LONDON – 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 2021. 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, although in St. Vincent, voters defeated a proposal to become a republic in 2009.
This time might be different. The mass protests against the killing of Black people by the police in the U.S. have inflamed a long-simmering debate in Britain and its former colonies about the empire’s legacy. That debate inevitably draws in the 94-year-old monarch, whose realm, while dwindling, still spans 16 countries from Canada to New Zealand.
“Barbados could be a tipping point,” said Richard Drayton, a professor of imperial history at King’s College London.
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 U.S. but about the experience of people who are Black in their own societies,” said Drayton, who spent his childhood in Barbados.
Barbados Prime Minister 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 Barbados Gov.-General Sandra Mason, 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 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.
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 worked on 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,” 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.