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Charles is now king, but his realm looks set to shrink

“If we do have Commonwealth nations becoming republics, then that obviously further takes away some of the old imperial-era ties.”
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LONDON — The prime minister of the Bahamas had just signed the condolence book for Queen Elizabeth II when he made an announcement that would not have been music to the dead monarch’s ears.

Prime Minister Phillip Davis said he intended to hold a referendum to remove Elizabeth’s son and successor, King Charles III, as the official head of state in the Bahamas and turn his country, which has been independent since 1973, into a republic.

“The only challenge with us moving to a republic is that I can’t, as much as I would wish to do it, I cannot do it without your consent,” Davis told reporters Tuesday. “I will have to have a referendum and the Bahamian people will have to say to me, ‘Yes.’”

Davis' decision and the Bahamas itself are a product of the empire, which at its height saw Britain's monarch rule over a quarter of the world’s population. It was the largest empire in history with colonies and protectorates around the world that included what’s now Australia, Canada, South Africa, Pakistan and India.

Elizabeth, who died last week at age 96, devoted much of her reign to preserving and reinforcing ties with what’s called the Commonwealth, a voluntary association of 56 independent states, most of them former British colonies. As the monarch, she was the symbolic head of the association.

She was also the queen of 14 of those countries, including the Bahamas.

Anwar Hussein Collection
Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip in Nassau, Bahamas, on Oct. 1, 1977.Getty Images / Getty Images

“Whatever you think of the Commonwealth — colonial-era relic or modernizing institution — I don’t think the queen’s commitment to the organization can really be doubted,” Christopher Prior, an associate professor of colonial and post-colonial history at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, said in an email to NBC News.

But in recent years, former British colonies, especially countries where Black residents were enslaved by their colonial masters, have been demanding accountability from the royal family, which became fabulously rich on the backs of slaves.

So while there have been tributes to the queen throughout the Commonwealth — on Thursday hundreds gathered in an Anglican cathedral in the Ugandan capital of Kampala for a service honoring Elizabeth — there has been simmering discontent, too.

People calling for slavery reparations, protest outside the entrance of the British High Commission
People calling for slavery reparations protest outside the entrance of the British High Commission during the visit of the then-Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Kingston, Jamaica. Ricardo Makyn / AFP via Getty Images file

In March, the now-heir to the throne, Prince William, his wife, Kate, Prince Edward and the Countess of Wessex were met with demonstrations and demands for reparations for slavery while on a royal tour of the Caribbean that took them to former colonies Jamaica, Belize as well as the Bahamas. 

Many residents were especially incensed that their countries were helping pay for the royal tour.

“Why are we footing the bill for the benefit of a regime whose rise to ‘greatness’ was fueled by the extinction, enslavement, colonization (sic), and degradation of the people of this land?” the Bahamas National Reparations Committee declared in an open letter. “Why are we being made to pay again?”

In Australia, a Commonwealth country where many revered Queen Elizabeth, newly elected Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s government has already raised the possibility of holding a referendum to jettison Charles and the monarchy and become a republic.

The same goes for Canada, where the support for having a foreigner as head of state has also been eroding.

“I prefer someone from Windsor than the House of Windsor” to be head of state, Flavio Volpe, president of Canada’s Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, told Reuters after Elizabeth died.

Windsor is a Canadian city just across the Detroit River from Motown.

The sun was already setting on the British Empire when Elizabeth took the throne in 1953. And during her 70-year reign, 17 countries discarded the monarchy and became republics — the latest being the tiny island nation of Barbados last year, although it continues to be part of the Commonwealth.

With Charles now king, that trend is likely to continue, said Prior. And there’s not much he can do about it.

“I don’t think that these conversations taking place across the world are conversations that the new king would have a great deal of control over,” Prior said. “If we do have Commonwealth nations becoming republics, then that obviously further takes away some of the old imperial-era ties that originally bound the Commonwealth together in the first place.”

After World War II, with many countries winning independence from Britain, the modern Commonwealth was born. 

A view of a Statue of Sir Winston Churchill at London's
Commonwealth flags fly next to a statue of Winston Churchill at London's Parliament Square in London. Dinendra Haria / SOPA / LightRocket via Getty Images file

“The Commonwealth has accommodated republics within its ranks from the very earliest stages — India became a republic way back in 1950, yet remained within the Commonwealth — so this is something that the organization is very used to,” Prior said.

It also attracted some countries that had never been British colonies, like Mozambique, which joined in 1995, and Rwanda, which joined in 2009.

Those were the exceptions, not the rule, Prior said. But it’s too soon to write the obituary for the Commonwealth.

“The death of the Commonwealth has been proclaimed at various points over the years,” Prior said.

The British had hoped it would “enable it to maintain its position in a world increasingly dominated by the USA and the then-Soviet Union,” Prior said.

That didn’t happen. Still, Prior said, “the Commonwealth has not been without purpose or use.”

“Just because it is a relatively weak organization in terms of its formal place in the world, and in terms of the impact that it has on the lives of its members, it hasn’t stopped being a useful forum for conversation,” he said.

“I would expect that it will continue to function into the future. I don’t think we’ll see a sudden death of the Commonwealth — if there is any diminishing of it, I would expect it would continue to be gradual,” Prior added.

CORRECTION (Sept. 16, 2022, 8:45 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the number of countries in the Commonwealth. It consists of 56 independent nations, not 54.

CORRECTION (Dec. 9, 2022, 4:52 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when Barbados became a republic. It was in 2021, not earlier this year.