What historical ties do the Royal Family have to the English slave trade?

·Royal Correspondent
·10-min read

Watch: Time lapse of the Atlantic slave trade

Jamaica has called on the Queen and the UK to pay millions of pounds in reparations for its role in the slave trade.

Ministers in the Caribbean nation are asking for the equivalent of the compensation given to slaveholders in the 1830s when slavery was abolished in the British empire.

The Royal Family are historically linked with the slave trade around the world, and have been accused of continuing to benefit from it despite its abolition hundreds of years ago.

Elizabeth I

It was the Queen's ancestor Elizabeth I who gave a ship to Sir John Hawkins in 1564 for one of his voyages, having been impressed with his previous capture of 300 Africans.

Royal Museums Greenwich said: "His missions were so lucrative that Queen Elizabeth I sponsored his subsequent journeys and provided ships, supplies and guns. She also gave him a unique coat of arms bearing a bound slave."

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II looks at a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I during a visit to Westminster Abbey and Westminster School in London May 21, 2010. The visit marked the 450th anniversary of the granting of the institution's Royal Charter by Queen Elizabeth I.   REUTERS/Dominic Lipinski/Pool  (BRITAIN - Tags: ROYALS RELIGION ANNIVERSARY)
The Queen in front of a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I during a visit to Westminster Abbey in 2010. (Reuters/Dominic Lipinski/Pool)
The Armada Portrait of Britain's late Elizabeth I, painted around 1588, is seen on display at the launch of a new exhibition entitled 'Elizabeth' at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London April 28, 2003.  The exhibition, which marks the 400th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth I's death and is the biggest collection of her personal items and paintings ever seen, opens on Thursday and runs until September 14.
The Armada Portrait of Britain's Elizabeth I, painted around 1588, at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. (Getty Images)

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Elizabeth I enjoyed the profits of his voyages and had African entertainers in her court.

But she issued a decree to expel Africans in July 1596. National Archives state the decree said there were "of late divers blackmoores brought into this realm, of which kind of people there are already here to manie...". She ordered that "those kinde of people should be sente forth of the land".

Another of her sailors, Sir Francis Drake, was also involved in setting up the slave trade. Writing for History Extra, Professor Claire Jowitt of the University of East Anglia said he "played a central role in the foundation of England’s involvement in the slave trade".

In 1618 Elizabeth I's successor King James I granted a patent to a company wanting to trade in gold and precious woods in Africa, but there was not a large slave trade at this time. 

Charles II

It wasn't until Charles II reclaimed the throne after the English civil war that the slave trade was reignited.

The National Museum of the Royal Navy notes: "Britain fully entered the slave trade in 1660 when Charles II assisted in founding a new company called 'Royal Adventures into Africa'."

Members of the company included Royal Family members and other aristocrats.

17/10/1651 - On this Day in History - King Charles II is defeated at the Battle of Worcester by Parliamentarian forces under Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax. King Charles was forced to flee to Holland after this defeat, and did not return until 1660.   05/02/1649: The Prince of Wales is decalred King Charles II, a week after the death of his father, Charles I KING CHARLES II :  A portrait of King Charles II (1630-1685). Charles became King following the Stuart Restoration of 1660 and did much to promote commerce, science and the Royal Navy. However, his Roman Catholic sympathies caused widespread distrust. He was also notable for his large number of mistresses, including the orange seller Nell Gwynn.
King Charles II restarted the Royal Family's investment in the slave trade. (PA Images)

In 1672 it was wound up, but reappeared with minor reconfiguration as the Royal African Company and received royal protection.

A warrant from King Charles II said: "We hereby for us, our heirs and successors grant unto the same Royal African Company of England…that it shall be and may be lawful to….set to sea such as many ships, pinnaces, and barks as shall be thought fitting….for the buying, selling, bartering and exchanging of, for or with any gold, silver, negroes, slaves, goods wares and manufactures…."

The company was run by Charles II's brother, the Duke of York, who became King James II after Charles's death. 

African captives were branded with either "D.Y." or "R.A.C.E." when they were taken, standing for Duke of York or Royal African Company of England. 

By 1689 the company had been responsible for transporting 90,000 slaves from Africa to British-owned plantations and land in the Americas and the Caribbean.

Its monopoly was broken by the Bristol Merchants.

Despite that, the Royal African Company shipped more African slaves to the Americas than any other company in history. 

George III

George III, who reigned from 1760 to 1820, was pro-slavery and his support kept it going for many more decades.

He was on the throne as Britain was losing control of the Americas, and considered it vital to keep fighting to retain them – citing the profits that were coming from the plantations there. He also wanted to make sure other colonies did not rebel. 

One of his sons was the Duke of Clarence, who made speeches in the House of Lords in the late 1700s to fight back against the attempts of the abolitionists to bring slavery to an end.

An engraved vintage illustration portrait image of George III king of England, UK, from a Victorian book dated 1886 that is no longer in copyright
An engraved vintage illustration portrait image of George III, from a Victorian book dated 1886. He was a supporter of the slave trade. (Getty Creative)

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Dr Brooke Newman, associate professor of history and associate director of the Humanities Research Centre at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the duke argued that "the abolitionists had misjudged the effects of the slave trade on Africa and Africans and grossly misrepresented the treatment of enslaved men and women in the British sugar colonies".

He also said the abolitionists' desire to end the trade was "radical and misguided, like the actions of the fanatical French revolutionaries, but also deeply damaging to Britain’s national interests".

But Dr Newman's research found the duke misjudged the mood of the nation and his comments reflected badly on the Royal Family, as they were all deemed to be supporters.

However, George III's nephew Prince William Frederick, duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, was actually an abolitionist. 

