Celebrations are underway in Barbados as the Caribbean island throws off its colonial shackles to become the world’s newest republic, with an elected president as head of state.
Famed for its beaches and love of cricket, Barbados will sever its final imperial links to Britain on Monday by replacing its former head of state, Queen Elizabeth II, with her current representative, Governor-General Sandra Mason.
Ceremonies will include military parades and celebrations, as Mason is inaugurated as president, with Prince Charles – heir to the British throne – looking on.
In a speech to be delivered at the transition ceremony, Charles is expected to focus on continued ties between the two countries.
“As your constitutional status changes, it was important to me that I should join you to reaffirm those things which do not change. For example, the close and trusted partnership between Barbados and the United Kingdom as vital members of the Commonwealth,” reads an excerpt of his speech, as released by the prince’s office.
Barbados became independent in 1966 but retained Queen Elizabeth II as sovereign. Last year Barbados announced it was replacing her with its own head of state in time for its 55th independence anniversary on 30 November 2021.
The transition has fuelled debate among the population of 285,000 over Britain’s centuries of influence, including more than 200 years of slavery until 1834.
For young activists such as 26-year-old 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 said.
“The actual chains (of slavery) were broken and we no longer wore them, but the mental chains continue to persist in our mindsets.”
In October, Barbados elected Mason to become its first-ever president, one year after Prime Minister Mia Mottley declared the country would “fully” leave its colonial past.
But some Barbadians argue there are more pressing national issues, including economic turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exposed overreliance on tourism – which, ironically, is dependent on British visitors.
Unemployment is at nearly 16%, up from 9% in recent years, despite sharply increased government borrowing to fund public sector projects and create jobs.
Some criticism has also focused on Mottley inviting Prince Charles to be the guest of honour, and to award him the Order of Freedom of Barbados, the highest national honour.
“The British royal family is a source of exploitation in this region and, as of yet, they have not offered a formal apology or any kind of repair for past harms,” added Kristina Hinds, international relations lecturer at the University of the West Indies in Barbados.
“So I don’t see how someone from the family can be given this award. That is beyond me.”
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.
For many Barbadians, replacing the British Queen is just catching up with how the nation has felt for many years.