With the death of Queen Elizabeth II an era has truly come to an end. However, another has started. That of King Charles III.
Much has been made of the immense charm and diplomatic wherewithal of the late Queen and conversations abound as to whether King Charles III will be able to match his mother in this regard. While the jury is still out as to how successful the reign of King Charles III will prove to be, and how well it will match up to that of his late mother, one thing that cannot be denied, when considering the legacy of the British monarchy through the lenses of its existence as an institution rather than that of individual monarchs, is its legacy of presiding over the odious fumes of slavery, colonialism, and empire.
England has the uncontested distinction of conquering and colonising more nations and territories than any other colonising power in the world. So vast and wide-spanning was the British empire at its height that the description of it as "the Empire on which the sun never sets" was, in fact, true. Of note is that during the centuries in which England amassed its incredibly vast empire an English monarch always presided.
Paradoxically, in so far as the transatlantic slave trade is concerned, the previous King Charles on the throne of England, King Charles II, as well as the previous Queen Elizabeth, Queen Elizabeth I,both played an integral role in England's participation.
As a matter of fact, the British monarchy's connection with the slave trade started with Queen Elizabeth I publicly supporting Captain John Hawkins' trading of 300 enslaved Africans, which he had violently captured from Sierra Leone, West Africa, for hides, ginger, and sugar from the then Spanish Americas in 1562. His triangular trades proved to be so lucrative that Queen Elizabeth I sponsored his subsequent journeys, providing ships, supplies, and guns. He was also knighted and provided with a unique coat of arms bearing the illustration of a bound slave. The three major slavery expeditions that John Hawkins engaged in during the 1560s can be credited for England's entrance into the triangular slave trade that had previously been dominated by the Spanish and the Portuguese, and Queen Elizabeth I undeniably played a significant role here.
Years later King Charles II and his brother, the Duke of York, who would later become King James II, played an even more direct role in the transatlantic slave trade than their predecessor Queen Elizabeth I by founding and establishing the Royal African Company in 1660. The Royal African Company, which was formally chartered by King Charles II, was particularly prolific in its involvement in the slave trade from 1672 to 1731, during which it is estimated that at least some 187,000 enslaved Africans had been transported by the company from Africa to much of the Americas, the so-called New World.
As a matter of fact, the Royal African Company held a monopoly on British enslaving endeavours during its lifetime (1660-1752) guaranteeing King Charles II and subsequent British monarchs whatever share of the profits they desired. The profits generated by the company were abundant, and while it is difficult to estimate exactly how much of the royal family's wealth came directly from the slave trade, the notion that there was financial gain made by the British monarchy from the slave trade is undeniable. Hence, the argument being made by reparation advocates that reparation demands can be made directly to the British monarchy not just because symbolically all ruling monarchs are still the head of State of Britain, but because the monarchy as an institution has directly profited from the trade in enslaved Africans, regardless of the much vaunted charm, diplomacy, and personal attributes of its recent members.
There is also Britain's legacy of colonialism and empire to be considered. The British empire was composed of dominions, colonies, protectorates, and other territories. At its height the British empire was the largest empire in history and for over a century was the foremost global power.
England's rise to world domination started with a series of wars in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Netherlands and France. This made England, which became Britain following the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland, the dominant colonial power in North America. Britain then went on to become the dominant power in the Indian subcontinent after its East India Company's conquest of Mughal Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. However, after losing some of its oldest and most populous territories in North America after the American War of Independence, Britain turned its attention and focus to Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. The tide of favour turned back in Britain's direction after it defeated France during the course of the Napoleonic wars of 1803-1815. Britain then emerged as the dominant naval and imperial power of the 19th century.
The period 1815-1914, after the Napoleonic wars and just before World War I, marked the period when the British empire became something of a global hegemony and was later described as Pax Britannica. Along with the formal control that Britain exercised over its colonies, it also dominated much of the world trade, which meant that it effectively controlled the economies of many regions of the globe. These were truly the glory days of Britain and inspired Britain's default anthem, "Rule Britannia, Britannia Rule the Waves."
According to encyclopedic sources, at the start of 1914, just before World War I, "the British empire held sway over 412 million people, 23 per cent of the world population at that time, and by 1920 it covered 35.5 million km (equivalent to 13.7 square miles), which is 24 per cent of the the Earth's total land area. As a result of this it is no surprise that England's constitutional, legal, linguistic, and cultural legacy is significantly widespread.
While England benefited materially from its plunder and conquest of various nations across the world, what about the natives and residents of these acquired territories? A key justifying ideology that England gave for its aggressive colonisation and conquest of much of the world is that, along with this came civilisation. People who were colonised as well as those who were enslaved were taught that their assimilation into a culturally superior empire was a distinct benefit, one that ultimately made up for any perceived exploitation. As a result it is not surprising that we sometimes hear, "Thank God for slavery" or "Thank God for colonialism" from the descendants of the formerly colonised or enslaved.
All said and done, however, it was Britain that benefited materially from its colonies by extracting more wealth and resources than it ever returned. Something that has been notably highlighted in Professor Hilary Beckles' recent book How Britain Underdeveloped the British Caribbean.
The big question to be asked here, though, is: Is this a legacy to be truly proud of and to hang on to? It is a question that the remaining Caribbean nations of the British realm, if not the other British realm nations, will need to contemplate as they decide whether to chart a path to republicanism or not. It is also one of the questions that the new British monarch King Charles III may well have to contend with, having inherited not only the crown but also its legacy
Another key question that the governments of the remaining Caribbean nations of the British realm need to contemplate is: What are the actual material benefits of having a British monarch as one's head of State and whether severing ties with the monarchy would actually be detrimental to their economies? On the face of it, those British nations of the Caribbean that have attained republic status, such as Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Dominica, and recently Barbados, do not seem to have been affected.
Another, but by no means trivial consideration, is whether the matter of reparation for slavery from Britain would be received any more favourably with a new British monarch at the helm?
Dr Michael Barnett is a senior lecturer in sociological theory and critical race theory at The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.