Prince Charles has shared his “sorrow” for the suffering caused by slavery – but stopped short of an apology for his family’s historic involvement.
The senior royal told Commonwealth leaders that the potential of the family of the nations for good could not be realised until “we all acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past”.
In a speech at the opening of a Commonwealth summit in Rwanda, Charles described how he was on a “personal journey of discovery” and was continuing to “deepen his own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact”.
But there was no apology from the heir to the throne for the royal family’s involvement in the transportation and selling of people for profit.
For centuries, successive monarchs and other royals participated in the trade, either supporting and facilitating the activity or making money from it.
Charles’ comments follow a disastrous royal trip to the Caribbean by his son William and the latter’s wife Kate in March, in which the couple were accused of being “tone deaf”.
Protesters in Jamaica are demanding an apology and reparations, with some calling on the country to follow in the footsteps of Barbados and sever ties with the monarchy altogether.
On Friday, Charles told the gathering of prime ministers and presidents, including Boris Johnson, that he could not “describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many” during slavery.
The prince is representing the Queen at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm), but his visit to the Rwandan capital Kigali has been overshadowed by a row over comments he reportedly made criticising the government’s scheme to send asylum seekers to the east African nation.
A much-anticipated meeting between Charles and Mr Johnson lasted 15 minutes. Before they sat down for talks, Mr Johnson had stepped back from comments that he would tell Charles to be open-minded about his Rwanda asylum policy.
The prince told the world leaders that the family of nations was “uniquely positioned to achieve such positive change in our world”, adding: “To achieve this potential for good, however, and to unlock the power of our common future, we must also acknowledge the wrongs which have shaped our past.
“Many of those wrongs belong to an earlier age with different – and, in some ways, lesser – values. By working together, we are building a new and enduring friendship.”
Charles, who will succeed the Queen as head of the Commonwealth, went on to say: “For while we strive together for peace, prosperity and democracy, I want to acknowledge that the roots of our contemporary association run deep into the most painful period of our history.
“I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many, as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact.
“If we are to forge a common future that benefits all our citizens, we too must find new ways to acknowledge our past. Quite simply, this is a conversation whose time has come.”
Charles also told the world leaders that decisions about whether they keep the Queen as head of state or become republics was an issue for them to make, and a long life had taught him that these fundamental changes could be made “calmly and without rancour”.
His comments are likely to be interpreted as acknowledging forces already in motion, because a number of Caribbean nations have already suggested they will ditch the British monarchy and elect their own heads of state.
“I want to say clearly, as I have said before, that each member’s constitutional arrangement, as republic or monarchy, is purely a matter for each member country to decide,” the prince said.
Charles and Mr Johnson had met briefly before they joined leaders from the Commonwealth’s 54 member states in the Kigali Conference Centre’s main hall for the opening ceremony.
Delegates included the Sultan of Brunei, the presidents of Botswana, Guyana, Nigeria and Uganda and prime ministers from Canada, Jamaica, St Lucia, Cameroon and Singapore.
The British prime minister had warmly greeted the heir to the throne ahead of the Chogm launch, displaying positive body language after he appeared to take a veiled verbal swipe, on Thursday, at the prince and those who have attacked his plans to forcibly remove migrants to Rwanda.
Charles’ speech to Commonwealth leaders, which also covered the issues of youth opportunity and climate change, was considered an opportunity to “set out his vision” for its future, an aide said.
With 60 per cent of the Commonwealth’s 2.6 billion population under 30, Charles sees ensuring youth opportunity, training and employment as “critical”.
Many member states were “massively impacted” by climate change, so for the prince to bring businesses to Chogm to discuss potential solutions was “critically important”, the aide added.
And Charles realised that in order to achieve that vision the “historic shared past” must be recognised, which meant him making a personal statement about his sorrow.