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Monarchy and Slavery

September 2, 2015

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The origins of Britain’s involvement with the transatlantic slave trade derive from the  seventeenth-century and form, oddly enough, part of the struggle between crown and parliament.

Royal African Company (1660 – recharted 1672 see logo), headed up by the Duke of York became  a family business designed to enrich Charles and James.  Both brothers had somewhat expensive tastes and both hated financial dependency on Parliament.

Charles II would have been delighted to rule like his neighbour Louis XIV, without let or hindrance, and without continual reference to a parliament.  He was equally keen to avoid his father’s decapitation.  The Restoration of 1660 did not resolve England’s constitutional future, merely deferred it, and the long term relationship between monarch and parliament remained unclear.  Had the secret terms of the Anglo-French Treaty of Dover (1670) become generally known, another revolution would have been the likely result.  Imagine if, at the height of McCartheyism in the 1950s, President Eisenhower had done a secret deal with the Soviets, allowing him access to a secret slush fund that would enable him to conduct his own policies without congressional oversight, in return for promising to promote communism in the United States.  Yeah – that level of scandal.  What the Crown wanted (and what the Crown still wants, for that matter), was a healthy and continuous income stream beyond the purview of parliament.  Slavery offered to provide that (or some of that).

The later Stuarts promoted the take off of Britain’s involvement with what would soon become one of the greatest atrocities in global history not just because they wanted to promote an abstraction called “England” or “Britain” as a world power, but because they wanted money that would strengthen their ability to rule arbitrarily without having to defer to parliament.  As shareholders in a lucrative business, they hoped to rule rather than just reign and to steadily crush the scope and relevance of the share of any representative assembly in government.  The curtailing of the monopolistic powers of the Royal African Company was one of the first actions of parliament following its restored authority following the removal of James II in 1688.
There’s a lazy tendency to assume that slavery was a get rich quick scheme for parvenus and vulgar upstarts.  This is based on the very lazy assumption (deliberately and strategically popularised) that getting rich quick is not for those to the manor born – that the landed aristocracy are “above it all”.  Poppycock.  Get rich schemes are immensely attractive to those who are already rich, and might more accurately called “getting richer quicker” schemes.  The British aristocracy, including the royals, were not content to sit and watch others get rich off the horrors of transatlantic slavery, they wanted their cut.

Monarchy was there at the coming in and the going out of transatlantic slavery. William IV, monarch at the time parliament finally voted to end slavery in the British empire, had been a long time champion of slavery and, as Duke of Clarence, had argued and lobbied hard to protect his own West Indian slave-driven interests from damn-fool abolitionists.  The Duke of Clarence, in his defense, had a great many illegitimate children to support, and parliament had developed a very hostile attitude towards the luxurious expenses of the large royal family.

Won’t someone please think of the children?  The slave trade helped pay for Clarence’s progeny – the FitzClarences.  And ultimately, David Cameron.

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