It was the newspaper headline that stunned royal watchers and the British public at large, one month to the day before the spectacle that will be the coronation of King Charles III: “Buckingham Palace makes public statement after Guardian presents evidence of royals’ long history of involvement in transatlantic trade.”
The Guardian newspaper in London published a previously unseen document, which showed the “1689 transfer of £1,000 of shares in the slave-trading Royal African Company to King William III, from Edward Colston, the company’s deputy governor.” The document recording Colston’s share transfer to William III was found in the archives by Brooke Newman, a historian at Virginia Commonwealth University, on a research trip to London in January.
She is writing a book entitled The Queen’s Silence, on the monarchy’s involvement in slavery and its failure to acknowledge it or apologize for it. Newman has said that the Colston transfer to the king offered “clear evidence” of the monarchy’s central involvement in the slave trade, and the importance of slavery to the monarchy’s wealth.
Buckingham Palace responded by avoiding commenting on the document itself, but by saying that it supported the research project that Newman is undertaking. The project is co-sponsored by Historic Royal Palaces, an organization that manages several Royal Palaces.
In a statement, Buckingham Palace said, “This is an issue that His Majesty takes profoundly seriously. As His Majesty told the Commonwealth heads of government reception in Rwanda last year:
‘I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many, as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact.’ That process has continued with vigour and determination since His Majesty’s accession. Historic Royal Palaces is a partner in an independent research project, which began in October last year, that is exploring, among other issues, the links between the British monarchy and the transatlantic slave trade during the late 17th and 18th centuries. As part of that drive, the royal household is supporting this research through access to the royal collection and the royal archives.”
The Royal Family’s involvement in slavery is well-known and well-documented. Queen Elizabeth I gave a ship to slave trader John Hawkins in 1564 in exchange for a share of the profits from his journey, during which he captured African people and enslaved them.
King Charles II invested in the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa, which was a business that traded in slaves and gave it the seal of approval with a Royal charter. In 1672, the company was dissolved, and King Charles II moved this patronage to the Royal African Company, which became the biggest trader in moving enslaved people from Africa to the Americas in the history of the transatlantic slave trade.
However, no monarch has ever apologized for the Royal Family’s role in enslaving of thousands of people from the continent of Africa, although both King Charles III and Prince William have come close.
In Barbados in 2021, at the celebration of the island nation becoming a Republic, King Charles III, then-Prince Charles said, “The creation of this Republic offers a new beginning, but it also marks a point on a continuum – a milestone on the long road you have not only travelled, but which you have built. From the darkest days of our past, and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history, the people of this island forged their path with extraordinary fortitude. Emancipation, self-government and Independence were your way-points. Freedom, justice and self-determination have been your guides.”
‘SLAVERY WAS ABHORRENT’
The following year in Jamaica, Prince William said, “I strongly agree with my father, the Prince of Wales, who said in Barbados last year that the appalling atrocity of slavery forever stains our history. I want to express my profound sorrow. Slavery was abhorrent, and it should never have happened.”
For a lot of people, this doesn’t go far enough. The discovery of yet more evidence that the Royal Family has links to slavery has meant that the calls for an apology over their involvement in it are louder than ever before. As we enter a new reign, that of King Charles III, this would be a great time for the new monarch to really tackle this issue that was glossed over during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.
Although she didn’t reside over slavery or colonization during her reign, she stayed silent over the Royal Family’s role and never uttered any words of regret over the Crown’s actions.
There is no doubt that modern Britain was built on the backbone of slavery and colonialism, the effects of which are still being felt today through systemic racism and oppression of ethnic minority communities, and the failure of the British curriculum to acknowledge and adequately teach the negative consequences of slavery, colonialism and the British empire.
AN APOLOGY MAY NOT BE ENOUGH
The end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign means a lot of people in Britain and countries in the realms are looking at the new monarch to take this opportunity to move into a new era of accountability and to finally acknowledge and accept the role of the Crown in enslaving people and the negative effects of their imperial past.
One of King Charles III’s first actions after the Coronation should be to make this apology, unreservedly.
But an apology may not be enough – there have also been renewed calls for reparations. As slavery ended throughout the British Empire in the 19th century, the British government approved the payment of £20 million (CAD $34 million) (about £300 million, or $509 million, in today’s money) to slave owners to compensate for the commodities they lost – but nothing was paid to the African people that were enslaved.
Britain took out a loan to pay reparations to slave owners in 1833 and only paid off the debt in 2015. There needs to be real conversations about paying reparations to descendants of enslaved people from the Caribbean and Africa. It’s thought the reason so many governments are dragging their feet over this is that the amount of money owed to descendants of millions of Africans could be incalculable.
There is no doubt that moving into this new era of the monarchy has reopened the old wounds of slavery and colonialism.
The Royal Family practising accountability and being more open about their history could lead to a monarchy — that instead of continuing to tiptoe around the topic — could say: “We acknowledge and regret the role we played in slavery and colonialism and we are sorry.”
That kind of leadership from King Charles III could move the monarchy into a better era where it could have a more positive impact on the world.