The Black Lives Matter movement has revived a simmering debate about the legacy of colonialism, potentially inspiring change in other Caribbean countries.
The last time a string of distant dominions cast off Queen Elizabeth was in the 1970s when the Black power movement emboldened three Caribbean countries to declare themselves republics. Now, in the heat of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Caribbean may once again turn against the queen.
On Wednesday, Barbados announced it would remove Elizabeth as its head of state and become a republic by November of next year. Jamaica is also considering whether to abandon the monarch, a step supported by successive prime ministers. St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have both flirted with the idea, though in St. Vincent, voters defeated a proposal to become a republic in 2009.
This time might be different, experts on the Caribbean said. The mass protests against the killing of Black people by the police in the United States have inflamed a long-simmering debate in Britain and its former colonies about the legacy of empire. That debate inevitably draws in the 94-year-old monarch, whose realm, while dwindling, still spans 16 countries from Canada to New Zealand in the Commonwealth.
“Barbados could be a tipping point,” said Richard Drayton, a professor of imperial history at Kings College London. “If Barbados is successful in taking this step, it would inspire other countries to do the same.”
All this is taking place against the backdrop of a possible no-deal Brexit that threatens to splinter the United Kingdom and a gnawing sense that a post-Brexit Britain will play a shrinking role in world affairs.
Guyana led the earlier republican movement in the Caribbean, cutting ties to the queen in 1970. Trinidad and Tobago followed in 1976, and Dominica in 1978. The last country anywhere to remove Elizabeth as head of state was Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, in 1992.
“As in the 1970s in the Caribbean, there’s a new anger among younger people, not just about the predicament of people who happen to be Black in the United States, but about the experience of people who are Black in their own societies,” said Professor Drayton, who spent his childhood in Barbados.
The prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, explicitly couched the move to abandon the queen as head of state in terms of throwing off colonial shackles. In a speech prepared for the governor-general of Barbados, Sandra Mason, Ms. Mottley wrote: “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind. Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state.”
She invoked a line from Errol Walton Barrow, the first prime minister of Barbados after it declared independence from Britain in 1966, who warned his fellow citizens “against loitering on colonial premises.”
After Barbados declared its independence, it still retained Queen Elizabeth as its head of state, as well as a governor general who serves as her representative in the country. Barbados will remain a member of the Commonwealth — a loose organization of former colonies of the British Empire — with a Westminster-style parliament and prime minister.
Ms. Mottley, analysts note, has called for Britain and other former colonial powers to pay reparations to Barbados and its neighbors for the slave trade. Between 1627 and 1807, British ships carried thousands of Africans to the island, where they were put to work in on vast sugar plantations in brutal conditions.
“I do not know how we can go further unless there is a reckoning first and foremost that places an apology and an acknowledgment that wrong was done, and that successive centuries saw the destruction of wealth and the destruction of people,” Ms. Mottley said in July at a conference of Caribbean nations.
The reparations campaign has bogged down over legal issues. But as demonstrators in Britain have torn down statues of slave traders, British companies that profited from slavery, including Lloyd’s of London, have pledged to make amends by recruiting more Black, Asian and other minority employees.
While the Black Lives Matter protests may be an accelerant, analysts point out that many of these issues have been building up for half a century, since the Caribbean nations declared their independence from Britain.
“Such moves have been long in discussion in the Caribbean,” said Matthew J. Smith, a professor of history at University College London who directs the Center for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership.
Little England, as Barbados is sometimes called, has mulled the idea of forming its own republic since the 1970s, when a commission was formed to investigate its feasibility. At the time, the commission concluded there was not enough public support, but the idea continued to percolate.
It surfaced again in the late-1990s, when another commission recommended that Barbados become a parliamentary republic. In 2005, the country adopted a law to hold a referendum on the matter, though one was never held. In 2015, the then-prime minister, Freundel Stuart, set a goal of establishing a republic to coincide with the 50th anniversary of independence.
Ms. Mottley said nothing about holding a referendum, sidestepping a vote that has thwarted several other republican movements. Experts said she probably has the mandate to push the change through without one. Her Barbados Labour Party won all 30 seats in Parliament in elections in 2018, making her the country’s unchallenged leader, in addition to its first female prime minister.
The government also announced a plan to legalize same-sex civil unions, though it will put that to a popular vote.
In Jamaica, the republican movement has been gaining momentum for years. In 2012, a former prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller, said the time had come to abandon the queen as head of state. Her successor, Andrew Holness, made similar comments in 2016, though a referendum is unlikely soon, given the country’s need to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
For all the historical symbolism, reaction to the announcement in Barbados was muted. On social media, people noted that the country already had its own queen — the pop star Rihanna, who is from Barbados.
“The older generation might have something to say about it, but the younger generation doesn’t really care that much,” Camille Scott, 30, a hotel employee in the capital, Bridgetown. “I guess there’s nothing wrong with it.”
For the queen, who watched her grandson, Prince Harry, and his wife, Meghan, leave the royal family and move to California this year, losing Barbados was likely but another melancholy sign of how quickly the world is changing.
An official at Buckingham Palace said this was a matter for the government and people of Barbados. He noted that the country had been moving toward this step for a long time. Other people with knowledge of the palace said the news still jolted the royal family, which has not lost a dominion in nearly 30 years.
In 2016, the queen sent Prince Harry to Barbados to represent her at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of independence. Some initially viewed that as a snub, given that Harry stood well down the list of heirs to the throne. But he won over the crowd by singing the country’s national anthem.
“My guess is that the queen won’t take this too personally,” said Penny Junor, a royal biographer. “She has always been very good at dissociating herself from the job. She has never believed that people were queuing up to see her personally. They’re queuing up to see the queen of England.”
Dickie Arbiter, who served as the queen’s press secretary from 1988 to 2000, said she would be philosophical. “Barbados has been an independent country for 54 years,” he said. “She is pragmatic enough to realize that it was only a matter of time before they decided to appoint their own head of state.”