• World
  • royals

King Charles’ Ancestors Owned Slaves, New Documents Reveal. Here’s Everything We Know

6 minute read

That King Charles descends from rulers who waged wars, built empires, and extracted wealth from colonies has long been part of the historical record. But according to new archival research published by the Guardian, it now appears that the monarch’s direct ancestors were slave owners too.

According to historical documents unearthed by researcher Desirée Baptiste, whose investigation into the Church of England’s links to the slave trade is the subject of her play Incidents in the Life of an Anglican Slave, Written By Herself, King Charles is the direct descendent of Edward Porteus, a 17th century tobacco plantation owner in Virginia who in 1686 received a shipment of at least 200 enslaved people from the Royal African Company.

Other resources that TIME studied provide further details. According to SlaveVoyages, an online research database that tracks the records of ships involved in the transatlantic slave trade, these slaves were taken from present-day Gambia and transported to Porteus and two other men in Maryland via a Royal African Company ship called the Speedwell. Of the 217 slaves who were taken onto the ship, 192 disembarked. While the vast majority of these slaves were men, there were also women and children. (Buckingham Palace did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

More from TIME

Porteus’s son Robert, who moved his family to England in 1720, inherited his father’s estate, including a number of slaves, according to the Guardian. One such slave, referred to in Edward Porteus’s will as “my negroe girl Cumbo,” was left to Robert’s mother, Margaret. It was Robert’s great-great-great-granddaughter, Frances Smith, who married the British aristocrat Claude Bowes-Lyon. The granddaughter of Smith and Bowes-Lyon was the late queen mother, who is the grandmother of King Charles.

Baptiste tells TIME that she had been researching Porteus for a year before realizing his connection to the royal family—one that ultimately inspired the idea for her play. “The lead character in my play, who is, in the play’s fiction, the daughter of Cumbo, asks the King to apologize,” she says. Baptiste created the storyline to “pay homage to Cumbo” as “a symbol of the many millions of the enslaved of our Empire whose strangled voices remain unheard.”

This is hardly the first time the British monarchy has been linked to the slave trade. The institution’s ties to slavery date back to the 16th century, when the English naval commander Sir John Hawkins, who kidnapped slaves from what is now Guinea and Sierra Leone, began trading them in the Spanish West Indies—voyages that were approved and funded by Queen Elizabeth I. (It was only in 2020 that a public square dedicated to Hawkins in the port city of Plymouth was renamed in light of his legacy as England’s first slave trader.) Under subsequent monarchs, the slave trade became a state-sponored enterprise, with the monarchs even going so far as to found and invest in slave-trading companies. Before abolishing the slave trade in 1807, it’s estimated that British ships transported more than 3 million Africans across the Atlantic as slaves.

“These connections go back hundreds of years,” says Brooke Newman, a historian at Virginia Commonwealth University whose own archival research unearthed proof of King William III’s personal investment in the transatlantic slave trade. Her forthcoming book, The Queen’s Silence, will document the British monarchy’s historical role in the expansion of the slave trade as well as the modern institution’s failures to fully acknowledge that history.

As important as it is for history to acknowledge the role of the royal family’s ancestors in the slave trade, Newman says, “what they did as an institution was far worse and had a much greater impact in the long run by creating the Royal African Company, by investing in this company, profiting from this company, and continuing to support slavery and its expansion in the British Empire.”

This history isn’t classified. Indeed, Newman says that troves of this kind of evidence is readily available in the historical archives for researchers such as her and Baptiste to find. And she predicts that, as interest in this topic grows, more such revelations will likely come out. If so, King Charles will undoubtedly come under greater pressure to address this history, and perhaps offer an apology for it.

King Charles has shown a willingness to engage with the issue. In a statement to the Guardian last month, Buckingham Palace expressed its support for further research into the monarchy’s involvement in the slave trade as “an issue that His Majesty takes profoundly seriously.” On a visit to Rwanda last year as Prince of Wales, Charles spoke of his “personal sorrow” at the suffering caused throughout Britain’s history, as well as his efforts to deepen his own understanding of “slavery’s enduring impact.”

As welcome as the Palace’s position is, Newman says that King Charles can be far more proactive. He could, for example, create an independent commission into the monarchy and its links to slavery. He could even go further and hold a summit involving members of the Commonwealth and other U.K. stakeholders to address the country’s history and the issue of reparations. Newman says involving all of the communities impacted by this history, including descendants of slaves, is important. “You can’t have any form of reckoning that actually serves as a form of accountability unless you are acknowledging the continued impacts of colonialism and slavery today,” she adds.

Britain would not be the first country to undergo this kind of historical reckoning. Last year, the Dutch government issued its own apology for the centuries in which the country had “facilitated, stimulated, preserved, and profited from slavery,” and announced the establishment of a €200 million ($220 million) educational fund. The response was mixed: While some campaigners said that the apology should come from Dutch King Willem-Alexander, others pointed to the lack of consultation with descendants’ groups as evidence of the colonial attitudes that still exist in the country.

The royal family is hardly the only British family with roots in the slave trade. Indeed, former Prime Minister David Cameron and the novelist George Orwell are among the Britons who are also descended from slave owners. Some of these descendants such as Laura Trevelyan, a former BBC journalist and co-founder of the Heirs of Slavery campaign group, are calling on those whose ancestors profited from the transatlantic slave trade to make formal apologies and seek reparative justice, including King Charles.

“We’ve apologized—why can’t the King?” Trevelyan told the Times of London earlier this month. “Reckoning is coming.”

On this, Baptiste agrees. “For our country, and the Commonwealth which he heads, he should apologize on behalf of the British State and the royal family.”

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com