Slavery and the British throne: Should the King apologise?

As Charles III is officially coronated the King of England, media attention has, once again, been focused on the royal family and its role in our ever-evolving world. Coincidentally, perhaps, recent research into the archives done by writer and researcher Desirée Baptiste while collecting material for a play she is writing has found that King Charles’s direct ancestor, Edward Porteus (1643-1696), was a tobacco plantation owner in Gloucester County, Virginia, active in the contemporary slave trade. The revelation sparked a new wave in an age-old debate: should those, particularly those of prominence like the royalty, apologise for their ancestors’, and indeed Britain’s, role in slavery and other tragedies of history?

Britain, as with any other country that was involved in the transatlantic slave trade, has a troubled relationship with that aspect of its history, and understandably so. In the politically volatile present, the statues of British historical icons such as Horatio Nelson and Francis Drake, once so revered for their heroism in cementing the prestige of the British Empire, are now being attacked (quite literally) for precisely the same reason. In 2019, students at Goldsmiths, University of London, protested in front of the university-owned Deptford Town Hall in a bid to get statues of Admiral Horatio Nelson and Sir Francis Drake taken down for their statuses as slave owners and traders. The protest was soon followed up by postal and online surveys sent by the university to some 8,500 local residents. Although both surveys found a majority against the removal of the statues (58% in the postal survey and 85% in the online survey), the effort clearly forecasts a bleak future for the monuments of historical figures involved in slavery. Closer to home, perhaps, a statue of Cecil Rhodes stands proudly atop the main gate of Oriel College, and despite extensive student protest, there he remains.

More narrowly, while much of the world was busy remembering the legacy of Queen Elizabeth II after her passing in September of last year, one Carnegie Mellon professor of applied linguistics, Uju Anya, tweeted (which has since been deleted by Twitter) wishing the queen “an excruciating death” for her role as, Anya states, the “chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire”. Immediately, the tweet polarised the internet, with many condemning Anya’s statement. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, expressed his disappointment (to say the least) at the statement by replying: “This is someone supposedly working to make the world better? I don’t think so. Wow.” On the other hand, hundreds of students at Carnegie Mellon rallied in support of Anya, with many citing the foundational principles of freedom of expression and a right to freedom of speech and safety; values embedded into the fabric of much of modern society. While it seems that the royal family did not issue a response, the widespread attention gained by Anya and the movement that she is championing is indicative of an increasingly popular anti-monarchism.

This is the climate within which Charles III takes the throne. And beyond facing a growing and increasingly overt anti-monarchical wave and a dismantling of much of Britain’s history, he faces a personal dilemma: while he didn’t personally commit the atrocities of slavery and such, he is the latest in a long line to sit in the very throne of the monarchs of old who endorsed and supported them.

…despite all of the expressions of regret, the royal family seems to refuse to directly speak the words of apology.

King Charles isn’t the only one facing the legacy of his ancestors. In February, ex-BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan went to Grenada to read out a formal apology on behalf of her family to the islanders descended from enslaved people and announced a £100,000 education fund from her own savings as penance for her family’s role in enslaving at least a thousand people on the Caribbean island. Following the statement, Trevelyan, on behalf of other British families with ties to slavery, told the Times of London: “We’ve apologized—why can’t the King? Reckoning is coming.”

While neither the king nor Buckingham Palace have apologised as Trevelyan and so many others wish, both King Charles and Prince William have expressed their “profound sorrow” at the atrocities of slavery, and recently, the king has announced that he will cooperate with a study of the British monarchy’s historical links with transatlantic slavery. Yet, despite all of the expressions of regret, the royal family seems to refuse to directly speak the words of apology.

Of course, it would be inaccurate and incorrect to flagrantly condemn the current monarch to the depths of hell as they did not themselves engage in slave trading and owning as their ancestors centuries ago did, just as it would be mistaken for the Chinese to demand an apology from any average Japanese person alive today who didn’t personally participate in the six weeks of pillaging and raping of the Nanjing Massacre in 1937. But Charles III isn’t simply an average person. Beyond himself, he is the embodiment of the British monarchy, an entity much greater than any one monarch. And as the current representative of the monarchy, any statement Charles makes as the King should perhaps best be taken not only as his words but statements on behalf of the monarchy.

To many, slavery may seem like a tragedy of the past, and repeated discussions about it simply picking at its scabs, preventing its healing. However, while the royally-endorsed, institutionalised slave trade of the Tudors, Stuarts, and Hanovers might be dismantled, racism and modern versions of slavery are occurring on a greater-than-ever scale, and the royal family are still embroiled in allegations of it. In November, Lady Susan Hussey, a lady-in-waiting to Camilla, the new Queen, resigned after reports of her ignorantly asking Ngozi Fulani, the founder of the charity Sistah Space, where she “really came from” at an event at Buckingham Palace. Hussey’s incident hints at a continued fundamental belief in the binary definitions of “them” and “us”, an implicit binarization which many critics of the monarchy have cited in their calls for the abolition of monarchism.

Perhaps it is quite simple: the king should apologise. But, it is paradoxically not that easy. Should there ever be an official apology, it should not be taken as a reflection of the king’s admission of personal guilt or participation in the atrocities of slavery, but as the most genuine acknowledgement by the current British monarch to the activities and actions of the long line of British monarchs that came before him. Regardless of wordplay, though, acknowledgements and apologies are not only a nod to the past, but a nod to a future – a future striving for growth, equality, and justice.

The views in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect any political stance of the Oxford Student.

Image credit: Katie Chan via Wikimedia Commons.

Image description: King Charles III and Queen Camilla in their coronation procession.