Two developments over the past week in Barbados have prompted this article.
The first was the news that on the eve of the 51st Anniversary independence celebrations, Barbados was greeted to images of a defaced statue of British naval captain and defender of slavery and the empire, Horatio Nelson, accompanied with a political message suggestive of impatience with the failure of the country’s successive leaderships to once and for all resolve the question of not only removing the offending statue, but of truly shape the nation in the image of the majority African population.
The second development was the “muted” and “out-of-the blue” announcement by the Minister of Education in Barbados, Ronald Jones, that he supports the idea of Barbados moving to Republican status.
I use the term “muted” to describe the announcement given that the nature of the announcement is not matched by the seriousness of the issue being announced. This indeed has been a major flaw in how the Stuart administration has treated the issue of republicanism. The public would not be at fault if it did not take the government seriously on its republican claims, since an issue as weighty and historically significant as moving a formerly colonised state to republican status should not be subject to the mood swings of politicians.
Thus, after prime minister Stuart’s one-off announcement about two years ago, there has been no follow-up public discussion, no national mobilisation campaign, no public debate about the new constitution, or any of the related heightened attempts at public education and consciousness building associated with such a venture. Indeed, these “half-hearted” references to republicanism by Barbados’ elected leadership have done more damage to the public consciousness than no announcement at all.
Nevertheless, despite their apparent disconnectedness, the singular factor joining the Nelson protest and its ensuing divergent reactions with the on again/off again republicanism political promise, is the indication of nation in limbo. It suggests a struggle over the yet unresolved question of the identity of the new nation.
In contrast to the hateful hysteria which has emanated from some quarters, not unlike Donald Trump’s defence of the statues of pro-slavery advocates who wished to see the continuation of blacks in bondage perpetually, my view is that the Nelson and Republican debates are inevitable consequences of the unfinished business of independence and nationhood.
The problem with our Caribbean independence experience is that we accepted a formal shift in constitutional status, in exchange for our silence on questions of economic distribution, cultural hegemony and social exclusion. For fifty years we have remained nations in limbo.
We are now at the cusp of the second independence revolution where some critical questions of cultural, economic and social re-organisation are now being addressed.
The politicians can either assist or find a spot on the trash heap of history.
By Dr. Tennyson S. D. Joseph