Opinion: What’s stopping King Charles from saying ‘sorry’ for slavery?

Editor’s note: Keith Magee is senior fellow and visiting professor in cultural justice at University College London Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose. He is the author of “Prophetic Justice: Essays and Reflections on Race, Religion and Politics.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

The reign of King Charles III has been marked so far by growing calls that former colonizing and slave-trading nations like Britain recognize and atone for the harm they inflicted on Black and brown people in vast areas of the world.

Every time he sets foot in a British dominion, protectorate or former colony, the new monarch will have to acknowledge that harm, as he did last week in Kenya.

Keith Magee - Arron Dunworth
Keith Magee - Arron Dunworth

In a speech during his first state visit to a Commonwealth country as king, Charles expressed “the greatest sorrow and the deepest regret” over “the wrongdoings of the past.” He even recognized that “abhorrent and unjustifiable acts of violence” were committed against many Kenyans, clearly referencing the extraordinarily violent repression by the British of the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s.

An apology in Britain’s name would have been the logical conclusion to this catalogue of iniquities. None was forthcoming.

This is a pattern. In its dealings with countries that were once considered the empire’s children, the British monarchy is now adopting a more conciliatory and less paternalistic tone — one that recognizes past horrors and expresses sadness, but draws the line at a direct acceptance of national guilt. As Barbados became a republic in November 2021, the then-Prince Charles recognized “the appalling atrocity of slavery,” but failed to say sorry.

Speaking to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda in June 2022, the prince again swerved an apology, but said slavery represented “the most painful period of our history” and spoke of the depths of his “personal sorrow at the suffering of so many.”

However sincerely meant, these carefully phrased platitudes are not enough. As the Labour Member of Parliament Bell Ribeiro-Addy rightly pointed out in the House of Commons in April, “sorrow and deep regret … are not sentiments befitting one of the greatest atrocities in human history.”

Ribeiro-Addy, who also chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Afrikan Reparations, went on to ask the Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to formally apologize for the UK’s role in slavery and colonialism and commit to reparatory justice. Sunak declined. “Trying to unpick our history,” he retorted, “is not the right way forward.”

His meaning is clear: We should all just move on and ignore the fact that the slavery and colonialism are at the root of present-day global inequalities in access to education, employment, housing, healthcare and justice.

In his role as head of state, King Charles is his government’s servant and representative. He is obliged, whether he likes it or not, to stick to the official script. (This was made clearer than ever this week when the monarch — a lifelong environmentalist — had to read out at the State Opening of Parliament the government’s plans for new laws, including an annual system for awarding North Sea oil and gas licenses.)

As long as the government continues to run scared of apologizing for Britain’s brutal past for fear of legal repercussions including demands for reparations, the king will also be blocked from saying sorry on the nation’s behalf.

But let’s remember that King Charles is not entirely boxed into a corner by domestic politics: He has a great deal of influence at home and abroad, and he appears to be working out how to wield it while staying just within prescribed boundaries. Some of his recent statements certainly suggest he does not entirely share his current Prime Minister’s reluctance to face up to the aspects of Britain’s past that are more shameful than glorious.

The monarch’s recent references to slavery, for example — including in his Rwanda speech — have focused on his desire to better understand its “enduring impact,” and the importance of listening. These are laudable ambitions.

Backed by his undoubted convening power, King Charles could make a historic contribution to the debate about reparatory justice. But he urgently needs to tell us — when will this listening begin and who will listen to whom? And how will the insights gathered contribute to positive change?

Crucially, King Charles is not just the British head of state and the head of the Commonwealth. He is also the head of the royal family, an institution that derived much of its vast wealth from the proceeds of slavery and colonization. In that role, the king is free to model listening and learning to the world.

He has made a start by tacitly declaring his support for an independent research project exploring links — some of which are already clearly established — between the British monarchy and the slave trade. In the name of his entire family, Charles could offer a formal apology for the fact that his ancestors invested in, supported and profited from the trafficking of human beings from Africa to the colonies. The Dutch king, Willem-Alexander, did just that in July. Every day that passes without a similar statement from King Charles is a day too many.

A formal apology sends a very powerful message. It does not just signal a willingness to take responsibility for crimes committed. It also accepts that slavery was a barbaric practice that deliberately dehumanized the enslaved as mere property.

It recognizes that the victims of slavery and their descendants are human beings who are fully deserving of that apology. It makes a mockery of the racist worldview that has for so long been used to divide us into those who are “civilized” and those who are not, based on nothing more than the color of our skin.

An apology can only be the first step of the healing process; it must be followed by immediate reparatory action. The British monarch has the independent financial means to provide significant investment in some key reparatory justice programs. He could take inspiration from CARICOM — the Caribbean Economic Community — and its 10-Point Action Plan for Reparatory Justice.

He should also humbly engage with the descendants of enslaved people in the UK and its former colonies from the grassroots up, to learn what kind of programs they want and need to help overcome the racial inequalities they still face today.

Now in the second year of his reign, Charles has a unique opportunity to show leadership on reparatory justice — I pray he will have the courage to take it. I would argue that ‘unpicking history’ in order to expose the truth, make amends and address racial discrimination is, in fact, the only way forward.

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