From Insider.com: "If there's one thing Charles should do as king, it's what his mother never did — apologize for the monarchy's racist past"
By Mikhaila Friel and Samantha Grindell
May 4, 2023, 4:00 AM EDT
King Charles will undoubtedly be monarch for a shorter period than his predecessor, Queen Elizabeth II, who reigned for 70 years before her death last year.
At 74, Charles has limited time to carve out his legacy before passing the throne to his son Prince William.
But royal experts agree Charles could still make a significant impact on the institution. They say if there's one thing the king should do during his reign to make a lasting impression, it's apologize for the monarchy's racist past.
The royal family has turned a blind eye to its racist history
The royal family has failed to fully acknowledge the monarchy's part in Britain's slave trade, which involved the transportation and forced labor of African people in exchange for goods.
Britain was responsible for transporting an estimated 3.1 million enslaved African people — only 2.7 million of whom are said to have survived the horrific "middle passage" — to its then-colonies in the Caribbean, North and South America, and other countries between the 16th century and 1807, when dealing in the slave trade became illegal across the British Empire. It took another three decades to outlaw the institution entirely in 1838.
A number of British monarchs — including Queen Elizabeth I and James I — sponsored, supported, or profited from Britain's involvement in slavery, The Guardian's David Conn reported in April. And although the full extent of the royal institution's involvement is not known, Charles has issued his public support to a research project looking into the monarchy's links to slavery, according to another Guardian report from April.
Of course, racism isn't just a thing of the past. The British royals have faced allegations of racism in recent years. In 2021, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle told Oprah Winfrey that a senior member of the royal family made racist remarks about their son, Archie, before he was born, and in their 2022 Netflix docuseries, "Harry & Meghan," they said the monarchy wrote off British tabloids' racist treatment of Meghan as a "rite of passage."
In November, Lady Susan Hussey, a lady-in-waiting to Camilla, the Queen Consort, resigned after Ngozi Fulani, the founder of the charity Sistah Space, said a member of palace staff — who she did not name, but it later emerged was Hussey — asked her where she "really came from" at an event at Buckingham Palace. Fulani told Insider the interaction, which Hussey apologized for in December, made her feel "so uncomfortable" and "violated."
Charles should hold the monarchy accountable, royal experts say
Charles' support of the research project investigating the royals' involvement in slavery may suggest he is taking a different approach than Queen Elizabeth II, who never acknowledged the monarchy's role in supporting the slave trade. But it isn't enough, royal experts told Insider.
They say the king could take things a step further by fully acknowledging and publicly apologizing for the monarchy's links to slavery, and by listening to people in communities affected by racism. Buckingham Palace and Kensington Palace did not respond to Insider's request for comment on this story.
Royal commentator Kristen Meinzer told Insider that Charles should offer a direct public apology, rather than "expressions of sorrow over the past," referring to a speech the king gave at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Rwanda in June.
"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," Charles said in part, according to Sky News.
It wasn't the first time Charles addressed the subject. In 2018, Charles condemned "the appalling atrocity of the slave trade" in a speech during a visit to Ghana, The Guardian reported at the time.
Jack Royston, a royal correspondent for Newsweek, told Insider that Charles could make a bigger impact by addressing the "specific role the monarchy played" in slavery.
"Charles' biggest task as king is to address the royal family's historic links to slavery and colonialism," Royston said.
"It's a very tricky subject for the monarchy because Foreign Office policy is not to apologize or pay reparations, and that is what is being asked of him," Royston added, referring to a department of the British government.
"On paper, the king should not contradict the stance of his government," Royston said. "However, anyone with a heart and a sense of compassion can see that the damage done by slavery and colonialism was real, was heartbreaking, and created generational trauma that outlived the crimes themselves."
The king can do more than just apologize if he wants to make a difference
Chika Okeke-Agulu, an art historian and a professor at Princeton University, told Insider that the king can wield the monarch's symbolic power to effect real change, instead of using it to support the status quo as Queen Elizabeth did.
"The Queen was a product of empire," Okeke-Agulu said. "She was a child of empire and was still connected to the ideologies and world views of empire."
"King Charles is not," he went on to say. "So for him to demonstrate a generational change and shift from the attitudes and worldviews of the British monarchy, he has to take the steps that his mother did not take."
"The Queen was a product of empire. She was a child of empire and was still connected to the ideologies and world views of empire. King Charles is not. So for him to demonstrate a generational change and shift from the attitudes and worldviews of the British monarchy, he has to take the steps that his mother did not take." – Professor Chika Okeke-Agulu
Okeke-Agulu pointed to specific actions the king could take in addition to apologizing for the monarchy's ties to slavery — such as addressing the Windrush generation scandal, in which UK citizens who were born in Caribbean countries were deported or mistreated.
