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Leave the monarchy? In Barbados, that's just the first step on a long path to healing

Some in Barbados say Prince Harry and his wife Meghan's recent interview should spark a discussion around the historical legacy of colonialism and address the topic of reparations.

Barbados is poised to become the fourth Caribbean island to remove the Queen as head of state

Risée Chaderton-Charles, an equality advocate, said any discussion about the role of the monarchy should start with the historical legacy of colonialism and address reparations. (Submitted by Risée Chaderton-Charles)

An interview by Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, featuring accusations of racism against the Royal Family may have shocked some who watched it, but for Risée Chaderton-Charles in Barbados, it only sparked a sense of familiarity.

"The monarchy is actually built on a system of class that has been designed to exclude people of colour, so (Meghan's claims) were completely unsurprising to me," equality advocate Chaderton-Charles said in a Zoom interview from Christ Church, about 16 kilometres southeast of the capital, Bridgetown.

Meghan's claim that a member of the Royal Family questioned the colour of her then-unborn baby's skin, and that she and Harry endured other slights resonated with Chaderton-Charles, a mother of three. She said in both her personal life and during her time working in the hospitality industry with tourists from the United Kingdom, she's been in situations where "people have expressed surprise that I was articulate and surprised that I did not live in a hut on the beach."

Harry's brother, Prince William, has since insisted that the family is not racist. But Chaderton-Charles said the conversation shouldn't be about allegations against one individual but a reckoning of the historical legacy of the entire British monarchy. 

Cutting ties with the monarchy

The couple's interview with Oprah Winfrey, which aired on March 7: "is just the icing on the very distasteful cake that has long been colonialism," she said.

"We are long past the time that we should have cut ties with the monarchy, but we are not past the time where reparations are due."

Prince Harry, left, and Meghan spoke about racism in the Royal Family during an interview with Oprah Winfrey, which aired on March 7. (Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions/The Associated Press)

The interview has renewed debate in some Commonwealth countries, including Canada, about the role of the monarchy. The spotlight has also fallen on sentiment in Barbados, as it looks to become the fourth Caribbean island to shed the final vestiges of British rule. 

With a small population of just under 300,000, Barbados announced last September that it would replace the Queen as head of state and become a republic.

The British first came to Barbados in 1627 and soon established it as a hub for the transatlantic African slave trade. In the late 17th century, the island dominated the sugar trade. The country gained independence from the British in 1966.

Reading the traditional throne speech to mark the opening of parliament last year, Governor General Sandra Mason referenced the country's first prime minister who "cautioned against loitering on colonial premises." 

The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, said the country would try to remove the Queen as head of state and become a republic later this year. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

"The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind. Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state," the speech, written by Prime Minister Mia Mottley, read. "This is the ultimate statement of confidence in who we are and what we are capable of achieving."

Mottley's goal is for the country to become a republic in time for the country's 55th anniversary of independence from the U.K. in November. Barbados would become the fourth Caribbean country to remove the Queen as head of state, following Guyana in 1970, Trinidad and Tobago in 1976, and Dominica in 1978.

New momentum

It's a move that's been attempted a number of times in recent years, but regained momentum due to renewed interest last year in revisiting the impact of colonialism, said Aaron Kamugisha, a professor of Caribbean and Africana thought at Bridgetown's University of the West Indies at Cave Hill.

He said the Black Lives Matters protests in the United States coupled with the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa and the U.K., which advocated for the removal of colonial statues of 19th-century figure Cecil Rhodes, were both influential. 

"The legacies of colonialism are wide, deep ... I think the idea of the Queen being the sovereign and the head of state is a seriously problematic anomaly, which is important to get yourself rid of," Kamugisha said. 

