The royals’ racism shouldn’t surprise you.
In a bombshell interview with Oprah on CBS this past Sunday, the not-quite-royal couple Harry and Meghan, Duke and Duchess of Sussex, opened up about the brutal treatment Meghan claims she received at the hands of the British royal family. In a particularly jaw-dropping moment, Meghan—who is biracial—revealed that members of the royal family had raised “concerns” about the skin color of the couple’s baby:
“In those months when I was pregnant, all around this same time, so we have in tandem the conversation of 'He won't be given security. He's not going to be given a title,' and also concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he's born."
As truly disturbing as this was, it’s underwritten by the fact that the Royals haven’t just ignored the frankly racist coverage of Meghan—they’ve piled on! All last week, in anticipation of Meghan’s account, they manufactured press to try to turn Meghan into the stereotype of an “angry Black woman.”
Harry and Meghan’s interview has sparked uncomfortable conversations about racism in the royal family. But none of this should be surprising. Racism is British royal tradition, after all.
“The Firm” derives its very power, wealth, and standing from its historical racism: the Crown was the principal promotor and beneficiary of British colonialism for more than three centuries. Under colonialism the British royal family actively licensed, promoted, supported, and extracted from the looting, plunder, and enslavement of peoples from across Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
It began in 1497 under King Henry VII, who first commissioned John Cabot on an expeditionary voyage to what he thought was Asia when he landed in Newfoundland—though they wouldn’t formally claim it as a colony until 1584 under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I.
But the Crown had been engaged in the slave trade and colonial piracy for decades. In 1562, privateers John Hawkins and Francis Drake became early proponents of the English Slave Trade when Queen Elizabeth I encouraged them to raid West African settlements and pirate slave ships to sell people into bondage in the Americas and establish a foothold in the transatlantic slave trade. In fact, the Queen honored Hawkins with a personal “Coat of Arms” and a crest that featured a nude, bound African person in view of the “trade” he “pioneered.”
Later, in 1660, King Charles II established the Company of Royal Adventurers into Africa, endowing it with a 1000 year monopoly over trade comprising the entire West Coast of Africa. Twelve years after its millennia monopoly, the company was reorganized into the Royal African Company under the leadership of King James II. According to historian William Pettigrew, the new Royal African Company “shipped more enslaved African women, men, and children to the Americans than any other single institution during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade.”
The Royal African Company and its transatlantic slave trade became a pillar of the “triangular trade,” one of the most important “jewels” in the British Crown. These enslaved people were shipped to the Americas to work cotton, tobacco, and sugar plantations, the raw materials from which would be shipped to Britain for processing to be shipped as manufactured goods like textiles and rum to the slave traders in West Africa. In total, the transatlantic slave trade robbed 12.5 million enslaved West Africans of their own bodies, selling them and their descendents into bondage—3.5 million of them as a result of the British. One in seven would die in transit.
By the mid-18th century, the British Crown oversaw colonies in the Americas, East and South Asia, and Africa and “joint-stock” companies such as the Royal African Company and its Asian counterpart, the East India Company—essentially corporations granted charters and monopolies and backed by the military of the British Crown.
The East India Company, founded by a charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, oversaw British colonialism in Asia and remains one of the most extreme examples of state and corporate domination in history. In China, for example, it was responsible for breaking Chinese law by shipping and distributing opium through a black market system of opium dens in exchange for tea. When China tried to enforce its laws, the Crown responded with war—triggering the Opium War of 1840. In defeating China, the British extracted control of Hong Kong.
The East India Company oversaw the subjugation and plunder of the Indian subcontinent to the benefit of the British Crown. In his book The Anarchy, historian William Darlymple summarizes the Company’s rape of India thusly:
The Company’s conquest of India almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations—whether Exxon Mobil, Walmart or Google—they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarized East India Company. Yet if history shows anything, it is that in the intimate dance between the power of the state and that of the corporation, while the latter can be regulated, the corporation will use all the resources in its power to resist.”
But the Crown created the company. It took ownership over the land which the company had acquired in 1784 under the “India Act.” And after the First Indian uprising in 1857, it took over where the company left off, creating the British Raj, a divided-and-conquered system of small princely states nominally governed by local leaders who could be deposed and replaced at will. In sum, Indian economist Utsa Patnaik, calculates that the British empire drained India of a staggering $45 trillion between 1765 and 1938. Indeed, the literal jewel in the British Crown, the Koh-i-noor diamond, was stolen from the Indian colonies during this time.
At its zenith in 1922, nearly 458 million people lived under the British Crown. The vast majority of them were people of color in places that were brought under British control by force. Indeed, today, the majority of the British Commonwealth are people of color.
Unlike other inheritors of other colonial monarchies, the British royal family has yet to acknowledge or apologize for its history of white supremacist colonialism. Indeed, Harry and Meghan made news in the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter uprisings when they called for such a reckoning. “There is no way that we can move forward unless we acknowledge the past,” Harry said in a call with young Black leaders from across the Commonwealth.
In her interview, Meghan acknowledged her treatment as part of the broader conversation the Royal Family must have with their history.
...it wasn't until Harry and I were together that we started to travel through the Commonwealth, I would say 60%, 70% of which is people of color, right?
And growing up as a woman of color, as a little girl of color, I know how important representation is. I know how you want to see someone who looks like you in certain positions....
And I think about that so often, especially in the context of these young girls, but even grown women and men who when I would meet them in our time in the Commonwealth, how much it meant to them to be able to see someone who looks like them in this position.
And I could never understand how it wouldn't be seen as an added benefit. And a reflection of the world today. At all times, but especially right now, to go — how inclusive is that, that you can see someone who looks like you in this family, much less one who's born into it?
In the US, the stylized, manicured image that the British Royal Family curates offers a unique kind of escapism—the fantasy of royalty, a real life Bridgerton with fancy frocks, palace guards, and royal intrigue. This facade intentionally whitewashes the Royal Family of the centuries of rape, looting, and pillage that funded those fancy frocks and palace guards. That history remains relevant today. The people the British Crown subjugated remain sicker, poorer, and more powerless for it. My family comes from Egypt—one of those countries and a place that will not soon forget the consequences of colonialism. Nor should any of us.
Back when it’s brutal arms encompassed 22% of the world’s landmass, it was said that “the sun never set on the British empire.” It clearly never set on the racism inside the institution that created that empire, either. And sadly, it should come as no surprise that it lives on even in the way that the royal family treats its kin.
Really great that you covered the origins of the slave trade. Not covered in high school history that’s for sure. Even college unless quite specialized. We live in the Legacy of this oppression. Settler colonialism is truly an apocalypse -to paraphrase Dr. Horne. The more light in this area the more hope of change now. Thank you again Abdul!
I’m so sorry Meghan and Harry are going through all of this. It’s not the least bit surprising, but still disturbing.