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King Charles should pay reparations for Royal Family’s slavery role

King Charles should pay compensation for the Royal Family’s involvement in the slave trade as an act of “restorative justice”, the historian David Olusoga has said.

Professor Olusoga said it would be a “good thing” for the newly crowned King to acknowledge the monarchy’s role in the “crimes of Empire” by committing to pay reparations to descendants of the trade’s victims. The sum could run to millions of pounds.

Buckingham Palace is currently co-operating with a landmark study into the British monarchy’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. Its involvement stretches back to Elizabeth I, who gave a large ship to slave trader John Hawkins in 1564 in exchange for a share in the profits of the voyage.

Historical records show that 12 British monarchs, including James I, Charles I and II, sponsored, supported or profited from Britain’s involvement in slavery over 270 years.

At the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Rwanda last year, King Charles expressed “profound sorrow” at the atrocities of slavery and said ways must be found to “acknowledge our past”. But he has not publicly acknowledged the Crown’s central role in the trade.

Professor Olusoga, presenter of programmes, including Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners, told i: “I think it can only be a good thing if the Royal Family, like other institutions, recognises its role in Britain’s transatlantic slave trade.”

The historian, who provided historical analysis during the BBC’s coronation ceremony coverage, added: “Once you have acknowledged the historical truth of your involvement in slavery and the crimes of Empire, what do you do with that knowledge? You can use some of the wealth you possess to engage in restorative justice.”

Professor Olusoga, who will be presented with the special award at Sunday’s TV Baftas on BBC One in a recognition his work as a presenter and producer across three decades, pointed to the Church of England as a model the Palace could follow.

The Church has pledged £100m to “address past wrongs” after its investment fund was found to have historic links to slavery. The money will be spent on grants for projects helping communities adversely impacted by historic slavery.

According to reports this week, Boris Johnson warned King Charles not to talk about slavery at the 2022 Commonwealth Summit in Rwanda or he would “end up being forced to sell the Duchy of Cornwall to pay reparations to those whose ancestors built it”.

The Duchy, which encompasses 52,450 hectares, is worth more than £1bn. It was passed to Prince William upon Charles’s accession to the throne, earning the Prince of Wales around £20m a year in revenues.

Campaigners for financial compensation include the National Reparations Commission of Grenada, which said the Royal Family “must make repair and atonement for the people and societies that would have suffered because of their involvement in the slave trade”.

Professor Olusoga, presented with an Order of the British Empire (OBE) by King Charles this year, said he understands why Bridgerton actress Adjoa Andoh described the Palace balcony scene at last weekend’s coronation as “terribly white”.

“It was difficult looking at that scene not to think of the tragedy of what happened to that family,” said the historian, who appeared in Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s Netflix series. “It just made me feel sad that Harry and Meghan were not there.

“In some ways the Royal Family are as diverse as millions of families across Britain. It’s just sad, for the reasons we all know, that that diversity was not seen at the coronation.

“It’s impossible to modernise the monarchy. It’s an antiquated and archaic system we happen to have. We try to fool ourselves that the monarchy is entirely symbolic. In fact, the monarch still has considerable influence and is exempt from all sorts of laws. The King has real political power in this country. There should be a debate about that.”

Professor Olusoga admitted to “terrible soul-searching” before accepting an OBE in 2019 for his outstanding contribution to the television community, and to society and culture in general.

“Of course, a public honour linked to Empire is insensitive and fundamentally silly and I look forward to the day that changes,” he told i.

“I spoke to many black household names, like Baroness Doreen Lawrence, and I made the calculation that to take an honour opens doors and gives you more influence and power than making a political statement by boycotting it. Do black people in this country need less influence? No. I will use that influence to carry on fighting against racism and for more diversity and equality in the TV industry.”

Professor Olusoga said this weekend’s award is on a “different level”. “It’s an affirmation of my work as a presenter and producer,” he said.

Bafta TV Awards with P&O Cruises airs at 7pm on BBC One on Sunday 14 May

British monarchs and their involvement in the slave trade

Elizabeth I (1558-1603)

Slave trader John Hawkins seized hundreds of Africans using a vessel given to him by the Queen, who shared in the profits.

James I (1603-1625)

The King assisted merchants in the formation of the Guinea Company, which provided slaves for English-owned tobacco plantations in the US state of Virginia.

Charles II (1660-1685)

The King invested and gave royal charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa – the moment at which the transatlantic slave trade officially began, with royal approval, in the English (later British) Empire.

James II (1685-1688)

The King earned £6,210 – around £1m in today’s money – from investment in the Royal African Company. Founded in 1672, the Royal African Company was granted a monopoly in the slave trade. 

George II (1727-1760)

The King was a governor and shareholder of transatlantic traffickers the South Sea Company. More than 7,000 people died on its voyages to Spanish plantations in Central and Southern America.

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