He said the king could also support the return of artifacts Britain took from other countries — like one of the Benin bronzes, which was taken from a museum in Nigeria in 1973 by Gen. Yakubu Gowon, the president at the time, and given as a gift to the Queen, according to The Art Newspaper; it remains in the royal family's collection today. Okeke-Agulu said that there have been some efforts by British museums in recent years to return stolen artifacts to their countries of origin, but endorsement from the monarch could spur more action.
"I think that even the symbolic gesture of announcing that he's very interested in this issue would encourage, perhaps even catalyze, new efforts by these British institutions," Okeke-Agulu said.
Likewise, Meinzer suggested Charles could donate to and listen to communities affected by racism that feel they've been "negatively and systematically harmed by his institution."
And after the incident with Lady Susan Hussey, Diane Abbott, a member of Parliament for the Labour Party, told CNN in December that the royal family needs to change internally before it can spur changes in the UK and beyond.
"I would like to see them have more Black people in the royal household, I would like to see them genuinely open their arms to Meghan Markle, and I would like to see them use their role to try and encourage a genuinely multiracial society," she said.
NPR also reported in April that the group Heirs of Slavery — which is made up of the ancestors of those who profited off the transatlantic slave trade — has approached King Charles to work with them, which would offer the monarch a tangible way to take accountability for his family's history.
If the king chooses not to take any action, Okeke-Agulu said, Charles "will be basically saying that not much has changed on the very subject that defined Britain as a political phenomenon, cultural entity, and as an institution that has to care about ethics and morals."
Charles could strengthen the monarchy's future by addressing its ugly past
If Charles takes meaningful steps to address the monarchy's history, it could help the future of the monarchy.
"Taking these steps would not just benefit the people of the Commonwealth and Charles himself, it would also serve to smooth the path for William and Kate Middleton, who presented themselves as out-of-touch overlords during their disastrous Caribbean tour," Meinzer said, referencing the couple's royal tour in the region in March 2022.
The couple undertook the tour on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II, as part of the late monarch's Platinum Jubilee celebrations. Elizabeth was head of state of 14 Commonwealth countries, almost all of which are former colonies of the British Empire; Charles took over as head of state after her death.
William and Kate canceled the first stop on their tour, Belize, after locals organized protests ahead of their arrival and carried signs referencing the monarchy's colonial past. There were also protests in Jamaica, as citizens argued that the UK should pay reparations for the slave trade.
William and Kate were also criticized after photos showing them greeting children through holes in a wire fence on a football field in Kingston, Jamaica, were released, Newsweek reported at the time.
William addressed the criticism in a statement on Twitter shortly after the tour, saying it brought an opportunity to reflect and learn and "brought into even sharper focus questions about the past and the future."
The same week that William and Kate visited the nation, Belize and Jamaica signaled their intentions to remove Queen Elizabeth II as head of state before her death in 2022, according to The Independent. This came after Barbados removed the Queen as its head of state and became a republic in 2021. And it's possible other Commonwealth realms could follow suit during Charles' reign, as Insider's John Haltiwanger previously reported.
Okeke-Agulu said the "rituals of empire" that instilled loyalty into Commonwealth countries are fading with time, leaving many wondering why they remain loyal to the monarchy at all.
"The institution itself is going to be increasingly in a precarious situation," he went on to say. "But one of the things it can do is to buy new favors, and you can do that by addressing the very crucial and important issues and questions that a huge segment of the world's population wishes for the monarchy to address."
While a vocally anti-racist monarchy would be a strength for the institution itself — helping the family distance itself from "questions of unconscious bias and racism behind closed doors," as Meinzer told Insider — it would also be an important historical moment for the royals to take responsibility for ancestral abuses.
"If he tried to address these things now, he will be doing his children and his children's children a favor, and in fact, doing Britain a favor," Okeke-Agulu said of Charles, adding: "So long as there are human beings whose ancestors experienced that institution, this question will never go away."
By taking responsibility for the monarchy's past, Charles could help the institution clear the skeletons out of its closet and move forward.
If he doesn't, the monarchy risks getting left behind — and losing the world's respect once and for all.
"The institution itself is going to be increasingly in a precarious situation. But one of the things it can do is to buy new favors, and you can do that by addressing the very crucial and important issues and questions that a huge segment of the world's population wishes for the monarchy to address.... If he tried to address these things now, he will be doing his children and his children's children a favor, and in fact, doing Britain a favor. So long as there are human beings whose ancestors experienced that institution, this question will never go away." – Professor Okeke-Agulu