BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (AFP) — The Caribbean island nation of Barbados last night severed centuries-old ties to the British monarchy, ditching The Queen as head of state and declaring itself the world's newest republic.
The Royal Standard flag that represents The Queen was scheduled to be lowered in the capital Bridgetown and — at midnight (0400 GMT) — the current governor general, Dame Sandra Mason, inaugurated as the first president.
Prince Charles, heir apparent to the British throne, attended the 'Pride of Nationhood' ceremony, which included military parades, a mounted guard of honour, gun salutes, dances and fireworks.
The new era for Barbados has fuelled debate among the population of 285,000 over colonialism and Britain's centuries of influence, including more than 200 years of slavery until 1834.
Prince Charles' visit was clouded at the last minute by another race row over alleged comments about his grandson.
Charles' younger son, Prince Harry, and his wife Meghan — who has a black mother and a white father — have said an unnamed royal asked how dark their unborn first child's skin would be.
After a new book reportedly claimed that Charles was responsible, his spokesman said that, “This is fiction and not worth further comment.”
Barbados, famous for its idyllic beaches, love of cricket, and as the birthplace of singer Rihanna — who was to attend the evening's fanfare — gained independence from Britain in 1966.
In October, it elected Mason to become its first president, one year after Prime Minister Mia Mottley declared the country would “fully” leave behind its colonial ties.
“I remember in the old days we would be really excited about The Queen and Prince Charles and Princess Diana and royal weddings,” Anastasia Smith, a 61-year-old nurse, told AFP.
“But I don't know if we ever quite saw them as our royal family. Now, everybody is talking about a republic. I'm not sure that anything about my life is going to change. But I think we're doing the right thing and it's a proud moment for Barbados.”
British officials said Charles would use his speech in Barbados to stress continuing ties between the two countries, including through the Commonwealth group of nations.
But local criticism has focused on Mottley inviting Charles to be the guest of honour, and to award him the Order of Freedom of Barbados, the highest national honour.
For young activists such as Firhaana Bulbulia, founder of the Barbados Muslim Association, British colonialism and slavery lie behind the island's modern inequalities.
“The wealth gap, the ability to own land, and even access to loans from banks all have a lot to do with structures built out of being ruled by Britain,” Bulbulia, 26, said.
Some Barbadians argue there are more pressing national issues than replacing The Queen, including economic turmoil caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic that has exposed over-reliance on tourism — which, ironically, is dependent on British visitors.
“I know it is something that we were going towards for a very long time, but I think it came at a time which is not necessarily the best time, considering our economic situation and the COVID situation,” said 27-year-old office manager Nikita Stuart.
Eerie calm in usually bustling Bridgetown, paltry numbers at popular tourist spots, and a dead nightlife all point to a country struggling after years of relative prosperity.
Unemployment is at nearly 16 per cent, up from nine per cent in recent years, and the country has just eased a long-standing COVID-19 curfew, pushing it back from 9:00 pm to midnight.
For the occasion, however, it was suspended temporarily to allow Barbadians to enjoy the festivities, which included projections at various points across the country and large fireworks displays when the transition became official.
Buoyed by Black Lives Matter movements across the world, local activists last year successfully advocated the removal of a statue of British Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson that stood in National Heroes Square for two centuries.
The end of The Queen's reign is seen by some as a necessary step towards financial reparation to address the historic consequences of the use of slaves brought from Africa to work on sugar plantations.
For many Barbadians, replacing the British queen is just catching up with how the nation has felt for many years.
“The symbolism of being able to aspire to become head of state is so powerful,” Mottley said last week.
“Our president-elect, who will be sworn in on Monday night... is the person who will bring immense pride to every Barbadian boy and girl.”