(AFP) – Barbados formally declared itself the world’s newest republic at the stroke of midnight, as the Caribbean island nation removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state in a solemn ceremony Tuesday attended by her son Prince Charles.
Symbolizing the historic handover, the Royal Standard flag representing the queen was lowered during a ceremony inaugurating the current governor-general, Dame Sandra Mason, as the first president of Barbados.
“I, Sandra Prunella Mason, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Barbados according to law, so help me God,” the new president said in taking the oath of office.
The new era for the nation of 285,000 ends Britain’s centuries of influence, including more than 200 years of slavery until 1834.
A long-running pandemic curfew was suspended to allow Barbadians to enjoy the festivities, including projections at various points across the country and large fireworks displays timed to mark the historic transition.
“I remember in the old days we would be really excited about the Queen and Prince Charles and Princess Diana and royal weddings,” Anastasia Smith, a 61-year-old nurse, told AFP.
“But I don’t know if we ever quite saw them as our royal family. Now, everybody is talking about a republic. I’m not sure that anything about my life is going to change. But I think we’re doing the right thing and it’s a proud moment for Barbados.”
The “Pride of Nationhood” ceremony itself was closed to the wider public but Barbados’ most famous citizen, the singer Rihanna, took place alongside top officials for the event, complete with military parades, a mounted guard of honor and gun salutes.
Colonialism and slavery
Barbados, famous for its idyllic beaches and love of cricket, won independence from Britain in 1966.
In October, it elected Mason its first president, one year after Prime Minister Mia Mottley declared the country would “fully” leave behind its colonial past.
British officials said Charles would use his speech in Barbados to stress continuing ties between the two countries, including through the Commonwealth group of nations.
But there has been local criticism of the decision to invite Charles as guest of honor, and award him the Order of Freedom of Barbados, the highest national honor.
And Charles’ visit was clouded at the last minute by another race row over alleged comments about his grandson.
His youngest son Prince Harry and his wife Meghan — who has a black mother and a white father — have said an unnamed royal asked how dark their unborn first child’s skin would be.
A new book reportedly claimed Charles was responsible, which his spokesman dismissed as “fiction and not worth further comment.”
Relying on tourism
Some Barbadians argue there are more pressing national issues than replacing the queen, including economic turmoil caused by the Covid-19 pandemic that has exposed overreliance on tourism — which, ironically, is dependent on British visitors.
Unemployment is at nearly 16 percent, up from nine percent in recent years.
“I know it is something that we were going towards for a very long time, but I think it came at a time which is not necessarily the best time considering our economic situation and the Covid situation,” said 27-year-old office manager Nikita Stuart.
In usually bustling Bridgetown, paltry numbers at popular tourist spots and a dead nightlife scene all point to a country struggling after years of relative prosperity.
For young activists such as Firhaana Bulbulia, founder of the Barbados Muslim Association, British colonialism and slavery lie behind the island’s modern inequalities.
“The wealth gap, the ability to own land, and even access to loans from banks all have a lot to do with structures built out of being ruled by Britain,” Bulbulia, 26, said.
Buoyed by Black Lives Matter movements across the world, local activists last year successfully advocated for the removal of a statue of the British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson that stood in National Heroes Square for two centuries.
And the end of the queen’s reign is seen by some as a necessary step towards financial reparations to address the historic consequences of the use of slaves brought from Africa to work on sugar plantations.
“The symbolism of being able to aspire to become head of state is so powerful,” Mottley said last week.
“Our president-elect, who will be sworn in on Monday night… is the person who will bring immense pride to every Barbadian boy and girl.”