- David ComissiongBarbados’s ambassador to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Association of Caribbean States.
Barbados has become the world’s newest republic, breaking ties with Queen Elizabeth 55 years after it became an independent nation, saying it was time for Barbados to break from its colonial past. The move comes as calls grow for the United Kingdom to pay reparations for enacting a regime of slavery in Barbados. While it was an occasion for celebration, it was also “55 years overdue” and should have happened when Barbados won its independence in 1966, says David Comissiong, Barbados’s ambassador to the Caribbean Community and the Association of Caribbean States. “Barbados was a center of British power. You don’t get rid of the imprint of that history so easily.”
AMY GOODMAN: “Work” by Rihanna, the chart-topping singer and entrepreneur who was declared a national hero in Barbados during the ceremony Monday night that marked Barbados’ new status as a republic, which we are now going to discuss. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to Barbados, which has just become the world’s newest republic. At a ceremony on late Monday night, Dame Sandra Mason was sworn in as the first president of the Caribbean island.
DAME SANDRA MASON: Possessing a clear sense of who we are and what we are capable of achieving in the year 2021, we now turn our vessel’s bow towards the new republic. We do this so that we may seize the full substance of our sovereignty.
AMY GOODMAN: Barbados became an independent country 55 years ago, in 1966, but Queen Elizabeth remained the official head of state until now. Many other former British colonies, including Canada, Australia and Jamaica, still have a similar arrangement with the British monarch. Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley had pushed to cut ties to the queen, saying it was time for Barbados to break from its colonial past. The move comes as calls grow for the United Kingdom to pay slavery reparations to Barbados. Ahead of the ceremony, Barbados held a National Service of Thanksgiving, where Barbados senator and Reverend John Rogers spoke.
REV. JOHN ROGERS: Our seed is one that survived the journey that many should not have survived, survived 300 years of a plantation system that many should not have survived. Every child born in this country is a gift of God, specially preserved, specially protected.
AMY GOODMAN: Prince Charles traveled to Barbados to attend the ceremony when Barbados became a republic. He acknowledged Britain’s, quote, “appalling atrocity of slavery” in the Caribbean. Barbadian singer, actress, fashion designer Rihanna also attended the ceremony, where she was declared a national hero by Barbados’s prime minister.
We go now to Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, where we’re joined by David Comissiong, Barbados ambassador to the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM, longtime advocate for reparations, author of the book It’s the Healing of the Nation: The Case for Reparations in an Era of Recession & Re-colonisation.
David Comissiong, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you talk about the ceremony on Monday night and what it meant, certainly far beyond simply a ceremony, the new republic of Barbados?
DAVID COMISSIONG: Yes, it was a very historic and moving occasion. In fact, for me, it started on Saturday, well before Monday night, when we officially opened our Revolutionary Square. So, it was a whole weekend of really celebrating the best of our heritage and our historical tradition. Of course, Monday night was when we installed the new president of Barbados. It was the night on which we bid farewell to British colonial rule. That was symbolized in a very concrete way when the colors, the flags of the military units, the Defense Force and the Coast Guard and the governor-general’s colors, they were marched off of the parade ground in view of Prince Charles and to the playing of “Auld Lang Syne,” that old things were passing away and a new order was being installed.
So, very, very moving, very historic, I would say 55 years overdue. It really should have happened on the 30th of November, 1966, when Barbados became an independent country. But back then, for whatever reasons — and there are many reasons we can speculate about — we made two compromises on our constitutional sovereignty and independence. We corrected one compromise in 2005 when we broke our legal system away from the British Privy Council and installed our Caribbean Court of Justice as our highest national court. And so, we dealt with the second compromise on Monday, when we moved away not just from the queen but also from the concept, from any concept of hereditary rule, installed our own native president but also a president who was put in place by a democratic process.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ambassador, what continues to be the legacy of 400 years of British colonial rule?
DAVID COMISSIONG: Well, you know, the legacy is still there. We are still a work in progress. Barbados was known as Little England. Barbados was in fact Britain’s mother colony in the Caribbean. You know, the Virginia colony was established in 1607, Barbados from 1625. And because of the — the Sugar Revolution was really pioneered in Barbados, and the whole system of slavery-based plantation production was pioneered and perfected in Barbados. The seminal slavery laws of the British Empire were the 1661 Barbados Slave Code, which was subsequently taken to Jamaica, and then from Jamaica to the Carolinas and across the 13 Colonies. So Barbados was a center of British power, economic power, political power, military power, cultural power. The historians tell you that around the turn of the 18th century, Barbados, little Barbados, was more important in trade to Britain than New England, Carolina, New York and Pennsylvania combined. I mean, it sounds crazy in the 21st century, but back then sugar was like a narcotic drug. And so, Barbados developed this system of the production of superabundant profits on the basis of the superexploitation of African labor.
So, that is not going to — you don’t get rid of the imprint of that history so easily. So we can still see the colonial era in land ownership patterns in Barbados. There was a landless proletariat in Barbados. Black people were deliberately kept landless. We can see the imprint of those years in the health profile of the current population. Barbados probably has the highest incident in the world of diabetes and hypertension, the product of centuries of living in a high-pressure environment on those slave plantations, which were really the world’s first concentration camps, and being subjected to an extremely deficient diet.
