Researcher reveals the extent of the British crown’s ties to the slave trade

Posted at 3:07 PM, May 09, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- The recent coronation of King Charles has put a spotlight on the English monarchy's relevancy in 2023.

It comes as a history professor at Virginia Commonwealth University is conducting eye-opening research that has uncovered the crown's centuries-long support of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, and the vast profits it received.

Dr. Brooke Newman has written extensively about the documents she has studied, which show just how deeply the British monarchy has been involved in the slave trade.

Newman recently spent five months working with The Guardian on a series of pieces called “The Cost of the Crown,” which describes in detail transactions involving slavery over the centuries that have enriched the royal family.

She also wrote a piece for Slate in 2020 pointing out that while protests were erupting here over the police murder of George Floyd, England was facing a similar reckoning, which very much involved the crown's responsibility in fostering and then profiting from the slave trade.

“The protests of 2020 were transatlantic in scope and they had many of the same concerns that citizens in Richmond had about monuments to slaveholders and colonial figures in the past,” Newman said. “And in Bristol, the statue of the deputy governor of the former Royal African Company, Edward Colston, was torn down by protesters. This was really soon after the murder of George Floyd. Colston was a notorious slave trader, but not nearly as well known as members of the royal family.”

Given that a number of American universities, including the University of Virginia, and other institutions have recently acknowledged how they benefited from slavery, many wonder now whether the royal family has undergone a similar accounting.

“The royal family is in the very early stages as far as acknowledging, apologizing for, or engaging in any kind of restorative justice when it comes to colonialism, the history of slavery, and the empire itself,” said Newman. “They were involved in the sponsorship of the transatlantic slave trade, invested in the slave trade, and expanded the slave trade. They created a slave empire in the 18th century that they benefited from personally, and on an institutional level. This has never been acknowledged by the royal family and only recently have they been pushed to acknowledge that this archival evidence even exists.”

Newman came across a document from 1689 that shows the transfer of 1,000 pounds by Edward Colston, and in return, King William III received a controlling interest in the Royal African Company which shipped slaves to the Caribbean and the colonies.

“This is a really crucial document in the history of the slave trade, and also in the history of the British monarchy because what it shows is that the incoming King, after the Glorious Revolution, was willing to be the Governor of the Royal African Company. He said he would show 'kindness' to the members of the RAC, which he did, as he hosted them at Kensington Palace.”

Newman’s upcoming book, “The Queen's Silence,” will be released in 2025 and she points out it refers to both Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II.

“It’s about both. The book very much bookends Elizabeth I and II, because Elizabeth I lied to the Spanish ambassador about her support of the illicit slave trade in the 1560s. And then, of course, we have [the late] Queen Elizabeth, who never said anything about Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and her own family’s involvement in the expansion of slavery,” she said.

So how much has the royal family profited from slavery?

“It’s hard to quantify because the archival evidence is really patchy,” said Newman. “Much of the evidence that we have comes from the slave trading companies themselves. For example, stock books with dividends. We know [the Royals] made money, but we don’t know how they invested that money, or how they spent it.”

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