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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
David Conn and Rachel Hall

Direct ancestors of King Charles owned slave plantations, documents reveal


Direct ancestors of King Charles III and the royal family bought and exploited enslaved people on tobacco plantations in Virginia, according to new research shared with the Guardian.

A document discovered in archives reveals that a direct ancestor of the king was involved in buying at least 200 enslaved people from the Royal African Company (RAC) in 1686.

Frances Bowes-Lyon, Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne
Frances Bowes-Lyon, Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne Photograph: Creative Commons

The document instructs a ship’s captain to deliver the enslaved Africans to Edward Porteus, a tobacco plantation owner in Virginia, and two other men. Porteus’s son, Robert, inherited his father’s estate before moving his family to England, in 1720. Later a direct descendant, Frances Smith, married the aristocrat Claude Bowes-Lyon. Their granddaughter was Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the late queen mother.

The documents establishing these royal roots were found by the researcher Desirée Baptiste, while investigating links between the Church of England and enslavers in Virginia, for a play she has written.

The revelation follows the Guardian’s publication of a document earlier this month that linked the slave trader Edward Colston to the British monarchy. The latest discovery, which Baptiste made deep in the RAC archives, reveals a direct line up the Windsor family tree to the trafficking of enslaved Africans.

The RAC, which traded almost 180,000 enslaved people, was granted royal charters by successive English kings. In the newly published document, senior RAC officials, describing themselves as “your loving friends”, instructed the captain of a ship to deliver “negroes” to Edward Porteus.

“You are with your first opportunity of wind and weather that God shall send after receipt hereof to sett sail out of the River of Thames on the Shipp of Speedwell and make the best of your way to James Island on the River of Gambia,” the instruction stated. It added: “ … our said Agent to put aboard the Shipp Two Hundred Negroes and as many more as he shall get ready and the ship can conveniently carry … and then proceed … to Potomac River in Maryland, and deliver them to Mr Edward Porteus, Mr Christopher Robinson and Mr Richard Gardiner.”

The will of Edward Porteus, another document examined by Baptiste, referred to “negroes”, whom he left to his son Robert. Edward Porteus also left to his wife, Margaret, “my negroe girl Cumbo”.

Virginia is a landmark state in the history of US slavery, because of an infamous landing of enslaved African people at Jamestown in 1619. Laws developed in the state to maintain slavery and crush uprisings included whipping, and dismembering people by cutting off a foot. A study of these laws states that: “A slave giving false evidence would … receive his 39 lashes and then have his ears nailed to the pillory for half an hour, after which they would be cut off.”

An uprising by enslaved people in 1663 in Gloucester County, where Porteus was based, was mercilessly put down, according to an account by the Colonial Willamsburg Foundation: “Several bloody heads dangled from local chimney tops as a gruesome warning to others.”

Earlier this month, in response to the Guardian’s reporting, Charles signalled for the first time his support for research into the links between the British monarchy and the transatlantic slave trade.

A Buckingham Palace spokesperson said at the time that Charles took “profoundly seriously” the issue of slavery, which he has described as an “appalling atrocity”. Support for the research was part of Charles’s process of deepening his understanding of “slavery’s enduring impact”, the spokesperson said, which had “continued with vigour and determination” since his accession.

Race equality and reparations campaigners told the Guardian that while they mostly welcomed the support for research, they believed Charles must go further, and acknowledge the established history now.

A palace spokesperson said in response to questions about the Windsor family’s heritage in Virginia that they were unable to comment until after the coronation. A spokesperson explained that the media operation was under “intense pressure” dealing with global interest in the coronation.

Frances Bowes-Lyon.
Frances Bowes-Lyon. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery London

However, last week the bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, issued an apology relating to the same Virginia family. A son of Robert Porteus by a second marriage, a lineage separate from the royal family, was Beilby Porteus, who was bishop of London for 22 years from 1787. In January, Fulham Palace Trust, which maintains the historic London bishops’ residence, published research on the Porteus plantations. It acknowledged that Bishop Porteus and a brother inherited their father’s large Virginia estate, and continued to profit from it as “absentee plantation owners and enslavers”.

Mullally marked the opening of a new Fulham Palace exhibition on transatlantic slavery and resistance by issuing an apology relating in part to Porteus. “I am profoundly sorry for the harm that was inflicted by my predecessors through their involvement with the transatlantic slave trade,” Mullally said in a statement. “It continues to be a source of great shame to us as a diocese.”

Cost of the crown is an investigation into royal wealth and finances. The series, published ahead of the coronation of King Charles III, is seeking to overcome centuries of secrecy to better understand how the royal family is funded, the extent to which individual members have profited from their public roles, and the dubious origins of some of their wealth. The Guardian believes it is in the public interest to clarify what can legitimately be called private wealth, what belongs to the British people, and what, as so often is the case, straddles the two.

Read more about the investigation

Fund Guardian investigative journalism that uncovers the secrets of the powerful that we all need to know

In the play that Baptiste developed from her historical research, the lead character calls on Charles to apologise for the monarchy’s institutional and family involvement in transatlantic slavery.

“The Royal African Company document shows the current king’s direct ancestor trafficking newly arrived Africans, and profiting from the confiscated lives of enslaved people, like the ‘Negroe girl Cumbo’ left in Edward’s will,” Baptiste said. “This means the royal links to slavery are more than just institutional, they are in their family heritage.”

Prof Trevor Burnard, the director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull, said: “Charles has given an encouraging response to further research, and this new information shows that further research should be done, showing how extensive the links are of the royal family, aristocracy and all parts of Britain, to slavery.”

A staged reading of Desirée Baptiste’s play, Incidents in the Life of an Anglican Slave, Written by Herself, will be performed at Lambeth Palace Library on 27 April.

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