Home News History of slavery continues to haunt British royals

History of slavery continues to haunt British royals

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  • Written by Sean Coughlan
  • royal correspondent

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Before ascending the throne, William IV was a strong supporter of the pro-slavery lobby.

King Charles’ state visit to Kenya next week will be filled with toasts of friendship, but it also promises to address “painful aspects” of the country’s past relationship with Britain.

The legacy of colonialism, with its thorny questions and demands for apologies and reparations, will be an inevitable topic of discussion during King Charles’ first state visit to Commonwealth countries since he ascended the throne.

Palace officials will be hoping the visit will be positive and forward-thinking, but here’s how Prince William and Duchess Kate’s visit to the Caribbean last year was marred by controversy over the long shadow of slavery. You must be keenly aware of this.

Demonstrators held banners reading “Apology” and demanded that the king formally acknowledge the historic wrongs of the slave trade.

But royal historian Professor Heather Jones said even if the King wanted to make his own symbolic apology, beyond the “personal grief” he has already expressed, he would need government approval. Says.

“As a constitutional monarch, he is limited in what he can say publicly,” said Jones, a professor at University College London.

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Prince William’s Caribbean visit overshadowed by calls for apology over slavery

And Chancellor Rishi Sunak rejected these calls for an apology or compensation, telling MPs: “Trying to reveal our history is not the right way to go.”

This is also a multifaceted issue. Kenya’s questions about its colonial legacy are very different from the questions asked in the Caribbean about slavery.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the economic benefits of slavery for the Dutch royal family were publicly recognized, and King Willem-Alexander commissioned a study into these connections.

Buckingham Palace also said King Charles takes the issue “very seriously” and supports independent research into the slave trade and the British monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This study is scheduled to be completed in 2026, but another important historical study was recently published. It examines the British Royal Family’s attitudes towards slavery in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a key period in which anti-slavery activists fought. To stop this human trade.

Professor Suzanne Schwartz says the royal family under George III was deeply divided over the slave trade, and the situation was complicated, as was British society as a whole. The past was just as morally contradictory as the present. Her research in the English Historical Review shows that there are no simple conclusions.

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King Charles speaks of ‘personal grief’ over slave trade

Her research shows that two of George III’s closest relatives, his son the Duke of Clarence and his nephew the Duke of Gloucester, became important rivals for and against the abolition of the slave trade.

Professor Schwartz, who had access to the Royal Archives, discovered documents showing how the Duke of Gloucester was a central figure in the anti-slavery movement, “embracing radical new ideas”.

Her research found that he shared intelligence and coordinated efforts on speeches and parliamentary bills to stop slavery, including working with Liverpool’s leading abolitionist William Roscoe. ing.

The young duke has spoken out against slavery in the House of Lords, speaking directly against the King’s son, and Professor Schwartz said his presence in the House of Lords was deemed “vital to the progress of abolition”. It is said that

The Duke of Gloucester was also an important supporter of the Royal Navy’s efforts to disrupt the post-abolition slave trade, including interfering with slave ships.

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The Duke of Gloucester, an activist against the slave trade, fought his pro-slavery royal cousins

The Duke of Gloucester demonstrated how involved he was in the abolitionist movement when he served as a pallbearer at the funeral of the great abolitionist William Wilberforce in 1833.

However, opposed to him in all respects was his cousin, the son of George III, Duke of Clarence and future William IV.

Research shows that at a time when British public opinion was turning against slavery, the Duke of Clarence was a strong advocate of the advantageous use of slave labor in the colonies.

Schwartz, a professor at the University of Worcester, described him as a “prominent defender” of slavery who “articulated pro-slavery ideas that enjoyed support among political elites.”

She highlighted that the exquisite silver Jamaican Service, given to the Duke of Clarence in recognition of his efforts in defending the slave trade in the early 1800s, still remains at the Royal Collection Trust.

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Campaigners against slavery called on people to recognize their common humanity

Against campaigners who saw slavery as cruel and inhumane, he insisted that enslaved people be treated appropriately. He argued on commercial grounds that those who sought to end the slave trade were a threat to “colonial wealth, the very fiber of our commercial existence.”

What remains even more ambiguous is the attitude of the Duke of Clarence’s father, George III. He signed a law abolishing the slave trade in 1807, but the Emancipation Act was not passed until 1833. They then received compensation instead of freed slaves.

Professor Schwartz says George III’s stance on slavery was more nuanced during his illness-interrupted reign, and there was conflicting evidence about his views.

Although George III was not personally a slave owner, his previously published essay, based on the work of French author Charles de Montesquieu, described the slave trade as a “punishment” and described the slave trade as a “punishment”. makes a strong moral case against

George III’s biographers point to this as evidence of his personal opposition to slavery.

However, Professor Schwartz said that her research, on the whole, was behind the scenes opposed to parliamentary moves to abolish the slave trade, and appeared to be close to the pro-slavery views of the Sons of Clarence, including the Duke of Clarence. He said it suggests that it was.

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George III’s views on slavery are more ambiguous and sometimes contradictory, says study

“It is quite possible that the king distinguished between private and public morality, and that while he justified slavery on military and economic grounds, he was intellectually sympathetic to the moral condemnation of slavery.” ,” she wrote.

And while the debate continued, hundreds of thousands of people were kidnapped, transported, and forced into slavery, but after several failed attempts, the Slave Trade Abolition Act was passed in 1807. .

Professor Trevor Burnand, director of the Wilberforce Institute at Hull University, says this analysis of royal attitudes to slavery in this period is “more focused than anything previously done”, particularly in examining pro-slavery views. “This is a comprehensive investigation.”

There are also broader questions about the extent to which we can judge the past in light of today’s values, and whether anyone today should be held responsible for the actions of their ancestors.

There were a lot of family activities this year. Descendants of 19th century reformist politician William Gladstone have issued an apology to the Guyanese people over their family’s ties to slave ownership.

“It is a recognition that slavery still has a profound impact on the health and broader socio-economic status of many people around the world,” the Gladstone family said.

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Prince William and Duchess Kate’s visit to Jamaica was criticized by some as too colonial

For Professor Jones, the new research shows that the royal family of the early 1800s was the royal family of its time. “They weren’t isolated or aloof from society as a whole, but they were very integrated into political discussions and lobbying,” she says.

She believes it is difficult for modern royals to enter the debate about apologies without getting into politics.

King Charles has consistently emphasized the importance of diversity and addressed historical injustices. His visits are clearly focused domestically and internationally. And Professor Jones says the path forward is to carve out history amid all its contradictions.

“From his statements there is no doubt that he abhors slavery, and academic researchers have used the Royal Archives to fully investigate and discover the history of the Royal Family’s involvement in slavery. I think he’s actually showing that by allowing things to be published.”

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