Barbados’s separation from the British monarchy is reviving calls for reparations

Transition of power.
Transition of power.
Image: Jonathan Brady/Pool via Reuters
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The island of Barbados officially severed ties with the British monarchy today (Nov. 30), removing Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state nearly 400 years after English settlers first arrived to the Caribbean nation.

The UK’s Prince Charles and pop star Rihanna, a Barbados citizen, attended a ceremony to celebrate the country’s transition to a republic and witness the swearing in of Sandra Mason, who will serve as Barbados’s first president. In a speech, the prince also acknowledged England’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, referring to the “appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history.”

Britain exploited the labor of hundreds of thousands of African slaves in Barbados during the 17th and 18th centuries as it profited from the tobacco, cotton, and sugar trades. Some Barbadian activists don’t believe the monarchy’s acknowledgment of this history goes far enough, and renewed calls this week for the royal family to pay reparations to those affected by the legacy of slavery.

How Britain profited from the slave trade in Barbados

England forcibly sent an estimated 3.1 million Africans to British-owned colonies in the Caribbean between 1662 and 1807 to work on plantations. During this time Britain enslaved about 390,000 people in Barbados alone and transformed the island into one of kingdom’s most profitable colonies, primarily through sugar production. The value of sugar exports from Barbados to the UK increased by 44% from 1687 to 1783, and the punishing work took a toll on the lives of many enslaved people who farmed these crops. At the Church of England’s Codrington Plantations in Barbados, it’s estimated four out of every 10 slaves died within three years of being brought there.

When slavery ended in the Caribbean, the British government paid about £20 million, representing 40% of its national budget, to compensate slave owners. In recent years descendants of Barbadian slaves have started pushing for compensation of their own. Such efforts have been championed by leaders such as professor Hilary Beckles, a historian and native of Barbados who since 2013 has been chair of the commission on reparations for Caricom, the Caribbean states’ regional body.

But some British citizens with ties to the slave trade in Barbados have thus far resisted the idea of reparations. For example, the conservative member of parliament Richard Drax, who continues to control a sugar plantation valued at $12.5 million that once worked more than 300 slaves at a time, only went as far to say his family’s history in the slave trade was “deeply, deeply regrettable” after protesters called for reparations over the summer.

Activists call for reparations from UK royals

Prince Charles’s visit renewed calls for reparations, with planned demonstrations by the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration and Barbados Concerned Citizens this week.

Co-organizer Marcia Weekes questioned why the prince was visiting Barbados as the country tries to pull away from colonial power. “What role are they playing here? Why haven’t we heard any talk about reparations despite the [prime minister] creating a whole arm in the government to deal with that issue?” she asked.

“Our movement would also like the royal family to pay a reparation,” activist David Denny, the general secretary for the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration, told Reuters. Thus far the royal family has not responded to these recent calls for reparations, but they’re growing louder in former British colonies. Over the summer Jamaican government officials announced they would seek billions of dollars of reparations from the UK over slavery.