King Charles’s predecessors abetted the slave trade, and research aims to show what they knew

As Britain crowns a new King, there are growing calls for a fuller accounting of how British monarchs personally abetted the colonial slave trade. Charles says he's supportive and has endorsed a new project examining the motivations and personal feelings of his predecessors toward human trafficking.

Newly crowned monarch supports project, offering access to royal documents

King Charles has agreed to support research into his ancestors role in the transatlantic slave trade.

It's not a secret that a succession of British monarchs enriched the former empire — and themselves personally — off the evils of the transatlantic slave trade.

What's less obvious — and of interest to today's highly charged debate over the monarchy's ties to slavery — is what they knew about the practice, how they felt about participating in it and their level of enthusiasm for it.

Some 360 years ago, did King Charles II regard trafficking in human beings the same as trading in elephant tusks? Did his brother, the future James II, have any moral qualms about running the most notorious slave-trading company in the world?

The early answers to both questions, gleaned by examining just a single document, seem "yes" to the first and "no" to the second — and there are collections and libraries filled with hundreds, even thousands, of documents still needing to be pored over.

CBC News recently visited Britain's National Archives, where University of Manchester PhD student Camilla de Koning carefully opened and scrutinized the faded, yellow pages of the charter of the Royal African Company.

A woman with long blond-brown hair, wearing a floral dress, looks over a thick book.

"What I strive for is that [the research] is about the Royal Family as individuals. It's about their personal thoughts, their personal choices and ideas," said de Koning, 28, who is working under the supervision of Edmond Smith, an associate professor at the university.

Most remarkably, King Charles himself has given explicit support for her research.

Monarchy's ties to slavery under microscope

Britain's coronation week, which saw the crowning of King Charles III on Saturday, has focused attention not just on the monarchy's future but on its past. The issue of British kings and queens and their connection to slavery has made for some uncomfortable moments.

There have been repeated calls from African and Caribbean nations for apologies and reparations, and a group of former British slave-trading families is demanding that the British government atone for its historical role transporting more than three million enslaved African people across the Atlantic Ocean.

Prince Charles, Left, is Welcome by Ghana's President, Nana Akufo-Addo at the Jubilee House in Accra, Ghana, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018.

King Charles has spoken frequently and emotively about his abhorrence of the slave trade, including during a visit to Ghana in 2018, when he spoke of the "appalling atrocity of slavery."

He went further last month by openly supporting de Koning's research work, offering access to the Royal Collection and the Royal Archives.

"I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of many, as I continue to deepen my understanding of slavery's enduring impact," said a statement from Buckingham Palace that quoted the King from a speech he gave in Rwanda last year.

"It is kind of daunting. I mean, all of a sudden, I was in the national news connected to King Charles," de Koning said.

The Royal African Company shipped nearly 200,000 enslaved people from Africa across the Atlantic to colonies in North, Central and South America over a 60-year period.

Written in elegant calligraphy in the name of the last King called Charles, King Charles II, de Koning said the charter leaves no doubt about the motivations and desires of the monarch, who reigned as King of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1660-85.

The Charter of the Royal African Company, signed in 1663 by King Charles II. The document provided a blueprint for how the slave trade was to be conducted.

"Enslaved people were very prominent and in this [document] were … listed under commodities. So they were not seen as people but as a 'good,'" she said.

Further on, the document shows that Charles II anointed his brother James, the Duke of York, a future king, with the power to run the Royal African Company and make the important day-to-day decisions.

"The King … bestows this very grand privilege to his brother … and these goals were the goals of the Royal Family," de Koning said.

WATCH | King Charles supports research into monarchy's ties to slavery:

King Charles backs research in monarchy's slavery ties

3 days ago

Duration 5:13

For the first time, Buckingham Palace publicly expressed support for research into the Crown’s connection to the transatlantic slave trade, including how much the monarchy profited from it. King Charles has even given researchers access to archives to dig into the historic links.