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Abolition of slavery

After slavery was officially abolished in the British empire in the 1830s, the British government took out a loan to repay slaveholders for the "losses".

In 2013, University College London published a database of 4,000 slave owners who were compensated by the government, and more than 600 companies who benefited from their histories of slave ownership.

The Independent reported: "Dr Nick Draper from University College London, who has studied the compensation papers, says as many as one-fifth of wealthy Victorian Britons derived all or part of their fortunes from the slave economy."

Prince Albert, who Queen Victoria married in 1840, was a noted abolitionist, and became president of the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and the Civilisation of Africa.

Legacy of the slave trade

Earlier this year a cousin of the Queen revealed that he had endeavoured to compensate for his family's role in the slave trade by paying some reparations into his local community.

Earl David Lascelles, a first cousin once removed of the Queen, who runs Harewood House in Yorkshire, discovered papers in the basement of the property that showed they had profited "quite well – from the slave trade".

In 2014, Earl Lascelles and his wife Diane Howse sold a collection of rum found in their house and gave most of the money to the Geraldine Connor Foundation in Leeds, which helps disenfranchised young people in the performing arts.

At the time, he told the Yorkshire Post: "I thought it would be very apt for the proceeds from the rum to go towards a charity which benefits the West Indian community. The rum would have been made from sugar from Barbados, so for it to benefit that country’s heritage is very appropriate.

"I’ve always thought that apologising for something that happened a long time ago was a bit pointless, because you can’t turn back the clock, it doesn’t change anything, it’s not ‘Back to the Future’. It’s a bit of a politician’s gesture in my opinion. I think it’s much more important to engage with that legacy."

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 2003: Portrait of Sir John Hawkins (1532-95), cousin of Francis Drake, English privateer, slave trader and treasurer of the Royal Navy, he served as Rear Admiral against the Spanish Invecible Armada, 1588. London-Greenwich, National Maritime Museum (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Portrait of Sir John Hawkins (1532-95), cousin of Francis Drake, English privateer, slave trader and treasurer of the Royal Navy. (DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In one London borough, George Smith was compensated after his son put in a claim for more than 460 slaves. Smith senior was the great-great-grandfather of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who became Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

The Queen Mother left everything she owned to the Queen when she died in 2002. 

Several UK institutions have apologised in recent years for their association and involvement in the slave trade.

For example, the Church of England, Lloyds of London, pub chain Greene King and the Bank of England have all said sorry. 

In 2018, Prince Charles acknowledged Britain's role in the slave trade, saying: "At Osu Castle on Saturday, it was especially important to me – as indeed it was on my first visit there 41 years ago – that I should acknowledge the most painful chapter of Ghana’s relations with the nations of Europe, including the United Kingdom.

"The appalling atrocity of the slave trade, and the unimaginable suffering it caused, left an indelible stain on the history of our world."

He added: "While Britain can be proud that it later led the way in the abolition of this shameful trade, we have a shared responsibility to ensure that the abject horror of slavery is never forgotten."

This photograph is issued to end-user media only. Single use only. Photographs must not be archived or sold on. Undated handout issued by The Royal Collection showing Prince Albert's speech at the meeting of The Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilisation of Africa, 1 June 1840, the 20-year-old Prince Albert addressed a crowd of over 5,000 people at Exeter Hall on the Strand, in his capacity as President of The Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilisation of Africa. Albert's speech marked a pivotal moment in which a prominent member of the royal family had given their backing to the abolition of slavery, a practice the Prince described as 'the blackest stain upon civilised Europe'.
Prince Albert's speech at the meeting of the Society for the Extinction of the Slave Trade and for the Civilisation of Africa, 1 June 1840. It was extremely significant that a prominent member of the Royal Family had finally given their backing to the abolition of slavery. (PA/Royal Collection Trust)

In 2020, Lucy Worsley, curator for Historic Royal Palaces, confirmed the group would be investigating the links between the palaces and slavery, admitting it was "behind".

She said all properties from the Stuart era (1603 to 1714) were "going to have an element of money derived from slavery".

That era is when Charles II was on the throne, and so covers the time of the Royal African Company.

Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace have links to King William III, who was a part owner of the Royal African Company.

Kensington Palace is still a lived-in royal home, as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge currently live there with their three children, as well as other royals like some of the Queen's cousins.

Hampton Court Palace was the home of King Henry VIII and is mainly a tourist attraction. 

The Church of England is investigating one of its endowment funds, the Queen Anne's bounty, for historical links to the slave trade. 

The fund is now worth more than £9bn. Queen Anne invested in the slave trade and had 22.5% of stock in the South Sea Company.

The company was responsible for the transportation of about 64,000 African slaves between 1715 and 1731. 

The Queen is the head of the Church of England.

Apology calls

The Royal Family has been urged on several occasions over the years to apologise for the slave trade.

Graham Smith, chief executive officer of Republic, which campaigns for an elected head of state, said the royals are "sitting on a hugely significant amount which was acquired from slavery and empire".

In 2007, a group called Rendezvous of Victory, which seeks to tackle modern slavery, called for the Queen to apologise, saying: "But it has to be an apology of substance, accompanied by educational and other reforms. 

"We want to see a change in the rules that govern the global economy to bring about a different global order. If that goes alongside an apology, it is meaningful. If they say sorry, I'm going to carry on, it's worthless."

Reparations activist Linda Bellos OBE told LBC in 2019 it "was the State in whose name this was done and that means the current Queen or a future monarch should apologise".

She added: "The legacy of enslavement, and the view that African people are of no value, is still with us today, and I believe that we can change that by at least exploring conversations, knowledge, facts about what really happened."

The UK government does not currently have a policy of paying reparations.

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