The Ghosts of Empire Return for Royalty

This week in the year of the British Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, which celebrates 70 years of her reign, has seen the monarchy’s colonialist past come back to haunt it. Tuesday was the memorial to Prince Philip, what was not remembered at this event was his long history of racist slurs and remarks. Whilst he was alive these were brushed aside by the right-wing mainstream media as cheeky gaffes, and with his death they were conveniently forgotten. Since his burial in April last year the British Royal Family may have hoped that it laid to rest an outdated and controversial aspect of itself. However, a few days before this memorial took place Prince William and Kate (the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) returned from a disastrous royal tour which brought with it calls for an apology and reparations for the monarchy’s historic links to slavery and colonialism.

Whilst in Jamaica, on the second stop of the royal trip, Prince William said in a speech that the slave trade “stains our history”, but what does he mean by “our history”? The British people as a whole? Whilst the British public undoubtably benefitted from slavery as the suffering and misery of enslaved people laid the industrial foundations of modern Britain, the benefits they received are nothing compared to the gains and privileges reaped by the British Royal family which echo to this day.

Under King Charles II the monarchy funded and profited from the African slave trade through organisations such as the Royal African Company, which shipped more enslaved Africans to the Americas than any other organisation during the transatlantic slave trade. The Royal family’s connection to slavery is nowhere clearer that when enslaved Africans were branded with the initials ‘D.Y.’ for ‘Duke of York’, after King Charles’s brother James (later King James II) who helped to establish the Royal African Company. The entwined nature of the British Royal family and colonialism is shown by one of the most famous assets the monarchy gained from its imperialism, the Indian Koh-i-Noor diamond. This is one of the largest cut diamonds in the world and became part of the British Crown Jewels, it also represents a perfect metaphor for the inability of the monarchy to provide reparations for its past actions. By removing the diamond from the crown or paying the vast cost of reparations it would destroy the very privilege and power that royalty is built upon.

Furthermore, an apology from the monarchy for its role in colonization and slavery is highly unlikely as the same philosophy that underpinned the reasoning for slavery, colonialism and racism is also foundational to the existence of royalty. This is the idea that certain people are worth more than others due to the circumstances of their birth, i.e a princess is worthy of her unearned privileges by being the child of a King and a Queen. Inversely certain groups of people should be made the colonial subjects of Britain as they were born as ‘savages’ and the color of their skin determined their life chances. Whilst this idea died out for colonialism (or some would say killed by the anti-colonial struggle) many people are beginning to question why it has not ended for royalty in a society that is said to be meritocratic. Without the removal of this philosophy it stops Britain in its tracks on the path to equality.