Dancing, Singing, Fireworks and a Special Honor For Rihanna as Barbados Celebrates Becoming a Republic

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Photo credit: RANDY BROOKS - Getty Images
Photo credit: RANDY BROOKS - Getty Images

Last night in Barbados there was a celebration like no other. Dancers, singers, military personnel, the country’s top dignitaries, its most famous export Rihanna and Britain’s Prince Charles all convened against a backdrop of the vibrant yellow and blue of the national flag. The National Heroes’ Square in Bridgetown was the focal point, but the landmark events that took place there are of significance to the world.

When the clock struck midnight in Barbados, the country ceased to recognize the Queen as its head of state. Following the exuberance of a theatrical extravagance entitled Pride of Nationhood, the stage was set for a handover that would take a much more solemn tone. Not long before, the heavens threatened to open. But the skies were calm for the moment that Barbados rid itself of monarchy for good, becoming a republic after almost 400 years of various forms of British rule.

Photo credit: RANDY BROOKS - Getty Images
Photo credit: RANDY BROOKS - Getty Images

The Prince was the last to arrive for the handover ceremony, a fact which reflected the top-dog status that he had lost by the time he departed almost two hours later. Wearing a mask, he sat, hands clasped, while a military display paid a final “compliments to the monarchy.” Then, the Royal Standard flag was lowered to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. Just behind it, the corner of the Royal Bank of Canada overlooked the square, a reminder that there now remain 14 countries outside of the UK who retain the Queen as head of state.

Sporadic and distant cheers could be heard from the crowds in Bridgetown, many who were on the opposite side of Constitution River. They watched on screens, with COVID and the unprecedented nature of the events meaning that the celebrations were somewhat different to the annual Independence Day parade that is usually held every November 30 marking the moment in 1966 that the independence act took effect.

Some of the biggest cheers of the night were reserved for Rihanna, who was declared a national hero by Prime Minister Mia Mottley. “May you continue to shine bright like a diamond,” the Prime Minister told the singer. New President Dame Sandra Mason described the moment as the republic’s “maiden voyage.”

Photo credit: RANDY BROOKS - Getty Images
Photo credit: RANDY BROOKS - Getty Images

“On a rain-soaked night 55 years ago, the inhabitants of what had been the world’s first slave society shed the mantle of colonialism to become an independent nation,” she began. “Vessel Independent Barbados weighed anchor and cast off from our colonial moorings...Vessel Republic Barbados has set sail on her maiden voyage.”

Earlier in the evening, the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, had appeared by video link, stressing the two countries’ ties on this “momentous occasion.” “I remain hopeful that in our time, Africans and persons of African descent on both sides of the Atlantic will come together in mutual solidarity to advance the interests of Black people everywhere in the world,” he said.

Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pool - Getty Images

In a speech an hour later after the republic of Barbados was declared and the Presidential Standard raised, Prince Charles spoke directly of the “appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history.” He joined a final salute to Barbados before departing, after the new President, at around 1:30 a.m. local time.

There have been suggestions that this move by Barbados, which is the first country to get rid of the Queen as head of state since Mauritius in 1992, could create a ripple effect elsewhere. Those in the crowds nearby last night included university students Joia Scotland, 21, and Johanette Joseph, 20, from Antigua and St Lucia respectively who described the moment as a “big deal” and said they supported “all islands” doing the same thing and it was a “good example for the rest of the region.”

“This is the first republic for the 21st century, and that’s so exciting that we get to see and witness that,” Johanette said. Traveena Harewood, 20, from Bridgetown described the moment as “history-making,” “We really needed to see something like this so that brought me down here today,” she said. “I think it means change, but change in a positive way.”

Not everyone was happy, however, about all aspects of the celebrations. Many who had gathered on a bridge near to the square hoping to get a closer look were frustrated to be moved on.

“Initially I was excited to see the performances,” one woman told me, “This is chaos...people are not being able to connect with those performances.” Juliette from Saint Michael said that she was annoyed that there was no parade. “This is our independence and usually on Independence Day I am on parade...so the fact that we can’t take part in it tonight. We’ve come to see but we can’t see anything,” she said.

A protest that had been planned against Prince Charles’s participation in the event attracted much media criticism ahead of time. Saying they were unable to get a permit from the COVID unit, organizer David Denny, who is the General Secretary for the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration, called a press conference instead on the afternoon of the celebrations. A handful of local and international reporters turned up at the shopping village location around one mile from National Heroes’ Square. “How can you honor a member of the royal family that exploited the people of Barbados?" Mr. Denny said of Prince Charles receiving the Order of the Freedom of Barbados.

One local reporter told me that many were confused about what Barbados becoming in a republic meant and were not sure what it would mean for them practically.

Those at the helm of the country, however, were last night jubilant and calling to their people to embrace a new chapter. “From this moment, every Barbadian becomes the living embodiment of the new republic,” President Dame Sandra Mason said. At one point in the evening, she and Prime Minister Mia Mottley stood, side by side, ready to take their seats for Dame Mason to be sworn in. Behind them, Prince Charles looked on, a distant figure as this Caribbean nation looks to the future.

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