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Slavery, Restorative Justice, and the Coronation of Charles III

Carefully orchestrated theater many centuries in the making, the upcoming coronation of

King Charles III on May 6, 2023, is, above all, a means to an end: the survival of the British monarchy. The Windsors (Harry and Meghan excepted) are nothing if not committed to the institution itself and their role as its steward, whatever the personal sacrifice. As Charles clarified in his first official address last September, Britain’s new king views himself as the latest in a long line of dutiful monarchs to whom their subjects both at home and abroad owe a profound debt of gratitude.


But do the more than 150 million people residing in the fifteen Commonwealth Realms which have the British monarch as head of state feel a shared sense of gratitude to King Charles and the 1,000-year-old institution he embodies? Recent developments in the Caribbean, where multiple nations are pushing for reparations and moving to become republics, suggest otherwise.


A close up detail of a gold elephant on a clearly historic document.
Photo by author, RAC Manuscripts, National Archives, Kew.

Even before the death of Queen Elizabeth II, who was held in much higher esteem than her successor, Caribbean countries took steps to cut ties with the British monarchy. At the stroke of midnight on November 30, 2021, Barbados officially became a republic, removing Queen Elizabeth as head of state nearly four centuries after English adventurers established what would become the first major slave colony in the English Atlantic.


In Bridgetown, Charles, the then heir apparent, watched as the royal standard was lowered for the last time, replaced by the Barbados national flag. “Full stop this colonial page,” Winston Farrell, a Barbadian poet, told the ceremony. “Some have grown up stupid under the Union Jack, lost in the castle of their skin.” For Bajans, he said, becoming a republic and breaking with the colonial past “is about us, rising out of the cane fields, reclaiming our history."


While recent years have seen a resurgence of nostalgia for empire in post-Brexit Britain, the Crown’s Caribbean subjects don’t have the luxury of looking at the past—or present—through rose-tinted glasses. Public sentiment toward the monarchy continues to harden across the region, where descendant communities seek an overdue reckoning of the past injustices and legacies of colonialism and slavery that have long crippled economic development and exacerbated racial inequality.


Multiple Caribbean nations have signaled that, like Barbados, they want to remove the British monarch as their sovereign. Jamaica is particularly keen. Given last year’s disastrous royal tour, this should come as no surprise. In anticipation of the arrival of Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, in Jamaica in March 2022, an Advocacy Group made up of 100 prominent Jamaicans published an open letter to the royal couple. Advocates insisted that the time had come for Britain and the royal family to apologize for slavery and initiate a process of reconciliation and compensation.


“During her 70 years on the throne, your grandmother has done nothing to redress and atone for the suffering of our ancestors that took place during her reign and/or during the entire period of British trafficking of Africans, enslavement, indentureship and colonialization,” the Advocacy Group proclaimed. And they were not alone.


When Prince William and Catherine landed in Kingston, at least 350 demonstrators gathered outside the British high commission holding signs with messages such as “We demand apologies & reparations” and “Apologize now!” The campaigners voiced the Jamaican public’s growing discontent with the British Crown and its policy of selective silence.


Indeed, throughout her long life Queen Elizabeth refused to confront the Crown’s colonial past or the monarchy’s links to slavery and its continued legacies in the Caribbean and beyond. She never issued an official apology for the royal family’s involvement in and defense of the transatlantic slave trade or colonial slavery.


Neither have her successors. During his visit to Jamaica, Prince William followed the example set by his father in Barbados in 2021 and in Ghana in 2018. “I strongly agree with my father, the Prince of Wales, who said in Barbados last year that the appalling atrocity of slavery forever stains our history,” remarked William in a speech delivered at a dinner hosted by Jamaica’s Governor General. “Slavery was abhorrent, and it should never have happened.” Prince William expressed regret for slavery but did not apologize or discuss his family’s historic involvement.


Between 1640 and 1807, Britain transported approximately 3.2 million African captives (of whom roughly 2.7 million survived to disembark) to the Caribbean, Brazil, and North and South America. Of this total, roughly 1 million arrived in Jamaica and toiled to support the interests of British masters and to satiate Britain’s sweet tooth. Due to brutal conditions, life expectancy for enslaved individuals in Jamaica was appallingly short. Planters relied on regular supplies of captives from West Africa to replenish their labor pool. In Jamaica alone, hundreds of thousands of people of African origin and descent suffered and died in the name of British profit.


Image showing a historic document. Scroll writing shows entries of several payments.
From the RAC stock books, an image showing the transfer of £1,000 of RAC shares from Deputy Governor, Edward Colston, to William of Orange. Photo by author, RAC Manuscripts, National Archives, Kew.

Without first grappling with this history and the full extent of its own culpability for slavery and racial violence, the British Crown will remain a symbol of colonial repression and injustice in Jamaica and across the Caribbean. Just last month, Andrew Holness, Jamaica’s PM, announced that the government of Jamaica will hold a referendum on removing Charles as head of state and “affirming our self-determination.” “Let’s begin the #RoadtoRepublic,” Holness wrote on Twitter.


Yet for reparations advocates, cutting ties with the British monarchy is only the first step in the long, overdue process of restorative justice. Renowned Caribbean historian Professor Verene Shepherd, Director for the Centre for Reparation Research at the University of the West Indies and Chair of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, recently issued a statement demanding action from both the British government and the monarchy. “The British state,” she points out, “has refused to apologize to Africans and people of African descent for the role they played in the trafficking and chattel enslavement of millions of Africans in the Caribbean, simply uttering meaningless statements of regret, remorse, and deep sorrow, with a former UK PM even telling us to get over the past and move on.”


As King Charles III takes the coronation oath next month, he would be wise to listen to Professor Shepherd and members of descendant communities who have called for both the British government and the royal family to apologize for slavery and work with the CARICOM Reparations Commission to begin to repair the wrongs of the past. “While individuals and institutions cannot escape blame for their role in what is now recognized as a crime against humanity,” Shepherd rightly observes, “it was the state that provided the scaffolding that encouraged and facilitated their involvement.”


Recent developments offer some hope that the Crown might soon formally acknowledge the links between the monarchy and slavery. As a result of archival evidence that I shared with the Guardian, including a manuscript documenting the transfer of £1,000 in Royal African Company shares from Deputy Governor, Edward Colston, to incoming Governor, William of Orange, shortly before he was crowned William III in January 1689, Buckingham Palace issued an official response. For the first time, Charles said that he supports research into the royal family’s historical ties to slavery. “This is an issue that His Majesty takes profoundly seriously,” emphasized a palace spokesperson.


What steps—if any—King Charles will take once these links are known in full remains to be seen. But I would urge him to consult and work in partnership with descendant communities in the Caribbean, Britain, across the Commonwealth, and beyond, and to do so sooner rather than later. It’s time for the monarchy to listen to the descendants of the enslaved—their voices have been silenced for far too long.


 

Brooke Newman is an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University specializing in early modern Britain, Caribbean history, and slavery and its legacies. She’s the author of A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica (Yale, 2018) and co-editor of Native Diasporas: Indigenous Identities and Settler Colonialism in the Americas (Nebraska, 2014). She is currently finishing her second book, The Queen’s Silence: The Hidden History of the British Monarchy and Slavery, which is under contract with Mariner (US) and Mudlark (UK), divisions of Harper Collins.



 

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