Skip to main content
opinion

Prince William and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, attend the Caribbean Military Academy commissioning parade at the Jamaica Defence Force's Up Park Camp in Kingston, Jamaica, on March 24.RICARDO MAKYN/AFP/Getty Images

Kris Manjapra is a professor of history at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Black Ghost of Empire: The Long Death of Slavery and the Failure of Emancipation.

Last month, William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, toured the Caribbean to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee of 70 years on the throne. They spent time in several of the countries visited by their grandmother during her grand Caribbean tour of 1966.

The Duke and Duchess seemed caught off guard by the virulent letters of complaint and street protests that sought to snap old royal bonds, demanding a new relationship based in reparations for slavery. People across Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas – the three main stops on the tour – expressed their view that the British Royal Family instigated and abetted “the greatest human rights tragedy in the history of humankind,” in the words of one open letter, during centuries of settler colonialism, slave-trading and plantation agriculture across the Caribbean.

What was supposed to be a public-relations triumph quickly clouded over. The Crown’s young representatives, over the course of their eight-day tour, seemed to be on a walk of shame.

Prince William tried to meet the protesters halfway by speaking of the pain: “I strongly agree with my father, the Prince of Wales. … I want to express my profound sorrow. Slavery was abhorrent and it should never have happened.” Six months earlier, while in Barbados, Prince Charles had admitted: “The appalling atrocity of the slave trade … left an indelible stain on the history of our world.”

However, both father and son obscured their family’s own centuries-long involvement in the sources, manifestations and unfinished ends of slavery. The Royal Family is implicated in one of the largest crimes against humanity of all time, of which they still fail to take proper measure. What’s more, the royals are burdened not only by what their family directly did but also by what was done in their name. An ungainly extra burden seems to lumber about behind royal tourists in the Caribbean, like a leaden shadow.

The story of Britain’s role in the atrocity of slavery has a beginning, middle and an unfinished end. In 1663, King Charles II chartered the Company of the Royal Adventurers Trading into Africa, which soon became the Royal African Company. The king’s brother, James, served as governor of the Company, later ascending to the throne as James II. Over the coming century, the Company shipped more enslaved African people into slavery in the Americas than any other single enterprise during the entire period of the Atlantic traffic in enslaved people.

Relatives of Charles and James, when they claimed the Crown, continued to serve as chief executives of huge slave-trafficking companies. Beginning in 1718, King George I, followed by his son, George II, carried on the family business in human trafficking as successive governors of the slave-trading South Sea Company. Altogether, crews aboard British ships captured, shackled and kidnapped more than three million African people over the course of the 1700s, far more than any other slave-trading country.

By the 1760s, British anti-slavery and abolitionism were on the rise, led by a motley group of religious non-conformists, radical members of the artisan classes, women’s right activists and Black survivors of slavery. Amid the developing abolitionist atmosphere, King George III ascended to the throne in 1760. Historians have shown he privately expressed anti-slavery sentiment in some of his teenage writings. However, as he grew into his regal seat, George III actively supported British slavery, not least because the plantation-slavery economic complex constituted an extremely lucrative sector of the empire well into the 1790s. Under George III, the Crown served British traffickers and captors of enslaved African people in new ways.

After 1783, defeated in the American War of Independence, George III was intent on protecting, even expanding, the territories of the British Americas. The Caribbean was an arena of particular strategic importance, given the cacophony of imperial powers competing for control of islands across the archipelago since 1756, at the start of the Seven Years War.

In order to bolster military prowess in the Caribbean, the Crown bought 13,400 enslaved African people to serve in the West Indian Regiment. Contrary to the accepted view, this means King George III, not personally, but in his institutional and representative role, was one of the biggest purchasers of enslaved people in the decade before the British abolition of the slave trade.

In subsequent years, the Crown expanded its “ownership” of enslaved Black people. In 1795, a major anti-British rebellion broke out, and was crushed, on the British plantation island of Grenada. In the aftermath, the Crown claimed possession of the previously enslaved African people on the island, treating them as forfeited colonial property and categorizing them as “Negroes of the Crown.” In the name of King George III, a commission was established to carry out the reparations of forfeited property to affected slave-owners, including property the Crown claimed to hold in African human beings. Thus, through the offices of the Crown, African peoples in Grenada, many of whom had fought for their own freedom, were redesignated as slave property. “Negroes of the Crown” were returned to prior slave-owners; others were sold or assigned to new ones; but some remained under the ownership of the Crown for decades to come. Up until 1831, in Grenada, Mauritius and in Guyana, the Crown directly owned African people as slaves.

After the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1806, British anti-slavery squadrons freed kidnapped Black people from slave ships by delivering them to various emancipation ports across the Atlantic, such as at Freetown, Sierra Leone. These freed African people were often subsequently put into “apprenticeship,” which meant a return to slavery-like conditions for up to 14 additional years. Some of the “African apprentices” were purchased by the Crown. These “apprentices” could be forced to serve in British regiments, or in public works gangs assigned to building fortifications and roads, or to other kinds of “urban” labour. Although nominally free, they were effectively held in conditions that replicated slavery. Lest we mistakenly think that “Crown Negroes” received special treatment, one contemporary observer in Guyana tells us that they “worked on the roads in chain gangs with scarcely anything to cover their nudity.”

