November 28, 2020

It’s time for the British royal family to make amends for centuries of profiting from slavery

By BROOKE NEWMAN, JULY 28, 20202:53 PM

In Britain, as in the United States, the anti-racism protests that have erupted since the police killing of George Floyd in late May have reinvigorated campaigns for reparations for slavery. Having only recently acknowledged their historical links to slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade, British universities and London financial institutions are facing calls to make amends for past injustices and pay reparations to the descendants of enslaved people.

But one institution has remained silent: the British monarchy. Still, it’s no secret that the history of the British royal family is intertwined with slavery.

The slave-trading initiatives endorsed by the English monarchy began with Queen Elizabeth I’s enthusiastic support of John Hawkins’ slaving expeditions in the 1560s. In three separate voyages backed by government officials, London merchants, and the queen, Hawkins raided African settlements on the West African coast and seized hundreds of enslaved captives from Portuguese ships. In defiance of Portugal’s dominance over the European slave trade in Africans, Hawkins sold his cargo of African captives in the Spanish Caribbean. After his profitable second voyage, the queen honored Hawkins with a coat of arms and crest featuring a nude African bound with rope.

During the reign of King Charles II, from 1660 to 1685, the Crown and members of the royal family invested heavily in the African slave trade. Seeking to bolster the wealth and power of the restored monarchy and to supplant the Dutch in the Atlantic trading system, Charles granted a charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers Into Africa, a private joint-stock company, less than six months after ascending the throne. The charter gave the Royal Adventurers a 1,000-year monopoly over trade, land, and adjacent islands along the west coast of Africa stretching from what was then known as Cape Blanco (western Sahara) in the north to the Cape of Good Hope in the south. The king lent the company a number of royal ships, including a vessel called the Blackamoor, and reserved for himself the right to two-thirds of the value of any gold mines discovered. Controlling English trade with West Africa—in gold, hides, ivory, redwood, and, ultimately, slaves—offered the prospect of a revenue stream that would enable the Crown to gain financial independence from Parliament.The company’s intimacy with the royal family proved attractive to investors seeking to profit from the sale and exploitation of African men, women, and children.

From its founding, the Royal Adventurers benefited from royal connections and the Crown’s political and financial backing. More than half of the original beneficiaries of the first charter were peers or members of the royal family, including the king himself. The company’s intimacy with the royal family proved particularly attractive to investors seeking to profit from a trading monopoly with West Africa and the sale and exploitation of African men, women, and children.

In 1663, the Royal Adventurers received a new charter explicitly granting the company an exclusive right among English traders to purchase enslaved captives on the West African coast and transport them to the English colonies in the Americas. Sponsored by the king’s inner circle and politicians and courtiers expecting to use the African trade for personal profit, the fledgling company set out to deliver thousands of African captives to the English Caribbean. Upon disembarking, Africans who survived the horrors of the middle passage were sold to English buyers or to foreign traders looking to acquire slaves for transshipment to Spanish America. By March 1664, the company had delivered more than 3,000 enslaved men, women, and children to Barbados and 780 African captives to Jamaica.

In England, new coins minted from African gold, known as “guineas,” entered circulation, stamped with an elephant—the distinctive emblem of the Royal Adventurers—under the monarch’s head. The message to the public was clear: The king had successfully expanded English interests in Africa, enriching the mother country and strengthening its Atlantic empire.

The company’s initial success was short-lived, however. In 1665, the Royal Adventurers ran into financial difficulties resulting from mounting unpaid debts owed by colonial planters who had purchased African captives from the company on credit. The arrival of a Dutch naval force intent on retaking forts on Africa’s Gold Coast further eroded the company’s tenuous position. Commercial rivalries with Holland over control of the African trade sparked the Second Anglo-Dutch War from 1665 to 1667. With the company’s finances in tatters and its business disrupted, competing English merchants moved in, helping to sustain the supply of enslaved Africans to England’s plantation colonies. Faced with insolvency, the Royal Adventurers was dissolved in 1671 in favor of a new monopoly trading company.

By the time King Charles II granted a charter to the reorganized Royal African Company of England in 1672, the demand for slave labor in the Americas had intensified. Ensuring a steady supply of African captives to England’s Caribbean and North American colonies promised not only to generate profits for shareholders and the Crown but also to expand England’s imperial footprint in the Atlantic world.

As English planters in the Atlantic colonies clamored for more enslaved Africans, English enslavers profited and the African slave trade expanded. “The Royal African Company of England,” notes historian William Pettigrew, “shipped more enslaved African women, men, and children to the Americas than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade.” The company’s seal captures how English enslavers, with Crown encouragement, eagerly harnessed the lives and bodies of Africans to generate commercial wealth and build an overseas empire. The seal shows an elephant bearing a castle, flanked by two enslaved African men. Surrounding the figures is the company’s motto: Regio floret patrocinio commercium, commercioque regnum (“By royal patronage commerce flourishes, by commerce the realm”).

From its founding in 1672 to 1688, James, the Duke of York (the future King James II), served as the governor of the Royal African Company and its largest shareholder. James also held the position of Lord High Admiral, which enabled him to exercise punitive power over anyone who challenged the company’s monopoly in West Africa or the English colonies. So intimately intertwined was the English monarchy with the slave trade that the company left a permanent mark of royal ownership on the bodies of the enslaved: Before their departure for the Americas, African captives were branded on the right shoulder or breast with the letters D.Y., for the Duke of York, or R.A.C.E., for the Royal African Company of England.

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