In Britain, as in the United States, the anti-racism protests that have erupted since the police killing of George Floyd in late May have reinvigorated campaigns for reparations for slavery. Having only recently acknowledged their historical links to slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, British universities and London financial institutions are facing calls to make amends for past injustices and pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people.
But one institution has remained silent: the British monarchy. Still, it’s no secret that the history of the British royal family is intertwined with slavery.
The slave-trading initiatives endorsed by the English monarchy began with Queen Elizabeth I’s enthusiastic support of John Hawkins’ slaving expeditions in the 1560s. In three separate voyages backed by government officials, London merchants, and the queen, Hawkins raided African settlements on the West African coast and seized hundreds of enslaved captives from Portuguese ships. In defiance of Portugal’s dominance over the European slave trade in Africans, Hawkins sold his cargo of African captives in the Spanish Caribbean. After his profitable second voyage, the queen honored Hawkins with a coat of arms and crest featuring a nude African bound with rope.
During the reign of King Charles II, from 1660 to 1685, the Crown and members of the royal family invested heavily in the African slave trade. Seeking to bolster the wealth and power of the restored monarchy and to supplant the Dutch in the Atlantic trading system, Charles granted a charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers Into Africa, a private joint-stock company, less than six months after ascending the throne. The charter gave the Royal Adventurers a 1,000-year monopoly over trade, land, and adjacent islands along the west coast of Africa stretching from what was then known as Cape Blanco (western Sahara) in the north to the Cape of Good Hope in the south. The king lent the company a number of royal ships, including a vessel called the Blackamoor, and reserved for himself the right to two-thirds of the value of any gold mines discovered. Controlling English trade with West Africa—in gold, hides, ivory, redwood, and, ultimately, slaves—offered the prospect of a revenue stream that would enable the Crown to gain financial independence from Parliament.
From its founding, the Royal Adventurers benefited from royal connections and the Crown’s political and financial backing. More than half of the original beneficiaries of the first charter were peers or members of the royal family, including the king himself. The company’s intimacy with the royal family proved particularly attractive to investors seeking to profit from a trading monopoly with West Africa and the sale and exploitation of African men, women, and children.
In 1663, the Royal Adventurers received a new charter explicitly granting the company an exclusive right among English traders to purchase enslaved captives on the West African coast and transport them to the English colonies in the Americas. Sponsored by the king’s inner circle and politicians and courtiers expecting to use the African trade for personal profit, the fledgling company set out to deliver thousands of African captives to the English Caribbean. Upon disembarking, Africans who survived the horrors of the middle passage were sold to English buyers or to foreign traders looking to acquire slaves for transshipment to Spanish America. By March 1664, the company had delivered more than 3,000 enslaved men, women, and children to Barbados and 780 African captives to Jamaica.
In England, new coins minted from African gold, known as “guineas,” entered circulation, stamped with an elephant—the distinctive emblem of the Royal Adventurers—under the monarch’s head. The message to the public was clear: The king had successfully expanded English interests in Africa, enriching the mother country and strengthening its Atlantic empire.
The company’s initial success was short-lived, however. In 1665, the Royal Adventurers ran into financial difficulties resulting from mounting unpaid debts owed by colonial planters who had purchased African captives from the company on credit. The arrival of a Dutch naval force intent on retaking forts on Africa’s Gold Coast further eroded the company’s tenuous position. Commercial rivalries with Holland over control of the African trade sparked the Second Anglo-Dutch War from 1665 to 1667. With the company’s finances in tatters and its business disrupted, competing English merchants moved in, helping to sustain the supply of enslaved Africans to England’s plantation colonies. Faced with insolvency, the Royal Adventurers was dissolved in 1671 in favor of a new monopoly trading company.
By the time King Charles II granted a charter to the reorganized Royal African Company of England in 1672, the demand for slave labor in the Americas had intensified. Ensuring a steady supply of African captives to England’s Caribbean and North American colonies promised not only to generate profits for shareholders and the Crown but also to expand England’s imperial footprint in the Atlantic world.
