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Williams: Britain's royal family, like the U.S., needs to atone for slavery

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The death of Queen Elizabeth II should be viewed less as the end of an era than the beginning of a serious conversation about unatoned sin.

That sin is the royal family’s participation and profiting in the transatlantic slave trade, dating back to the 16th century reign of Elizabeth I, according to Brooke Newman, an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the upcoming book, “The Queen’s Silence: The Hidden History of the British Monarchy and Slavery.”

America is not alone in being loath to address its legacy of enslavement. Human bondage and the brutal subjugation of colonialism were global afflictions that inflicted centuries-long trauma in need of repair.

In the former British empire, if not now, when?

“There’s never going to be a right time to have those conversations because history is uncomfortable,” Newman said in an interview Tuesday. “But that’s not the role of history to make people feel good, to make people feel nostalgic.”

British involvement in the slave trade can be traced to the 1562 voyage of John Hawkins, who captured 300 Africans, crossed the Atlantic and sold his human cargo in Spanish Hispaniola for pearls, gold, animal hides, and sugar, according to a piece Newman wrote in July. Impressed, Elizabeth I lent him a ship in exchange for a share of the profits from his subsequent slaving expeditions.

“The Queen later celebrated Hawkins’s achievements by granting him a coat of arms featuring a bound African captive,” Newman wrote. In 1672, Charles II formed the Royal African Company, which “launched England — and the Crown — into the transatlantic slave trade on a grand scale.”

Britain abolished slavery in its empire in 1833, and agreed to provide restitution to enslavers — that’s right, not the enslaved — which cost an amount equivalent to 40% of the national budget. The debt for this compensation was not paid off until 2015.

“It’s very stark when you realize that modern-day descendants of the enslaved were paying taxes toward that debt,” Newman said.

“By compensating slave owners at the same time they are abolishing slavery, they are saying, ‘Your property claims are legitimate. But we’re not going to pay the people who were forced to do that work because they were just property.’”

Brooke Newman

Newman

To Newman, these matters are not abstract.

“I can’t imagine a more important conversation we should be having after the death of the Queen in the 21st century than a conversation about inherited wealth and privilege and inequality,” she said.

But as we know all too well, such conversations are deemed impolite, in Britain and the U.S., even in the classroom.

“Why is it not taught to children not only in Britain but the [British] Commonwealth?” Newman asked, adding that “the British are behind us” when it comes to educating school children about its slave-trading legacy.

That’s a scary thought.

Younger generations are less willing than their elders to sugarcoat this royal legacy, if memes and other posts on #BlackTwitter, #IrishTwitter and #IndianTwitter are any indication. One tweet used a quote from Malcolm X to describe the lingering trauma: ”If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made.”

Malcolm would say the royal family has barely acknowledged the existence of the knife.

A Caribbean tour by Prince William and his wife, Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, designed as a charm offensive, was panned as more offensive than charming.

That botched tour, and the controversy surrounding the treatment of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, the biracial American wife of Prince Harry, “demonstrates how out of touch the crown really is and how out of touch the crown’s PR team was,” especially coming after 2020 and a Black Lives Matter movement that resonated in Britain, Newman said.

“The royal family and British government have had multiple chances to apologize for this history and admit the legacy of slavery and colonialism is very much alive,” Newman said. But, “they’re not willing to engage in good-faith conversations about reparations and restitution.”

And now, we’re getting what Newman called the “theater of rule” since Queen Elizabeth II’s death, in service of a multi-billion dollar enterprise. “The institution is there to replicate itself and ensure its own survival.”

That will most assuredly be tougher for King Charles III, who lacks the stature of his mom.

The new king has a choice. He can preside over a crown of declining significance. Or he can chart his own legacy by launching a long-overdue conversation about restitution to the former colonies that suffered under the dominion of his family, including his mom.

And that starts with an apology.

Michael Paul Williams is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va.; read more of his columns on Richmond.com.

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