, and we want to avoid that as much as possible.”
Late on Monday night, local time, Barbados will declare itself a republic, becoming the first nation to remove Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state in nearly three decades. The transition, flagged last year in the thick of activism inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, is being executed amicably, in the presence of Prince Charles, and circumspectly, more than 20 years since it was recommended by a government commission.
But, unmistakably, it is a repudiation of the British monarchy, part of a wider campaign that includes strengthening ties with the African nations from which most Barbadians claim heritage and renewing demands for the UK government to make reparations for its historical crimes, aimed at authoring a liberated future and soothing the restless ghosts of the past.
‘Barbados was a hellhole’
As its peak tourism season approaches, Barbados is bearing the brunt of its worst Covid-19 wave. Masks are ubiquitous and many supermarkets and government buildings have installed imposing machines to check temperatures. Still, visitors are coming, drawn by the island’s famously pristine beaches, lush hinterland and gentle weather.
It was these same natural blessings that made the easternmost island in the Caribbean an exquisite laboratory for the development of a new form of capitalism in the 17th century. Sugar, backbreaking to produce and for centuries reserved for Europe’s ultra-wealthy, flourished in Barbados’ rich soil. The island’s even topography offered vast space for plantations.
But it was a third innovation, the perfection of a model using enslaved Africans to work the fields, which set off a “sugar revolution” that made England extraordinarily wealthy and created a template that soon spread across the Americas. “It was in Barbados that the slavery plantation production model was invented – right here,” says David Comissiong, the country’s ambassador to Caricom, a Caribbean regional integration body.
Reclassified under British law as property, the men, women and children who worked the cane fields of Barbados were subject to unimaginable brutality. The first systematic study of the health of those buried at the Newton Slave Burial Ground found the average life expectancy of those examined was 18 years old, with the lives of women thought to be especially appalling: until then, no lower mean age of death had been documented among enslaved females anywhere in the world. “Barbados was a hellhole,” Comissiong says. “For black people, Barbados was a brutal, brutal, hellish society.”
It is easy to be among the more than 1 million people who visited Barbados each year before the pandemic and never encounter this history. There is a single statue commemorating emancipation, at the centre of a busy roundabout, depicting a man who has come to be identified with Bussa, the leader of a failed 19th-century revolt, whose broken chains dangle from arms raised skyward.
For centuries after slavery ceased, over the island’s shameful history, “there was almost a kind of indifference, a kind of silence”, recalls Esther Phillips, Barbados’ poet laureate, that she believes stems in part from guilt and shame among those who were freed. “Who wants to revisit the pain of trauma, once you get out of it, or appear to get out?”
That muffling was passed down through generations, and reinforced in the colonial education of her youth, which some argue has not sufficiently been reformed to this day. “I never knew there was anything called West Indian history or Caribbean history,” Phillips says. “I knew all about the English queens and kings.”
The decades since Barbados became independent 55 years ago have seen gradual efforts to face the past, and confront its implications for the future, but always cautiously. A government commission in the 1970s examined the question of becoming a republic and advised against it, conscious that similar experiments in Caribbean states such as Suriname and Guyana had led to authoritarianism and instability.
Even the Barbadian leaders who wanted to break away from the monarchy recognised they still lived in the world colonialism made, and had an economy critically dependent on attracting a pipeline of sun-starved British tourists.
“The fear, I think reasonably, was that it would not be received well, and that there would be a narrative, for example, of telling tourists in the UK: ‘Maybe you should wait about going to Barbados, because you should make sure the political situation is stable,’” says Melanie Newton, a professor of history at the University of Toronto.
Part of this conservatism, too, was pragmatic: Barbados was building a society that was, by any measure, a tremendous success, with some of the best human-development indicators in the formerly colonised world, an enormous leap from the desperate conditions that prevailed in the last decades of British rule. “Barbados has a very strong public service system, amazing education, good healthcare,” Newton says. “And a lot of that is paid for by tourism and international business and investment banking.”
