Slavery and the monarchy: time for a royal reckoning?

King Charles has given his backing to project investigating the links between the British monarchy and the transatlantic slave trade

King Charles III
Slavery is an issue that ‘His Majesty takes profoundly seriously’ said the Palace
(Image credit: Tim Whitby/Getty Images)

The list of British institutions reconsidering their uncomfortable relationship with slavery has just acquired an illustrious new member, said The Times.

Buckingham Palace announced last week that King Charles has given his backing to a new research project investigating the links between the British monarchy and the transatlantic slave trade. The Royal Archives would be opened up to assist with the project, the Palace said, adding: “This is an issue that His Majesty takes profoundly seriously.”

‘About time royals acknowledged role’

The statement followed The Guardian’s report that, in 1689, William III was given £1,000 of shares in the slave-trading Royal African Company, awarded to him by the notorious slave-owner Edward Colston. It’s about time, said Brooke Newman in The Guardian. There’s already an extensive paper trail linking the Crown to “the enslavement and death of millions of Africans” – starting 450 years ago, when Elizabeth I sponsored slaving expeditions to west Africa. It’s time for the British monarchy to finally acknowledge its role in “the greatest crime against humanity”.

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The links are indeed extensive, said Harry de Quetteville in The Daily Telegraph. The Royal African Company was, as its name suggests, part-founded by the Stuart royal family. In 1713, Queen Anne secured the Asiento de negros – an exclusive contract to supply slaves to Spain’s American colonies, which she sold to the South Sea Company. George III believed that slavery was, as he put it, “an inhuman custom”, but during his reign he supported it. His son William IV was a passionate defender of the slave trade.

‘Nothing to do with Charles’

Sorry, but “what has all this got to do with King Charles”,asked Lawrence Goldman in the Daily Mail. It’s true that slave traders flourished under the Stuarts and Hanoverians. But Charles III “has vanishingly small direct connections” to these figures from centuries ago, and it would be absurd to hold him in any way responsible.

In this period, slavery was “near-universal”, said Daniel Hannan in The Sunday Telegraph. What was unusual about Britain was that “it went on to pour its blood and treasure into eradicating the foul business”, spending 1.8% of its GDP between 1808 and 1867 on “the most expensive moral foreign policy in human history”. Sadly, that detail doesn’t fit with the fashionable historical narrative, which tries “to convince us that Britain became rich through exploitation” – not, as was actually the case, through free markets and the rule of law. This is not real history: it’s “a morality tale in which the villains are white British men”.

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