As English planters in the Atlantic colonies clamored for more enslaved Africans, English enslavers profited and the African slave trade expanded. “The Royal African Company of England,” notes historian William Pettigrew, “shipped more enslaved African women, men, and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade.” The company’s seal captures how English enslavers, with Crown encouragement, eagerly harnessed the lives and bodies of Africans to generate commercial wealth and build an overseas empire. The seal shows an elephant bearing a castle, flanked by two enslaved African men. Surrounding the figures is the company’s motto: Regio floret patrocinio commercium, commercioque regnum (“By royal patronage commerce flourishes, by commerce the realm”).
From its founding in 1672 to 1688, James, the Duke of York (the future King James II), served as the governor of the Royal African Company and its largest shareholder. James also held the position of Lord High Admiral, which enabled him to exercise punitive power over anyone who challenged the company’s monopoly in West Africa or the English colonies. So intimately intertwined was the English monarchy with the slave trade that the company left a permanent mark of royal ownership on the bodies of the enslaved: Before their departure for the Americas, African captives were branded on the right shoulder or breast with the letters D.Y., for the Duke of York, or R.A.C.E., for the Royal African Company of England.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688–89 dethroned King James II and undermined the privileged position of the Royal African Company. With the company’s royal patron out of the picture, English merchants seeking access to West African markets and colonial planters demanding greater numbers of enslaved Africans at lower prices eroded the company’s attempt to maintain a monopoly. In 1698, Parliament opened the slave trade to all English traders; independent traders were required to pay a 10 percent duty to the Royal African Company to help maintain its African forts. When this act expired in 1712, an official era of free trade began. Millions of Africans were captured, torn from their families, forcibly transported across the Atlantic, sold to the highest bidders, and subjected to physical, psychological, and sexual violence by their enslavers.
During the peak years of the Atlantic slave trade, between 1690 and 1807, European enslavers carried approximately 6 million enslaved Africans to the Americas; almost half of these captives arrived in British or Anglo-American ships. Protected by the Crown and Parliament, the slave trade became one of Britain’s most profitable industries. The production of popular, labor-intensive agricultural products such as sugar, tobacco, cotton, and coffee in the Atlantic colonies hinged on the regular supply of African captives. The vast majority of enslaved African men, women, and children were destined for the sugar fields of Brazil and the Caribbean islands.
As the British Atlantic empire became more reliant on the labor of enslaved Africans, critics of the slave trade and colonial slavery were marginalized or dismissed as radicals. Meanwhile, enslaved men and women took matters into their own hands, struggling against slavery and racist colonial regimes from below. By running away, refusing to work, feigning illness, and rebelling collectively, over and over again, enslaved Africans and their descendants made it clear that their lives mattered. Some people of African descent who gained their liberty joined the transnational abolitionist movement and made both anti-slavery and anti-racism central to their mission.
During the lengthy reign of King George III, from 1760 to 1820, Atlantic slave uprisings and a multiracial coalition of abolitionists transformed the British public’s view of the slave trade at the same time the Crown supported its continuation. The pro-slavery views of the king and his sons bolstered the efforts of the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants to delay the abolition of the British slave trade for nearly two decades. George’s third son, Prince William (the future King William IV), served in the Royal Navy as a teenager and was the first member of the royal family to visit Britain’s North American and Caribbean colonies. While stationed in Jamaica, William witnessed colonial slavery firsthand and approved of what he saw. In 1799, William, now the Duke of Clarence, delivered his maiden speech in the House of Lords against the abolition of the slave trade. Printed by the pro-slavery lobby and widely circulated, his speech was viewed by many Britons as representative of the attitudes of the royal family.