‘In Barbados, what are we doing?’
Over the past week, workers have been busy erecting and painting a dais in central Bridgetown’s national heroes’ square, formerly called Trafalgar, where the handover ceremony will take place at 11pm on Monday, and the surrounding colonial buildings – including the country’s Gothic parliament, the third oldest in the world – are decked in the national colours, ultramarine and gold.
At the head of the square stands a grand pedestal – with nothing on it.
The year 2020 produced seismic changes everywhere. In Barbados,too, it was a watershed, opening the way for government to finally propose a republic that had been promised for decades but always postponed.
Alexander Downes was supposed to be studying in Australia, but was trapped at home in Barbados early in the year when borders suddenly closed. He would pass national heroes’ square, glancing at the statue of the English admiral Horatio Nelson that had stood there since 1813, three years earlier than its twin in London.
At 32, Downes was part of the first generation without memory of Barbados’ colonial-era nor its hangover in the early years of independence. He and his friends were more inclined to question the things their parents took for granted, he says. “Sometimes I would talk to my father, as we drove through certain areas, and he would be like, ‘Oh, when I was a kid, I couldn’t come to this area.’ And I’d be, like, why not?”
Those things included the pride of place given to the defender of British slavery Nelson, whose bronze statue had first stirred small protests decades earlier, to which the government had responded in 1990 by rotating it to face away from town. “The compromise wasn’t, let’s get rid of it,” says Downes. “It was, literally, just turn it.”
In the middle of the year, Black Lives Matter protests were spreading across the world, including to Barbados, and Downes sensed that in his careful society, something was shifting. After consulting with friends, he posted a petition calling for Nelson to come down.
“I said to myself, in Barbados, what are we doing?” he says. “We have a colonial past, we have a past steeped in racism … [The statue] is just brick and mortar. If we can start with this, then we can get the ball rolling to start addressing some bigger issues.”
It caught fire, attracting more than 10,000 signatures and culminated in meetings with government officials and, months after, confirmation that Nelson would be removed in November 2020 and relocated to a museum.
Some objected, including among the more than 90% of the population with African heritage, urging him to not to meddle with the past, Downes says. “They were saying, ‘Why do you want to move this thing that has been there from before you were even born? Have some respect for your history.’ I’m, like, 10 years from now, what I do today is going to be our history as well,” he says.
At the ceremony to mark the removal of the statue, Barbados’ prime minister, Mia Mottley, called the tribute to the hero of Trafalgar, “an assertion of power, of dominance”. She held her phone to the crowd, telling them her screensaver was the reggae artist Bob Marley, “to remind me always that the mission of our generation is the mental emancipation of our people”.
In the ruptures of the year, Mottley appeared to sense an opportunity. The same day the statue was dislodged, her government announced that, in a year’s time, Barbados would remove the queen as head of state and elect its own president.
Monarchists have worried for years that the end of the reign of Elizabeth Windsor may trigger a new wave of former colonies to seek native heads of state. Barbados suggests that threat, at least in the Caribbean, may have arrived in her diamond jubilee years instead, as a conviction stirring in the minds of some of her youngest generation of subjects.
Asked what the crown means to him, Downes is clear. “It signifies a time when people who looked like me … were almost considered just a part in the process of generating wealth,” he says. “Humanity was not considered. Civil rights were not considered.”
At sundown, before the cars on the nearby highway switch on their lights, the view from the top of the slope of the Newton Slave Burial Ground appears much as it may have three hundred years ago. The stone chimney of the plantation’s boiling house still stands. There is still the sea on the horizon and bristling pastures of sugar cane in every direction.
The burial site, too, is still an open field, but for the park benches recently installed at its edges, and rows of bougainvillaea and crotons lining the perimeter. They are freshly planted, some still seedlings, and dwarfed by the surrounding cane fields, but growing.