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The monarchy’s link to colonialism: PhD study investigates Royal involvement in slave trade

Buckingham Palace has granted full access to the Royal Archives and the Royal Collection to researchers at the University of Manchester and Historic Royal Palaces. The research project, a PhD by historian Camilla de Koning, is investigating the extent of any investments made by the Royal Family in the transatlantic slave trade. The project is expected to be completed in 2026.

Both King Charles and Prince William have expressed their personal sorrow at the suffering caused by the slave trade. The King, speaking during a trip to Rwanda in 2019, said he could not describe “the depths of his personal sorrow” at the suffering caused by the slave trade. Prince William, during a visit to Jamaica last spring, described slavery as abhorrent, “should never have happened” and “forever stains our history”.

A Buckingham Palace spokesperson said that the King takes the issue of slavery “profoundly seriously” and wants to continue his pledge to deepen his understanding of slavery’s impact with “vigour and determination” since his accession. The spokesperson also stated that given the complexities of the issue, it is important to explore them as thoroughly as possible.

The Palace’s announcement came in response to the publication of a previously unseen document by The Guardian, which showed the 1689 transfer of shares in the slave-trading Royal African Company from Edward Colston to King William III. The King has also said that each Commonwealth country should make its own decision over whether it is a constitutional monarchy or a republic.

Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank, called the King’s engagement with the issue of slavery “wonderful” and “incredibly encouraging”. She suggested that the next step could be a royal commission to unearth the complex histories of colonialism.

Ms de Koning said “the royals are often overlooked when it comes to influence” and that she hopes to change that perspective. Dr Edmond Smith, who is supervising Ms de Koning’s project, said that the crown has “often been left out of discussions” on the transatlantic slave trade, and that the project will fill an important hole in the research.

The PhD study is co-sponsored by Historic Royal Palaces, which manages several sites. It started in October 2022, one month after the King came to the throne.