And then, you know, you look at the whole — the world’s international economic and political order. The reality is that formerly enslaved and colonized nations and people, like those of the Caribbean, including Barbados, have been inserted in that international order in a structurally subordinate and exploitative manner. So, many, many, many, many remnants of those centuries of enslavement, of colonial exploitation and domination that we are still trying to undo.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And this whole issue of reparations, what are the prospects or possibilities of continuing to press and win some form of reparations, especially in light of the fact that the British Empire, having been one of the biggest in world history, with so many still commonwealth or former colonies of England, the precedent that would set for the United Kingdom?
DAVID COMISSIONG: Yeah. Well, you know, when you have a cause that is just and righteous and rooted in law, you are confident of success. But it means that you must pursue it with passion and determination. You know, Barbados is part of the Caribbean Community. That’s an organization of 15 member states, full member states, and five associate members. The associate members are still British colonies. The member states, 14 of them, are independent nations — Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Haiti, etc. And the Caribbean Community really laid the foundation for its reparations claim way back in 2001 at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism. We consciously embraced that world conference as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put the issue of reparations, the issue of the transatlantic slave trade and chattel slavery being crimes against humanity and the issue of reparations on the international agenda. So said, so done.
Twelve years later, in 2013, our heads of government came together in a CARICOM summit and agreed that we were going to launch a reparations claim for Native genocide or the genocide against the Indigenous, the original owners of the Caribbean, and for African enslavement. We were going to launch that claim not only against Britain but against all of the European powers that were implicated in Native genocide and African enslavement. So we established a CARICOM Reparations Commission. That commission is guided by a Prime Ministerial Sub-committee on Reparations headed by the prime minister of Barbados.
And we have made our claim to the national governments of Western Europe, including Britain. Needless to say, our initial approach to them has not elicited a positive response. We have said to them, “Look, this is the history. This is what you did. You systematically underdeveloped us. You siphoned off our resources for generations. The fruits of the labor of our ancestors, you siphoned off to the capitals of Europe. And we are saying to you, you can’t simply walk away with your ill-gotten gains. You must come back to the scene of the crime, sit down with us, and let us discuss how you can help to repair some of the damage that you have done.” So, a very —
AMY GOODMAN: So, Ambassador —
DAVID COMISSIONG: — rational and reasonable approach. They have not responded positively thus far. We know we are going to have — it is going to be a struggle. Our idea is that we must develop an international mass movement, an international cause célèbre similar in size and scope and power to the anti-apartheid movement of the 1970s and 1980s. So, it’s a work in progress.
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador, this is Prince Charles speaking at the official ceremony, where you were, in Bridgetown, Barbados, Monday night.
PRINCE CHARLES: The creation of this republic offers a new beginning, but it also marks a point on a continuum, a milestone on the long road you have not only traveled but you have built, from the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history.
AMY GOODMAN: I know, Ambassador, that it was even controversial for him to be a part of the ceremony. I think there was an organized protest; they weren’t permitted on the grounds of whatever COVID safety. But your final message to Prince Charles, to the queen and to organizing around the world at this point?
DAVID COMISSIONG: Yeah, well, you know, I think Prince Charles referring to the history of enslavement was very appropriate. Barbados, after all, was the world’s first slave society. I mean, other societies have had slavery as a feature, but Barbados was the first society in human history that was built totally on the basis of slavery — its economy, its social system, its ideology. And so that’s our history. The royal family was deeply involved in the British slave trade and the system of African enslavement. So, you know, that’s the history. So it is good that he had the moral sense to make that reference. I would have wished he would have gone on to encourage the British government to engage in that reparations discussion with Barbados and the other nations of the Caribbean Community.
He also needs to pay some attention to the role of the royal family and whether the royal family will not have to come to the table, as well. You know, we have begun our reparations campaign by focusing on the national governments, the national governments being the institutional links between the present and the past. But over the years we have also expanded it to private institutions: banks, insurance companies, universities. I mean, the University of Glasgow has admitted its liability and has entered into a reparations program with our University of the West Indies.
And we are going to look at families, as well. The National Reparations Task Force in Barbados has just decided that we are going to be doing a special study of the Drax family. The Drax Hall plantation was established in Barbados in the 1630s. It’s still in existence today. The Drax family, the current representative of that family, is Sir Richard Drax, is a member of the British House of Commons and is actually the richest member of the British Parliament. And that wealth came from that slave plantation in Barbados, and then they took it to Jamaica, and, of course, most of the wealth was siphoned [inaudible] —
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we clearly have to come back to this issue, and we hope to have you on again soon. There is so much to talk about. You mentioned Glasgow. We just covered the U.N. climate summit, and there, your prime minister, Mia Mottley, gave a remarkable address on the climate catastrophe, which we played in full, that people can find at democracynow.org. David Comissiong is Barbados ambassador to the Caribbean Community, or CARICOM, and the Association of Caribbean States.
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