Ingrid Thompson, chief archivist, visits The National Archives with Britain's Prince Charles, in Bridgetown.

Reparations are ‘fueling the spirit of republicanism’ in Barbados, poet laureate says

Esther Phillips, Barbados' poet laureate, talked with The World's host Marco Werman about the island nation's efforts to grapple with its brutal colonial past.

The World

At midnight, the Caribbean island of Barbados removed Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state and installed Governor General Sandra Mason as its first president.

Several leaders, dignitaries and artists, including Prince Charles and Rihanna, attended the ceremony that began late Monday in a popular square where the statue of Britain's Lord Nelson was removed last year amid a worldwide push to erase symbols of oppression.

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Fireworks peppered the sky at midnight as Barbados officially became a republic, with screens set up across the island so people could watch the event that featured an orchestra with more than 100 steel pan players and numerous singers, poets and dancers.

It was also broadcast online, prompting a flurry of excited messages from Barbadians living in the US, Canada and beyond.

Barbados' first poet laureate, Esther Phillips, was there to take part in the ceremonious occasion. 

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"To me, now, to see my island, my country coming to a place where we are confident enough to say we now want to move on, to chart our own course. That means a lot to me."

Esther Phillips, poet laureate, Barbados

"To me, now, to see my island, my country coming to a place where we are confident enough to say we now want to move on to chart our own course. That means a lot to me," Phillips told The World's host Marco Werman. 

She joined The World to talk about this historical moment and about the Caribbean nation's efforts to grapple with its brutal colonial past. 

Marco Werman: What did you not know about because of that colonial education?
Esther Phillips: What I did not know about was that there was such a thing as West Indian history, that there was such a thing as African history. The erasure was so complete. I knew which king and which queen did what, when. But I had no idea of anything happening in the Caribbean. There was no concept that there was any such thing as the Caribbean, certainly not Barbadian history. And I think that that was a horrible thing, you know, to deny people of any sense of their origin, of their identity as a people. That's a horrible thing. So when you come to an understanding, then, that that was a deliberate act by the colonial people — and I should say as well by our own people — then, you come to a different kind of thinking and you want that to change because you want to establish and assert the right of who you are — authentically who you are. 
I mean, obviously, an independent Barbados is an important new chapter in history. How much of this move, though, is symbolic and what do you think the symbolism means? 
We have a younger generation now who is now globalized in thinking. So, you know, it is very difficult to hide the facts of history. It's very, very difficult to pretend that certain things did not happen.
One of the traumatic imprints Britain made on Barbados was essentially inventing the system of plantation slavery there. Did that history come into the discussion about whether to make an official break from the UK? 
One of the things I think that is fueling the spirit of republicanism right now is the whole question of reparations, something in which I am intensely interested and which I am most definitely pursuing in my poetry, as well as in various articles that I am writing about Richard Drax. His ancestors were one of the first owners of plantations in Barbados and Richard Drax himself now is reputedly sitting on millions of dollars gained from the slave trade. I'm saying to people like Richard Drax, "We need those resources. And there's nothing we are asking for that has not already been paid for in the blood, sweat, tears and labor of my foreparents. So, the descendants of those people who now lie under the ground, they have paid." And I think that this is where being a republic is impacting the consciousness of people. I think there's a clearer vision now of what that link with colonialism really, really meant in the past. We can now say, "Look, these are the horrors that occurred. This is what we want as compensation — not only want — but this is what we deserve to have as compensation."
Prince Charles is there for this important ceremony and milestone. I hear there are Barbadians, though, who are upset that he's there. Can you explain? 
It does seem to be a rather ambiguous thing, doesn't it? I mean, here we are, saying in one breath that we're turning our gaze away from the monarchy and then you bring a member of the monarchy right there in the case of all the people. But I think there's a way in which we're saying we do not want to be uncivil. We do not mind having an amiable relationship with Britain. We also have to be mindful that Britain is one of the largest of our tourist market sources, OK? So we don't want necessarily to be offensive.
And yet, as I've been reading recently, the monarchy in England ran a lot of the trade in humans in the 18th century, the Royal African Company. I mean, how present is that history in the minds of Barbadians today? 
Very much so, especially with reparations. Very much so. Although I will say to you that there are some Barbadians, particularly among the older folk, who really would prefer to just forget about that history. You know what I mean?
Are you saying those Barbadians actually wish this break with the monarchy is not happening?
I suspect that there are some of them. For now, I think as a matter of making that break, I, as a poet, I'm writing that poetry. I'm speaking, I'm doing what I have to do.

This interview was lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report. 

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