WATCH | Barbados to remove the Queen as head of state:

Barbados expected to cut ties with British royals

7 months ago
2:02
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s bombshell interview with Oprah Winfrey revived allegations of racism against the Royal Family — allegations that weren't a surprise in Barbados. In November, the Commonwealth country is expected to become the latest to cut ties with Buckingham Palace. 2:02

Former Barbadian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Guy Hewiit told CBC's Cross-Country Checkup that the Windrush Scandal, in which the British government denied basic rights and threatened to deport thousands of legal residents who emigrated from the Caribbean before 1973 despite being given indefinite leave to remain, also helped recast how Barbadians viewed the monarchy's role in their country. 

"Recognizing that the monarchy symbolizes part of that historic oppression. You can't ask or try to heal a nation if you are still holding on to all legacies and symbols of oppression," Hewitt said. 

But while the initial announcement to become a republic made international headlines back in September, the debate since has been muted by the pandemic, which has overtaken most aspects of Barbadian life. 

A spokesperson for Prime Minister Mia Mottley declined a CBC News interview request and was not able to provide a timeline. A two-thirds majority in parliament is needed, but Mottley's government controls both houses. There are some calls for a referendum on the subject before November.

Hewitt said the move has been decades in the making, but efforts to separate have been hampered by the country's deep ties to England and a loyalty to the Queen among some on the Island.

"Britain still remains our largest source market for visitors, and tourism is our major economic activity. So there are still a lot of links that go back from our colonial history to our contemporary reality," he told Cross Country Checkup.

The push for reparations

For Chaderton-Charles, the slights described by Meghan are part of a larger pattern of disregard of people of colour by the British monarchy and government. She points to former British prime minister David Cameron telling Jamaicans in 2015 they should "move on" from slavery, when dismissing the idea of paying reparations.

"When we see, in particular, the British monarchy with all of the grandeur and their wealth, it is a reminder that all of that has come on the backs and the blood of people who look like us," Chaderton-Charles said.

WATCH | Harry and Meghan's interview raises allegations of racism within the Royal Family: 

Meghan’s claims about racism within Royal Family sends shockwaves

7 months ago
2:43
Meghan Markle’s claims that she not only experienced racism from the U.K. tabloids, but also that a member of the Royal Family asked about the colour of Archie’s skin has sent shockwaves around the world, but the palace remains silent. 2:43

Prof. Kamugisha said there is often a false idea in Western countries that colonialism wasn't harmful. He said reparation discussions should begin by removing the romanticism and fascination people have with the current monarchy.

"When we get down to it, monarchy is basically based on the idea that some people are divine and others [lack rights]. The acknowledgement of the crime of colonialism and the addressing of that crime through reparations is extremely important to the dismantling of racism throughout the world." 

Chaderton-Charles said if the British government and Royal Family are serious about showing they understand diversity and what's happening in the world right now, then seeing former colonies as equal and deserving of redress is an important step. 

Conversations about money and stuff need to begin, "because everything else will just be lip service," she said. 

Asserting Barbadian Identity

For Tirshatha Jeffrey, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill, becoming a republic is less about the Queen and more about Barbados asserting itself as an independent nation.

Tirshatha Jeffrey, a lecturer and youth activist in Barbados, said removing the Queen as head of state has less to do with the monarchy and more to do with the Caribbean island asserting itself as an independent nation. (Submitted by Tirshatha Jeffrey)

"We understand where we came from and where the country came from and where our founding fathers brought us from," Jeffrey said. "We're very self-sufficient people and so for us, it's now moving forward in that way."

While the country has set November as a target date for ditching the monarchy, it's not clear if it's still achievable. If it does happen, the country would remain in the Commonwealth.

Prof. Kamugisha said he's confident it will happen, though perhaps not by the date set out by the government in the throne speech.

"I think it is extremely likely that it will happen. I will be very, very surprised if in the next three years Barbados was still a constitutional monarchy." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Steven D'Souza

CBC News New York

Steven D'Souza is a Gemini-nominated journalist based in New York City. He has reported internationally from the papal conclave in Rome and the World Cup in Brazil, and he spent eight years in Toronto covering stories like the G20 protests and the Rob Ford crack video scandal.

with files from Jason Vermes

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