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King Charles signals first explicit support for research into monarchy’s slavery ties

King Charles has for the first time signalled his support for research into the British monarchy’s historical links with transatlantic slavery, after the emergence of a document showing his predecessor’s stake in a slave-trading company.

Buckingham Palace released the statement after it was contacted by the Guardian about the extensive history of successive British monarchs’ involvement and investment in the enslavement of African people.

The Guardian has published a previously unseen document showing the 1689 transfer of £1,000 of shares in the slave-trading Royal African Company to King William III, from Edward Colston, the company’s deputy governor.

Buckingham Palace did not comment on the document but said it supported a research project, co-sponsored by Historic Royal Palaces (HRP), which manages several palaces, into the monarchy’s involvement in the slave trade. Historians specialising in the monarchy’s centuries-long involvement in the enslavement of African people cautiously welcomed the palace’s statement but said much more needed to be done.

A spokesperson for the palace said: “This is an issue that His Majesty takes profoundly seriously. As His Majesty told the Commonwealth heads of government reception in Rwanda last year: ‘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.’

“That process has continued with vigour and determination since His Majesty’s accession. Historic Royal Palaces is a partner in an independent research project, which began in October last year, that is exploring, among other issues, the links between the British monarchy and the transatlantic slave trade during the late 17th and 18th centuries.”

The spokesperson added: “As part of that drive, the royal household is supporting this research through access to the royal collection and the royal archives.”

It is understood to be the first time Buckingham Palace has publicly stated that it supports such research into the royal family’s troubling history.

Colston has become a notorious figure since historians and campaigners in Bristol challenged his portrayal as a benefactor in his home city, culminating in Black Lives Matter protesters toppling his statue and dumping it in Bristol harbour in 2020.

The document recording Colston’s share transfer to William III was found in the archives by Dr Brooke Newman, a historian at Virginia Commonwealth University, on a research trip to London in January.

Protesters throwing the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour.
Protesters throwing the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

She is writing a book, The Queen’s Silence, on the British monarchy’s involvement in slavery and its modern failure to acknowledge it. She was commissioned as a consultant by the Guardian’s Cotton Capital project, which has investigated this newspaper’s links to the enslavement of African people.

She said the Colston transfer to the king offered “clear evidence” of the British monarchy’s central involvement in the slave trade, and the importance of slavery to the monarchy’s wealth.

“There is no doubt that the centuries of investment in African slavery, and the slave trade, contributed hugely to building the status, prestige and fortune of today’s royal family,” she said. “The profits from the slave trade, and from the industries built on the labours of enslaved people, in turn funded the expansion of the empire, which generated vast further wealth for Britain and its royal families.”

King Charles has previously made public expressions of regret at the suffering that slavery inflicted, describing it as an “appalling atrocity” when visiting a former slaving fort in Ghana in November 2018. In the speech to Commonwealth nations in Rwanda last June, Charles said ways must be found to “acknowledge our past”, including slavery, which he called the “most painful period”.

Charles visits Christainborg Castle in Osu, which operated as a slave trade fort.
Charles visits Christainborg Castle in Osu, which operated as a slave trade fort. Photograph: Tim Rooke/Rex/Shutterstock

However, he has been criticised by campaigners, including representatives of Caribbean countries where enslaved people were forced to work on British-owned plantations for generations, for expressing only generalised sorrow, and not explicitly acknowledging the monarchy’s role.

The latest statement appears to represent a step closer towards that admission, and will put a spotlight on the research the palace has said it supports. That research is the PhD project of a historian, Camilla de Koning.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the research is being co-supervised by HRP and Dr Edmond Smith, of Manchester University. De Koning’s research will investigate the monarchy’s involvement in the slave trade and engagement with the empire. It is due to be completed by 2026.

Eric Phillips, the vice-chair of the Caricom Reparation Commission, which represents 20 Caribbean countries where European powers enslaved people to work on plantations, welcomed the king’s support for the research, but said Charles should acknowledge the monarchy’s involvement now.

“I do believe King Charles knows enough to apologise, and should … 2026 is several years away and the issue of reparations is only gaining momentum,” Phillips said. “As such, King Charles should extol the British government to engage Caricom through a special commission to fully appreciate the impacts and legacies of the slave trade and to find practical solutions … to address reparatory justice.”

Historians said the palace’s statement was a welcome step, but that more resources needed to be committed to the issue.

Prof William Pettigrew, the lead investigator for the Register of British Slave Traders project, which is compiling a full account of Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic trade in enslaved African people, said he welcomed the fact that the palace “has acknowledged the importance” of this kind of research.

“However, other major national institutions have themselves initiated, commissioned and financed substantial investigations into their own involvement in this history,” he said. “The monarchy could lead by doing more.”

Newman said supporting the work of one PhD researcher “does not go anywhere near far enough”.

“This is an interesting development, and the expression of support may sound progressive, but a full investigation into the monarchy’s extensive, centuries-long involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery, and the wealth successive monarchs accumulated from it, would need a team of researchers and forensic accountants, fully resourced,” she said.

Dr Halima Begum, the chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, a UK-based race equality thinktank, said she welcomed the palace’s support, but that a royal commission was needed to fully investigate the history and legacy of slavery and colonialism.

“Such a move could really inspire millions of British citizens, and citizens across the Commonwealth,” she said, adding that it could “become a healing moment in which British institutions and the British people themselves reflect on the impact, the nuances and ongoing legacy of historical racism in this country, and continue to take the measures required to address its consequences at all levels”.