The news this week that King Charles is backing an inquiry into the royal family’s historical ties to slavery, currently underway at the University of Manchester, is hardly surprising.
Due to its prominent position, it was only a matter of time before the monarchy became a target in the so-called ‘culture wars’. The king is right that he prevented any attacks and openly approved this investigation.
Historians like me have always known about these ties, although they are buried deep in the national past. In all likelihood, the research will only ‘discover’ what is already understood. So the real question is what to do next?
My answer is simple: nothing. We must face the future, not the past.
This ugly saga dates back to the 1660 Restoration of King Charles II after the Civil War. To personally raise money for an indebted monarchy, he and his brother, James, Duke of York (later King James II), founded the Royal African Company to trade with and exploit West Africa.
LAWRENCE GOLDMAN: The news this week that King Charles is backing an inquiry into the royal family’s historical ties to slavery, currently underway at the University of Manchester, is hardly surprising
Although the Company traded in raw materials and gold, it also traded in slaves. Local tribes captured Africans in the interior and brought them to the coast to be sold to the Company’s agents and took to the ships with frogs.
They were transported across the Atlantic in appalling conditions to the new North and South American colonies.
It is estimated that about 220,000 slaves were transported by the Company, some 45,000 of whom died during the ‘Middle Passage’ – the journey from Africa to the Americas, which may have taken as long as 80 days.
By the early 18th century, the Royal African Company was in decline. It completely ceased the slave trade in 1731 and the company was liquidated in 1750.
It’s a horrible story. Today, we rightly abhor the idea of slavery, which was cruel, inhumane, and murderous. Trade was a stain on civilization and human progress.
But if it seems so to us now, for people of the past this was not the case. Two centuries ago, more people worldwide worked as slaves or forced laborers than as free men and women.
Other European nations shipped slaves and also founded colonies based on their labor: France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands.
The organization of anti-slavery movements in Britain and America did not begin until the late 18th century, more than a century after the Royal African Company was founded.
Edward Colston statue was thrown into Bristol harbor by anti-racism protesters (pictured as it happened in June 2020)
Although Britain took the lead in the anti-slavery campaign, trade in the British Empire was not abolished until 1807, and slavery itself did not end in British overseas colonies until 1833.
These facts are not offered as an excuse for anyone or anything. But they do provide the necessary context for assessing the alleged debt of royalties in the past.
What does all this have to do with King Charles today? Not much.
The Royal African Company prospered under Charles II and James II, both Stuarts whose royal line effectively ended in 1688 when James II was kicked out in the ‘Glorious Revolution’.
That means if anyone is liable for paying reparations for slavery, it will be the descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie, James II’s grandson and Charles II’s second cousin, who tried to reclaim the throne in 1745 but failed to do so. succeeded.
Or we can turn to George I and George II, under whom the Royal African Company continued to trade to a limited extent in the 18th century.
They were both Electors of Hanover – ducal figures in northwestern Germany who had the right to vote in the Holy Roman Empire.
Hanover no longer had a place in the British state and monarchy when Victoria became queen in 1837. Try to claim compensation today from their German descendants who live somewhere in the middle of Europe.
All of this will seem completely obscure and irrelevant – which is precisely the point. The Royal African Company was a personal venture of Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs of another era.
Professor Lawrence Goldman is an Emeritus Fellow of St Peter’s College, Oxford and has taught slavery history at the Oxford History Faculty for three decades
The House of Windsor now rules Britain. King Charles has vanishingly small direct connections to these past figures.
Nor can the British people be held responsible for the actions of monarchs and their advisers more than 300 years ago.
Most of us know little or nothing about our 17th century ancestors; in the case of many millions of Britons today, those ancestors didn’t even live in Britain.
Why should the descendants of agricultural and factory workers, or of people living abroad, be ordered to pay reparations for things beyond their control and responsibility?
But the king can take solace in the actions and opinions of the Victorian monarchy, much closer to us in time and spirit.
This was at a time when Britain, through its diplomacy and Royal Navy efforts, was leading the global fight against the slave trade and slavery.
Queen Victoria read the great anti-slavery novels by the American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe. When Mrs. Stowe sent her a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, she paid tribute to Victoria’s “good and noble heart—a heart always ready to feel for the sufferings of the downtrodden and the humble.”
The character of Uncle Tom himself was based on Josiah Henson, a runaway slave from the American South.
Queen Victoria read the great anti-slavery novels by the American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe
Queen Victoria met Henson at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park in 1851, and invited him and his wife to Windsor in 1876.
Meanwhile, her husband, Prince Albert, was a patron of the African Civilization Society.
Anyone visiting the home of the royal family, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight will be impressed by the evidence of their interest in – and respect for – the peoples of the realm.
As for Victoria’s descendant, the late Queen Elizabeth II, no one could have ever doubted the sincerity of her devotion to the peoples of the Commonwealth – an organization to which she devoted her life.
Of course it is perfectly right and necessary to teach the history of Atlantean slavery and raise awareness of its nature and impact – although in teaching it, as I have throughout my career, we should try to understand the world as it was for centuries. past.
History cannot be studied through our eyes and modern values. But reparations are an entirely different matter.
It may be appropriate to seek damages for illegal acts committed now or in living memory.
Who can blame the Ukrainians for demanding Russian reparations to help them restore their war-ravaged country today?
Or tomorrow if China’s Uyghur population—currently imprisoned by the hundreds of thousands and subjected to torture and forced sterilization—put pressure on the Chinese Communist Party for restitution?
But history shows that reparations often have the opposite effect than intended.
King Charles III arrives on a boat for a journey in the port of Hamburg, Germany, Friday, March 31, 2023
Germany demanded monetary reparations from the French after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, sparking tensions between the two nations that led to World War I.
After that conflagration, France demanded reparations from the Germans, accelerating the rise of the Nazis and World War II.
Accusations of historical guilt and claims for damages do not build friendship, understanding or tolerance.
There is a better way, and to King Charles’s credit for his lifelong pursuit: building the present and the future through organizations such as the Prince’s Trust, whose many projects for young people and the underprivileged have helped transform lives in Britain and other countries.
Leave the history to the historians. People today should not be judged by our actions in relation to a past we cannot change, but by our legacies for the future.
King Charles has worked all his life for the environment, for better architecture, for the arts and for international cooperation. These are the things we should focus on.
Millions of people around the world are still working as slaves and forced laborers – even here in Britain. It would be far more appropriate to campaign vigorously for the end of slavery now than to advocate compensation for slavery then.
- Professor Lawrence Goldman is an Emeritus Fellow of St Peter’s College, Oxford. He was the editor of the Dictionary Of National Biography from 2004 to 2014. He taught slavery history at the Oxford History Faculty for three decades.