Royal Family's Fortune from the Slave Trade

From the enslavement and deportation of the Irish to British colonies in Oceania and the West Indies to the kidnapping of Africans, the British Crown made much of their vast personal wealth from the human slave trade. Every monarch and their family from Elizabeth Tudor onwards were financiers and beneficiaries of this trade in human flesh.

In The Open Veins of Latin America, Eduardo Galeano describes how Elizabeth I became a business partner of Captain John Hawkins in 1560. Described as "the English father of the slave trade," Hawkins' first slave expedition in 1562 was made with a fleet of three ships and 100 men. He smuggled 300 slaves out of Portuguese Guinea "partly by the sworde, and partly by other meanes." According to James Walvin writing in Black Ivory, Hawkins sold the slaves in Hispaniola, and filled his ships with "hides, ginger, sugars, and some quantities of pearles." A year after leaving England, Hawkins returned "with prosperous successe and much gaine to himself and the aforesayde adventurers." When Hawkins told Elizabeth I that in exchange for the slaves, he had a cargo of sugar, ginger, hides and pearls, "she forgave the pirate, and became his business partner." She supported him by loaning him for a second expedition, The Jesus of Lubeck, a 700-ton vessel purchased for Henry VIII for the Royal Navy.

On July 11, 1596, Elizabeth I issued a proclamation saying that "all Negroes and blackamores" are to be arrested and expelled from the kingdom. Although she herself had an African entertainer at court and was already a lead investor in slave expeditions out of England, she proclaimed:

"... there are of late divers blackmoores brought into this realme, of which kinde of people there are allready here to manie. ... Her Majesty's pleasure therefore ys that those kinde of people should be sent forth of the lande."

Accordingly, a group of slaves was rounded up and given to a German slave trader, Caspar van Senden, in "payment" for duties he had performed.

In 1632, King Charles I granted a licence to transport slaves from Guinea, from which is derived the name of the coin the "guinea." Charles II was a shareholder in the Royal African Company, which made vast profits from the slave trade. Its Governor and largest shareholder was James, Duke of York. The shareholders of its predecessor, Royal Adventurers into Africa (1660-1672), included four members of the royal family, two dukes, a marquess, five earls, four barons, seven knights and the philosopher John Locke.

British Slave ship Brookes, 1788, showing how the slaves were stowed in the ship. (Click to enlarge)

By the 18th century Britain was the world's leading slave trafficker. About half of all enslaved Africans were transported in British ships. Eighty per cent of Britain's income was connected with these activities. The royal family has never apologized for its role in the slave trade and the genocide of the Indigenous peoples. Nor has it paid a single cent in reparations.

In 1833, Britain used £20 million, 40 per cent of its national budget, to pay slave owners reparations for freeing their "property." British taxpayers, including many descendants of enslaved people, were paying interest on the amount of money borrowed to fund the Slavery Abolition Act (1835) until 2015 when Britain paid off the loan.

This map shows what was transported between Africa, Britain, the Caribbean and North America at the height of the slave trade. As well as enslaved people, British traders took products such as gold, ivory and spices, from Africa.

This article was published in
Volume 52 Number 5 - May 21, 2022

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