LONDON — The last time a string of distant dominions cast off Queen Elizabeth II was in the 1970s when the Black power movement emboldened three Caribbean countries to declare themselves republics. Now, in the heat of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Caribbean may once again turn against the queen.
On Wednesday, Barbados announced it would remove Elizabeth as its head of state and become a republic by November 2021. Jamaica is also considering whether to abandon the monarch, a step supported by successive prime ministers. St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines have both flirted with the idea, although in St. Vincent, voters defeated a proposal to become a republic in 2009.
This time might be different, experts on the Caribbean said. The mass protests against the killing of Black people by the police in the United States have inflamed a long-simmering debate in Britain and its former colonies about the legacy of the empire. That debate inevitably draws in the 94-year-old monarch, whose realm, while dwindling, still spans 16 countries from Canada to New Zealand in the Commonwealth.
“Barbados could be a tipping point,” said Richard Drayton, a professor of imperial history at King’s College London. “If Barbados is successful in taking this step, it would inspire other countries to do the same.”
All this is taking place against the backdrop of a possible no-deal Brexit that threatens to splinter the United Kingdom and a gnawing sense that a post-Brexit Britain will play a shrinking role in world affairs.
Guyana led the earlier republican movement in the Caribbean, cutting ties to the queen in 1970. Trinidad and Tobago followed in 1976, and Dominica in 1978. The last country anywhere to remove Elizabeth as head of state was Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, in 1992.
“As in the 1970s in the Caribbean, there’s a new anger among younger people, not just about the predicament of people who happen to be Black in the United States but about the experience of people who are Black in their own societies,” said Drayton, who spent his childhood in Barbados.
The prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, explicitly couched the move to abandon the queen as head of state in terms of throwing off colonial shackles. In a speech prepared for the governor-general of Barbados, Sandra Mason, Mottley wrote: “The time has come to fully leave our colonial past behind. Barbadians want a Barbadian head of state.”
She invoked a line from Errol Walton Barrow, the first prime minister of Barbados after it declared independence from Britain in 1966, who warned his fellow citizens “against loitering on colonial premises.”
After Barbados declared its independence, it still retained Elizabeth as its head of state, as well as a governor-general who serves as her representative in the country. Barbados will remain a member of the Commonwealth — a loose organization of former colonies of the British Empire — with a Westminster-style parliament and prime minister.
Mottley, analysts note, has called for Britain and other former colonial powers to pay reparations to Barbados and its neighbors for the slave trade. Between 1627 and 1807, British ships carried thousands of Africans to the island, where they were put to work on vast sugar plantations in brutal conditions.
“I do not know how we can go further unless there is a reckoning first and foremost that places an apology and an acknowledgment that wrong was done, and that successive centuries saw the destruction of wealth and the destruction of people,” Mottley said in July at a conference of Caribbean nations.
The reparations campaign has bogged down over legal issues. But as demonstrators in Britain have torn down statues of slave traders, British companies that profited from slavery, including Lloyd’s of London, have pledged to make amends by recruiting more Black, Asian and other minority employees.
While the Black Lives Matter protests may be an accelerant, analysts point out that many of these issues have been building up for half a century, since the Caribbean nations declared their independence from Britain.
“Such moves have been long in discussion in the Caribbean,” said Matthew Smith, a professor of history at University College London who directs the Center for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership.
For all the historical symbolism, reaction to the announcement in Barbados was muted. On social media, people noted that the country already had its own queen — pop star Rihanna, who is from Barbados.
“The older generation might have something to say about it, but the younger generation doesn’t really care that much,” Camille Scott, 30, a hotel employee in the capital, Bridgetown. “I guess there’s nothing wrong with it.”