It all strongly suggests that not only were monarchs complicit in the slave trade, but in some cases the Royal Family was even involved in day-to-day decision-making on how the trading was carried out, she said.

"It was very much James's enterprise. He gave it his personal touch, his ideas and his enterprise," de Koning said.

Bristol a hotbed of slave trade

The Royal African Company's charter has been studied extensively in the past, but now with the King's support, the expectation is that over the next three years of this project, there will be many more revelations from new documents not usually available.

Charles's evolution on the slavery issue and the momentum it has gained of late can be traced in no small part to a chain of events that began in Bristol, a city in southwest England, in June 2020.

The city has an especially visceral connection to the slave trade.

Two people sit on a red bench outside a building with the sign 'The Picture House,' at 4 Colston Avenue.

The Bristol Historical Association estimates almost half a million enslaved people were transported by the city's traders in the 17th and 18th centuries — many of them under the auspices of local businessman Edward Colston, who was secretary of the Royal African Company.

Viewed by many as a philanthropist and benefactor for the city, Colston used the wealth generated by the slave trade to establish schools, hospitals and public facilities. In the late 19th century, a bronze statue was erected in his honour on a plinth near the city's waterfront, not far from where the slavers' ships would have docked.

But over the decades, as the origins of Colston's wealth became more widely known, pressure to remove the statue grew. It culminated in a mass demonstration in June 2020, as protests associated with Black Lives Matters took place around the world.

An angry mob tore down the Colston tribute, dragging it to the water's edge and dumping it in the harbour.

A large crowd of people cheers and takes photos as a statue falls into the water.

"It was a bit like a Berlin Wall moment," recalled Edson Burton, an academic from Bristol who has studied the city's ties to the transatlantic slave trade extensively.

"It raised consciousness in a radically impactful way, and it has a ripple effect that I have not seen before in my lifetime."

Debate over reparations for slavery

In the aftermath of the statue toppling, the issue of whether the British government should pay reparations for slavery shot to the top of the nation's political agenda.

The slave trade was officially prohibited at the beginning of the 19th century, and the British government did offer up compensation — but only to companies that lost their business, not to those who were actually enslaved.

"We are now in 2023, and King Charles is looking at the monarch's involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, which I don't think would have been possible without the Black Lives Matter campaign and the statue coming down," Burton said.

A man wearing a dark-coloured coat and a light-coloured cap stands outside a building.

"It feels like a responsible, progressive way to advance this discussion," he told CBC News.

Others, however, want Charles to go further by offering a full apology and compensation to the descendants of enslaved people, both in Britain and overseas.

"I think for me it's about levelling the playing field and equity," said Cleo Lake, a reparations campaigner in Bristol who once attended a high school in the city that still has Colston's name engraved on the gate.

She said Charles has taken some important steps, but he needs to tap into the Royal Family's wealth to make things right.

A woman with black hair, wearing a grey coat, stands beside a wrought-iron gate with a sign that reads 'Colston's School.'

"It would have been my ancestors who died to create that wealth that they [the Royal Family] and others now enjoy. I think that needs to be dispersed," Lake said.

A recent poll carried out for Yahoo suggests public sentiment has been moving closer toward supporting reparations, with 44 per cent giving their support. The survey also found, however, that there are huge differences between young people, who favour reparations, and those over 65, who do not. Black people were also much more inclined to support reparations than white people were, underscoring the political sensitives of the issue.

Edson Burton, the Bristol historian, credits Charles for being able to move the issue forward in a "progressive way" while avoiding some of the "polarities" that have existed.

He said he supports "the idea that the monarch needs to feel that they are in tune with a new nation, and not just the conservation of an old identity. So how do we arrive at the consensus of an identity going forward?"


  • A previous version of this story said the Bristol Historical Association estimates almost half a million enslaved people moved through the city's port in the 17th and 18th centuries. It has been updated to say the association estimates almost half a million enslaved people were transported by the city's traders during that period.
    May 07, 2023 1:45 PM ET

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