After 396 years, the sun has finally set on the last vestiges of British colonialism as Barbadians awoke to a new dawn as the world’s newest republic.
At midnight Tuesday – the very moment 55 years ago – when Barbados became an independent sovereign nation, it transitioned from a Commonwealth realm to a parliamentary republic and Her Excellency Dame Sandra Mason, the last viceroy, was officially sworn in as the republic’s first president.
The British Crown, under whose possession the island was declared in 1625 in the name of King James I, was finally decoupled from the sovereignty of Barbados after four centuries through the epochs of colonisation, slavery, emancipation, internal self-government, federation and finally, Independence.
“I, Sandra Prunella Mason, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Barbados according to law, so help me God,” President Mason declared, as she recited the oath of office.
The ceremony unfolded on a clear night in the capital city, Bridgetown, with intermittent drizzles and the whiz of drone cameras above scores of dignitaries on the parade square. Many would-be watchers voiced loud frustration with being restricted from Heroes Square which was framed by the floodlit Parliament Buildings and old Treasury Building.
In her first address to the republic, President Mason declared that for decades, debate and discourse raged on about whether the critical step should have been taken, but on this occasion action had been taken.
She said: “Since independence, our heroes and our humble citizens, our crews and passengers have built international reputations, anchored in characteristics, our national values, our stability, and our successes, drawing on the lessons of those intervening years, possessing a clear sense of who we are and what we are capable of achieving. In the year 2021, we now turn our vessels bow towards the new republic. We do this so that we may seize the full substance of our sovereignty.”
Prince Charles, the guest of honour for the historic celebration was cast in the symbolic role of an outgoing Head of State, as the heir to the British throne and future Head of the Commonwealth witnessed the loss of another Commonwealth realm, the first such transition in more than 30 years. Barbados will remain a member of the 54-nation Commonwealth.
He urged the Barbadian people to make “freedom, justice and self-determination to be their guides’’ as he pledged the United Kingdom’s dedication to “close and trusted partnership”.
Referring to the “appalling atrocities of slavery” which “forever stain” the joint history of the British and Barbadians, the prince praised the people of Barbados for forging their own path.
“Your long journey has brought you to this moment, not as your destination, but as a vantage point from which to survey a new horizon,” he said. “Madam President, as your constitutional status changes, it is important to me that I should join you to reaffirm those things that do not change.”
The Prince of Wales underscored the two country’s continued partnership under the Commonwealth, the club of all but one of Britain’s former colonies and dominions.
He concluded: “Tonight, you write the next chapter of your nation’s story, adding to the treasury of past achievements, collective enterprise and personal courage, which already fills its pages. Yours is a story in which every Barbadian, young and old can take the greatest pride, inspired by what has come before them and confident about what lies ahead. As we will sing tonight, you are the guardians of your heritage, firm craftsmen of your fate.”
The night of celebrations that started at 7 p.m featured debut performances from the National Youth Steel Orchestra and the Nicholas Branker-led Republic Band along with the Barbados Landship and a parade of puppets and ancestral deities.
With the arrival of Prime Minister Mia Mottley, the celebration took on a much more solemn character. But cheers erupted from the crowds kept on the fringe of the capital’s centre around 11:30 when Mottley, Prince Charles and minutes before midnight, President Mason stood for a march past.
At midnight, the country was officially declared a republic and three minutes later, Mason was installed president of Barbados by Chief Justice Patterson Cheltenham and conferred the Order of Freedom of Barbados.
Prime Minister Mottley, Chief Justice Cheltenham, Attorney General Dale Marshall, Barbados Defence Force Chief of Staff Commodore Errington Shurland, and Commissioner of Police Richard Boyce, all took the newly rewritten oath of allegiance to Barbados “according to law”, instead of to “Queen, her heirs and successors”.
The night also included fireworks displays over Bridgetown and in three other strategic points in the east and north of the island.