This Saturday, May 6, Britain’s new monarch, Charles III, will be crowned king in Westminster Abbey in London. Amid the expected pomp and pageantry, little attention will be given to another piece of British royal history: a document which historian Brooke Norman discovered in the National Archives showing that, in 1689, King William III received the equivalent of $267, 600 today from the Royal African Company, headed by the notorious slave-trader Edward Colston. The payoff was for William’s support of the outﬁt that “captured, enslaved and transported thousands of African people, with the monopoly power of a royal charter,” the Britain-based Guardian reported.
The news evidently prompted Charles to announce support for a research project into the monarchy’s role in the slave trade. It was a big role: Britain was a key player in the trafﬁcking in human beings. It started 459 years ago when Queen Elizabeth I (who reigned from 1558 to 1603) provided a ship to slave trader John Hawkins “in exchange for a share in the proﬁts of the voyage.” On that voyage, Hawkins captured many Africans and also seized 600 more from Portuguese ships, Nick Hazlewood wrote in his book “The Queen’s Slave Trader.”
The connection ended during the reign of William IV (1830 to 1837), when Britain abolished slavery. Even then, William opposed abolition. Before becoming king, he defended slavery in a speech to the House of Lords as vital to prosperity and described slaves as “comparatively in a state of humble happiness.”
In between, George II (1727-1760) was a shareholder and governor of the South Sea Company which transported 41,923 African captives on its ships between 1714 and 1740, more than 7,000 of whom died at sea. George IV (18201930) was known for “ruthless suppression of uprisings by enslaved people in the Caribbean,” The Guardian reported in a series of article on the monarchy and slavery. That suppression included revenge for a slave uprising in 1823 in Demerara in today’s Guyana, hanging 10 rebel leaders who were also decapitated, their heads displayed on spikes, Michael Taylor reported in his 2020 book “The Interest.”
The others were James I (1603-1625), Charles I (1625-1649), Charles II (16601685), James II (1685-1688), Mary II (1689-1694), Anne (1702-1714), George I (1714-1727), George III (17601820) and William 1V (1830-1837), The Guardian reported. Thirteen British monarchs proﬁted from slavery over 279 years.
With those facts already known, it is unclear what the research which Charles has endorsed will accomplish. As the Prince of Wales and heir-apparent, he told a meeting of heads of government of the Commonwealth of former British colonies last year in Rwanda in Africa, “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.” While visiting a former slaving fort in Ghana in November 2018, Charles also said that ways must be found to “acknowledge our past,” the “most painful period.” So far, there is no talk of British reparation for slavery and as just titular head of state, it is the British government and not the monarch who will decide on such an issue.
That monarchy currently owns or proﬁts from nearly 500,000 acres of property, along with offshore agreements that include natural gas storage facilities, mining and wind farm sites. The Guardian estimated Charles’ personal wealth to be equivalent of $1.44 billion.
Britain owes its industrialization at least in part to slave labor and theft of cultural treasures and native natural resources. That is also true for much of Europe, the colonizers and occupiers leaving the former colonies, especially in Africa, so destabilized that their peoples are still grappling with unending civil wars, poverty, hunger and disease, despite their immense natural resources.
Meanwhile, a number of countries are slowly shifting into a mea culpa mode. In the Netherlands, King Willem-Alexander commissioned research in December into the role which the Dutch royal family played in slavery and colonialism. That history is not as well-known as, say, that of Britain and the United States. Netherlandsborn history professor Marjoleine Kars details the brutality of the Dutch slave masters In Berbice, also part of today’s Guyana, in her 2020 book “Blood on the River — A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast,” the 2021 Frederick Douglass Book Prize winner. Kars relates the brutal suppression of a failed 1763 slave rebellion that gave Guyana its National Hero, Cuffy.
In Portugal, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa last month became the country’s ﬁrst leader to propose an apology, Al Jazeera reported. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, “six million Africans were kidnapped and forcibly transported across the Atlantic by Portuguese vessels and sold into slavery, primarily to work on plantations in Brazil.”
And the Vatican, on March 30, ﬁnally repudiated the papal bulls or charters which Pope Nicolas V issued in 1452 and 1455 giving divine blessing to Portugal initially to enslave sub-Saharan Africans and used later to justify the seizure of lands from Indigenous peoples. There is also a United States angle: The decrees came to “underpin the ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ a legal concept coined in an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision that has come to be understood as meaning that ownership and sovereignty over land passed to Europeans because they ‘discovered’ it,” The Associated Press reported. “It was cited as recently as a 2005 Supreme Court decision involving the Oneida Indian Nation written by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
The repudiation was made under the authority of Pope Francis a year after the ﬁrst Latin American pontiff met Indigenous leaders from Canada, who
raised the issue, the AP said. It “marked a historic recognition of the Vatican’s own complicity in colonialera abuses committed by European powers.” The Vatican statement said, “The Catholic Church … repudiates those concepts that fail to recognize the inherent human rights of Indigenous peoples, including what has become known as the legal and political ‘Doctrine of Discovery.’”
Pope Francis also announced that discussions were taking place to repatriate artifacts which were stolen from Indigenous peoples in Canada and stored in Vatican museums. Other artifacts would be returned on a case-bycase basis. “The Seventh Commandment comes to mind: If you steal something you have to give it back,” Francis told the AP. It has all taken 570 years but probably better late than never.
Ironically, while other parts of the world are ﬁnally becoming woke to their role in the slave trade, in the United States a bill calling only for a study of slavery and its impact has stalled in Congress for 34 years, ever since the late Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan proposed it in 1989 and did so each year for 28 years until he retired in 2017. Another Democrat, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, took over but nothing much has happened. The bill, H.R. 40, is named for the 40 acres of land given to freed slaves but taken away soon afterwards. HR 40 could pave the way for an American version of South African’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission which the late human rights champion Nelson Mandela pioneered at the start of the post-apartheid era. But these are days when Republican-controlled states, including Florida, are, instead, banning books and criminalizing even the teaching of the slave past. This is happening 26 years after UNESCO, on Aug. 23, 1997, proclaimed International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition to be observed every March 25 to honor the memory of the more than 15 million women, women and children who were victims of the transatlantic slave trade.
The proclamation, a UN statement said, “calls for an outreach program to mobilize educational institutions, civil society and other organizations to inculcate in future generations the ‘causes, consequences and lessons of the transatlantic slave trade, and to communicate the dangers of racism and prejudice.’”