It’s true that some royals in the early 1800s, such the King’s nephew, the Duke of Gloucester, were active in the anti-slavery movement. Yet, over and over again, throughout Britain’s Abolition Era, the Crown, both as a family and as an institution, helped continue African bondage after its nominal end. William, Duke of Clarence (a son of George III), was the first member of the Royal Family to visit the Caribbean during his military service, where he marinated in the moral torpor of plantation elites. By the late 1790s, he arose as a vocal leader of the pro-slavery lobby in London. He was accompanied in his advocacy for the slave-owners by six of his brothers.

The Duke of Clarence became King William IV in 1830. In 1833, when the British Parliament issued a postdated cheque for the abolition of slavery – which finally ended only in 1838 – it came with most favourable terms for the slave-owners. Some £20-million (more than £300-billion, or $493 billion, in today’s money, if calculated as a proportion of GNP) would be paid as cash reparations to Britain’s slave-owners for the loss of their right to enslaved people. In addition, a group of 100 magistrates would be sent to the Caribbean colonies “in the name of His Majesty” in order to oversee the Black population as they awaited their final emancipation. Captive African Caribbean people were directed to obediently continue serving the slave-owners for four additional years on the nasty and brutish plantation estates. Those who resisted were remanded to “workhouses” and subjected to severe punishment.

On June 28, 1838, Queen Victoria was coronated. Just one month later, the final emancipation of the enslaved took place across the colonies. In advance of Emancipation Day, Aug. 1, 1838, the following Proclamation was promulgated in Jamaica and intended to be heard and heeded by the more than 300,000 African people still in bondage in the colony: “It is incumbent on all the inhabitants of this our island to testify their grateful sense of this divine favour.” The proclamation continued, “... we do hereby call upon all classes within this our said island to observe the said day of August next with the same reverence and respect which is observed on the sabbath. God Save the Queen.”

Having paid millions of pounds of reparations to British slave owners, emancipation was presented to the enslaved in the name of the teenaged Queen. Colonial authorities expected the freed African people, young and old alike, to gratify her with their obedience, prayers and thanksgiving.

In fact, in the name of Queen Victoria, the undemocratic bondage of Black people across the Caribbean would continue for generations. Beginning in 1866, after a massive people’s revolt in Jamaica at Morant Bay, a strict system of colonial rule – the Crown Colony system – came to be instituted across many of the British plantation colonies. Now, in the name of the Queen, the first and second generations of freed people found themselves even farther removed from the franchise.

For the coming six decades, leading up to the time of young Queen Elizabeth II, the majority of Caribbean people had no vote in the government that ruled them. British Queens and Kings and their representatives were in charge, not the people. The Crown Colony was an oppressive regime of rule by strangers – colonial governors were always foreign to the people they presided over. The system lasted long after slavery officially ended, until the Independence Era that commenced in the 1960s. Because of this history, the Crown still represents the continuation of oppressions to many Caribbean people today.

The Queen and Prince Philip visit Kingston, Jamaica, in 1953, when the Queen began her official duties.PA Images

As Queen Elizabeth began her official duties in the 1950s, the British government was preparing to beat a hasty retreat from the Caribbean, following the guidelines of the Moyne Commission Report. Published in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, as Caribbean labour movements and nationalist movements reached a boiling point, the report laid out a road map for British disengagement. The British state would offer no remedy for the colonial underdevelopment and deindustrialization it had imposed on Caribbean economies. In addition, the Crown undermined Caribbean demands for self-determination and for labour rights – the foundations of people’s democracy. When Caribbean nations finally struggled their way to independence beginning in 1962, they did so without reparations from Britain – no long-term capital investment in industrial development, or in infrastructure, or in health care, or in education – to make up for the long-term harm caused by slavery and colonialism.

A 1966 film documenting the Queen’s royal tour of the Caribbean, and produced by the British Colonial Office in its last year of existence, sets into relief the irony of the royals’ current-day overtures in the Caribbean. In the film, we see a svelte Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip encountering gleeful crowds, receiving bouquets of flowers and baskets of fruits from genuflecting girls and boys, and inspecting the army lines. It was a trip of photo ops in which the Queen’s tourism itself is presented as a precious gift to the Caribbean people. In her final speech, before boarding the royal yacht from Kingston, Jamaica, she said: “I hope my presence among you has made all Jamaicans feel a greater sense of unity with all those people of the Commonwealth … so alike in their loyalty and kindness.”

This royal display is so obviously contradicted by the stations of shame that the Duke and Duchess seemed to visit on their recent, morally arduous, pilgrimage. In fact, both tours are part of the same story – the same unfinished ending. The Crown, for centuries, participated in instigating African servitude and then in perpetuating Black unfreedom long after the official abolition of slavery. The Crown left behind a mess in the Caribbean, deciding to depart on the cheap and on false pretenses. It refused to bear the responsibility for the historical and social harm it caused.

This is why, when Prince William spoke of his sorrow last week, it seemed to fall flat. Sorrow is a response to pain. Remorse, on the other hand, is the proper response by responsible parties to the acknowledgment of harms they have caused. Remorse serves to repair relationships, including international relationships, by clearing the air and locating the bedrock of truthfulness on which to rebuild trust. The Caribbean people wanted to see, and still hope to see, actions born of royal remorse for the generational harm committed by the Royal Family and in the name of the Crown. This is the core of the Caribbean reparations movement. We can hope that the Royal Family will renounce the passive voice when speaking of British slavery and own up to their burden of history by engaging in reparations discussions. Only this can lighten that shadow that seems to trail them whenever they walk among the people who are still surviving the legacy of British colonial rule.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.