Photo credit: “JMW Turner, Slave Ship, detail of ship” by Steven Zucker, Smarthistory co-founder is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Apparently, King Charles “supports” research into his royal family’s links to slavery. The story should be how it has taken until 2023 for the palace to open up the royal archives so that such a study could be done. But in the year 3 PGF (post-George Floyd), we live in a brave new world where anything anti-racist is possible. Rather than seeing this as some sort of positive step, I can’t even say the research is better than nothing. In the current atmosphere, it is nothing. Since the great anti-racist reset, we have seen companies like Lloyds of London (who have so much blood on their hands they can never be cleansed) apologize and commit to token reparations. Universities like Glasgow and Bristol are researching their obvious links to slavery. Most recently the Guardian offered a mea culpa (Latin for “through my fault”) because of their founding being bankrolled by cotton (i.e. slavery) money. Owning up to a company’s historical sins is the brand-aware step that does more for the image of the business than it does to atone for the racism that shaped the institution. So, get used to more stomach-churning campaigns.
If there was ever an institution in need of an anti-racist PR charm offensive it is the British royal family. The Meghan Markle debacle revealed just how insidious the racism inside the palace can be. Will and Kate’s Empire 2.0 tour of the Caribbean was so bad it threatened the Commonwealth. This was all followed by Lady Hussey revealing the day-to-day racist culture to the public by hectoring Ngozi Fulani to tell her where she was really from. It was also revealed that the saintly Queen had made the palace exempt from race equality laws. The royal family is desperate for some good publicity on the issue of race and have managed to generate positive headlines while taking the least possible action. Allowing a Ph.D. student into your archives is not a genuine attempt to understand your history and comes at absolutely no cost. Commissioning leading intellectuals to uncover the links would have at least been an effort to uncover the uncomfortable truth. But the reality is that even if King Charles resurrected Claudia Jones and Walter Rodney and gave them an unlimited budget it still would have been a token gesture.
The problem isn’t that we don’t know the royal family’s links to slavery. It was Queen Elizabeth I who launched Britain into the trade in 1563, commissioning John Hawkins on the slave ship Jesus. Charles II started the Royal African Company in 1660, which initially had a British monopoly over the trade and went on to become the company that enslaved the most Afrikans in the entire world. In a reminder of how inseparable colonialism and slavery are no Afrikans could have been enslaved in the so-called British Caribbean had the islands not been captured under the English crown. Slavery was the fuel that spurred Britain and the West’s industrial development (we already have a wealth of research on this, starting with Eric Williams), allowing Britain to build the largest empire in human history. It was this wealth that made this tiny nation, with terrible weather dominate the globe and steal the jewels that will be paraded at the King’s coronation.
The worst way to talk about slavery is to imagine it as a past sin you can research and apologize for. The legacies of slavery are still very much with us. The empire still exists, rebranded as the Commonwealth, with King Charles at the head. The violent means of control may have gone away but the economic exploitation remains a feature of what Malcolm called “benevolent colonialism.” It is no coincidence that the places where the descendants of those enslaved (the Caribbean) were shipped to and the places they were stolen from (Afrika) are extremely poor, whilst Britain (even post-Brexit) remains one of the richest countries in the world. Alongside the Commonwealth King Charles is the head of state of fifteen countries, including my family’s Jamaica more than sixty years after so-called independence. The royal family is now symbolic, but this almost exclusively White family representing the former British empire is one of the principal symbols of White supremacy, and they retain their popularity in large part because they are a living, breathing example of colonial nostalgia.
If we are serious about tackling racism then we have to accept that some institutions cannot be redeemed. The British royal family enriched itself by enslaving Afrikans, colonizing a quarter of the globe, and presenting a smiling face in the transition to the new age of empire. The only action King Charles can take if he is genuine about atoning for his family’s racism is to abolish the monarchy and turn over their vast wealth in reparations to the Black and Brown people whose labor and slaughter built it.