The news this week that King Charles is supporting an inquiry into the royal family’s historic links with slavery, to be undertaken at the University of Manchester, is hardly surprising. Because of its prominence, it was only a matter of time before the monarchy became a target in the so-called ‘culture wars’ and the King is right to have pre-empted any attacks by approving such research publicly.
It is unsurprising for another reason, as well: because historians have always known about these links, though they are buried deep in national history. In all probability, the inquiry will merely ‘uncover’ what is already known. The real question, therefore, is what should then be done? My answer is simple: nothing. We should face the future, not the past.
The history goes back to the Restoration in 1660 of King Charles II, after the Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century. To raise personal funds 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 to exploit, West Africa. Though the Company traded in commodities and gold, it also traded in slaves. These were brought to the Company’s ships at the coast by local tribes who purchased fellow Africans captured in the interior and sold them on to the Company’s agents.
The Company then transported them across the Atlantic, in appalling conditions, to the new North and South American colonies. It is estimated that the Company transported approximately 220,000 slaves, of whom approximately 45,000 died during the so-called ‘Middle Passage’. By the early years of the eighteenth century the Company was in decline. Slave-trading ceased entirely in 1731 and the Royal African Company was wound up in 1750.
It is a terrible story. Today we rightly abhor the very idea of slavery, which is brutal and inhuman. Atlantic slavery was a stain upon civilization and human progress. But even if it seems so to us now, to many people from the past this was not the case. Two centuries ago, more people across the world worked as slaves or forced labourers than as free men and women. Other European nations shipped slaves and founded colonies based upon their labour, too, including France, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.
The organisation of anti-slavery movements in Britain and America did not begin until the late 1700s, more than a century after the Royal African Company was founded. Though Britain took the lead in the campaign against slavery, the slave trade in the British empire was not abolished until 1807 and slavery itself did not end in British colonies overseas until 1833. These facts are not offered as an excuse for anyone or anything. But they do provide the necessary context for assessing the supposed guilt of royalty in the past.
What has all this to do with our present King? Not much. Charles II and James II were the grandsons of James VI, King of Scotland. He became James I of England in 1603. Their royal line – the Stuarts – effectively ended in 1688 when James II was kicked out in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. If anyone is liable to pay reparations for slavery, it will be the descendants of Bonnie Prince Charlie, the grandson of James II and the great-nephew of Charles II, who tried and failed to win back the throne in 1745. Or we might turn to George I and George II under whom the Royal African Company continued trading, in a reduced way, in the eighteenth century. They were both Electors of Hanover, but Hanover ceased to have any place in the British state and monarchy when Victoria became Queen in 1837. Under the Salic Law, no woman could reign in Hanover, as also in some other European states. Try asking for compensation today from their German descendants living somewhere in the middle of Europe.
All of this will seem utterly obscure and irrelevant – and that is exactly the point: it is. The Royal African Company was a personal venture by Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs in another age. The House of Windsor now reigns in Britain. King Charles III has vanishingly small direct connections to these figures from the past.
Nor can the British people be held responsible today for the actions of monarchs and their advisors more than three hundred years ago. Most of us know little or nothing about our own ancestors from the seventeenth century; in the case of many millions of Britons today, those ancestors were not even living in Britain. Why should the descendants of agricultural field hands and factory workers, or of people who had lived abroad, be told to pay reparations for things over which they had no control and for which they were not responsible?
However, the King can take comfort from the actions and opinions of the Victorian monarchy, much closer to us in time and spirit, in an age when Britain, through its diplomacy and deployment of the Royal Navy, led the worldwide fight against slave trading and slavery.
Queen Victoria read the great anti-slavery novels of the American writer Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example. When Mrs Stowe sent her a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852, she paid tribute to Victoria’s ‘good & noble heart – a heart ever ready to feel for the suffering of the oppressed and the lowly’. The character of Uncle Tom himself was based on a runaway slave from the American South called Josiah Henson. Victoria met Henson at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in 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 their family home, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, will be impressed by the evidence of their interest in, and respect for, the peoples of the empire. As for Victoria’s descendant, the late Queen Elizabeth II, no one could ever doubt the sincerity of her commitment to the peoples of the Commonwealth, an institution to which she dedicated her life.
It is entirely right and necessary to teach the history of Atlantic slavery and to raise awareness of its nature and impact – though in teaching it, as I have done throughout my career, we must try to understand the world as it was centuries ago. History cannot be studied through our eyes and values.
Yet reparations are a different matter. It might be right to demand restitution and compensation for illegal acts committed now or within living memory. Who could blame the Ukrainians for demanding Russian reparations to help them repair their war-racked country? But history shows that reparations often have the opposite effect to that intended. Germany demanded monetary reparations from the French after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, stoking tensions between the two nations that led to the First World War. After that conflagration, France demanded reparations from the Germans, thereby assisting the rise of the Nazis. Accusations of historic guilt and claims for compensation do not build amity, understanding, and tolerance.
There is a better way, and it is to King Charles’s credit that he has been pursuing it all his life: to build for the present and future through organisations like the Prince’s Trust whose many projects for the young and underprivileged have helped transform lives in Britain and other nations. Leave history to the historians. We will be judged not by our actions in regard to a past we cannot change, but by our legacies to the future.
Charles has spent his life working for the environment, for better architecture, for the arts, and for international co-operation. These are the things on which we should focus. Millions of people around the world still work as slaves and forced labourers, even here in Britain. It would be far more appropriate to campaign strongly for the abolition of slavery now, than to argue over 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 between 2004 and 2014. He taught the history of slavery for three decades in the Oxford History Faculty.
An earlier version of this article was published in the Daily Mail on 9th April 2023. It is published with the Daily Mail’s permission, courtesy of DMG Media Licensing.