But not all members of the royal family supported the slave trade. George’s nephew and son-in-law Prince William Frederick, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, allied with the abolitionists in Parliament and became a vocal anti-slavery supporter. After the British Parliament outlawed the slave trade in 1807, Frederick served as the first president of the African Institution, an abolitionist organization founded to enforce the Abolition Act and promote “civilization and improvement in Africa.” William Frederick worked closely with leading English abolitionists such as Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce to influence the major European powers to follow Britain’s lead and abolish slave trading.
Although the Slave Trade Act of 1807 had made it illegal for British subjects to buy or sell African captives, demand for slaves remained high in the Caribbean, Brazil, the Spanish colonies, and the United States. After 1808, as the illegal slave trade flourished, European enslavers transported millions of enslaved Africans to the Americas, many in ships built, financed, or outfitted in Britain.
In the decades after the abolition of the British slave trade, enslaved and free people of African descent petitioned the Crown repeatedly, seeking royal intervention on their behalf in their quest for liberty and civil rights. These petitions largely fell on deaf ears. Even after Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, which ended slavery in the British Caribbean, Mauritius, and the Cape Colony (South Africa), enslaved people did not immediately receive their freedom. The negotiated settlement required enslaved men and women to continue to labor for their former masters as unpaid “apprentices” and also granted 20 million pounds in compensation to Britons with financial interests in slavery. Formerly enslaved people and their descendants received nothing, other than recognition of their status as free subjects of the British sovereign.
After 1838, with both slavery and the apprenticeship system at an end in Britain’s Atlantic empire, the British monarchy publicly supported the anti-slavery cause for the first time. In May 1840, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, accepted an invitation to serve as the president of the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilization of Africa. A month later, he delivered a brief opening speech at the first international anti-slavery convention held in London. According to eyewitness accounts, when the prince appeared onstage, the crowd of 5,000 or 6,000 people cheered wildly; his remarks could barely be heard above the tumult. “Everyone seemed to link with his presence and feelings, those of her Amiable Majesty the Queen,” Thomas Clarkson later recalled, “and received him as tho’ (independent of his own professions) he was conveying the feelings and sympathies of her much loved Majesty to her loyal and humane subjects.”
Victoria and Albert acquired an international reputation as humanitarian reformers yet simultaneously oversaw an expanding empire rooted in the racial subjugation and exploitation of subaltern populations in the Americas, India, Africa, and Asia and throughout the Pacific. A self-proclaimed anti-racist, Victoria became the patron of Sarah Forbes Bonetta (born “Aina”), an orphaned child of Yoruba descent and a princess of the Egbado clan in West Africa. After her parents were killed by King Ghezo of Dahomey, Aina was kept as a state prisoner until a Capt. Frederick E. Forbes arrived on board the Bonetta in June 1850 to advocate for the suppression of the slave trade. Forbes negotiated for Aina’s release as a “gift” for the queen and transported her to England; there Aina was stripped of her Yoruba name and christened Sarah Forbes Bonetta. Later on in Victoria’s life, her close friendship with Abdul Karim, her Indian secretary, led to friction in the royal family and scandalized the nation.
Victoria’s relationships with “Sarah” and Abdul—romanticized, respectively, in the PBS series Victoria and the film Victoria & Abdul—offer examples of how, since the 19th century, the British Crown has sought to rehabilitate its reputation by distancing itself from slavery and racial prejudice—a rehabilitation that Prince Harry’s marriage to the Black American actress Meghan Markle in 2018 has since tested. In recent days, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have argued that, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s time for Britain to address its “uncomfortable” past. But the British monarchy continues to refuse to recognize its historic ties to the slave trade and racial oppression.
Officially acknowledging that the royal family both fostered and profited from the enslavement of millions, and affirming a commitment to reparatory justice as the Caribbean Community has urged the governments of Britain and Europe to do, is the very least the present-day British monarchy owes to the descendants of enslaved people.
The Crown’s act of willful forgetting demonstrates how easy it was to overlook—then and now—the pivotal role played by the royal family in accelerating England’s involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the development of an Atlantic empire built on the backs and blood of African and Indigenous people.