In March 2022, in a speech in Jamaica, Prince William vocalised his deep “sorrow” over slavery and the devastating impact it had on individual lives and cultures internationally, throughout history. A year later, King Charles III used the same word to express his feelings, telling a congregation of Commonwealth leaders that, "I cannot describe the depths of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many, as I continue to deepen my own understanding of slavery's enduring impact."


But this sentiment of regret hasn’t always been the monarchy’s prevailing attitude. Recent research by Suzanne Schwarz, Professor of History at the University of Worcester, shows that members of the 18th and 19th century royal family held different views about the transatlantic slave trade, the practice of slavery, and abolition. For an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast Dr David Musgrove spoke with Professor Schwarz about what we know (and what we don’t) regarding the complicated truth.

How was the royal family involved in the transatlantic slave trade?

Enmeshed within the sprawling institution of the British Empire, the royal family of the late 18th and early 19th century is described by Professor Schwarz as: “personifying the existence of a pro-slavery culture”.

Professor Schwarz argues that the royal family was directly and intrinsically involved in the slave trade, using its power and influence to “defend the wealth and property rights of Caribbean planters, as well as the commercial freedom of British slave merchants to profit from the forced transportation of enslaved Africans.”

She continues, “Based on [the royal family’s] ideological support for slavery and their commitment to defending Britain’s geopolitical interests, they used their individual and collective influence to oppose measures they thought would weaken the colonies, and by extension the British Empire.”

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The front page of a written document which is a short sketch of the evidence delivered before a Committee of the House of Commons: for the abolition of the slave trade.
A short sketch of the evidence delivered before a Committee of the House of Commons: for the abolition of the slave trade. (Photo by Getty Images)

What did the royal family think about the slave trade?

“There were some differences of opinion on this topic within the royal family,” says Professor Schwarz, setting out the context for an internal struggle within the monarchy.

On one side was the Duke of Clarence, who would later become King William IV in 1830, and who was the uncle of the later Queen Victoria. Professor Schwarz explains that the Duke of Clarence was “encouraged” (via expensive gifts) by the influential Jamaica Assembly to maintain his “continued advocacy of their cause in the ongoing debate on abolition,” and hold fast with his position of “support for the continuance of the Atlantic slave trade.”

Professor Schwarz notes in her 2023 article Royal Attitudes to the Atlantic Slave Trade and Abolition in the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries that Clarence used his position in Parliament to, “oppose measures for the regulation and abolition of the trade, bolstering the pro-slavery campaign through his powerful oratory and the authority and patronage he was able to deploy.”

On the other side was Prince William Frederick, the second Duke of Gloucester, who Professor Schwarz says, “championed the abolitionist cause.” She continues, “[The Duke of Gloucester’s stance] was acknowledged by an honourable mention in Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament, published in 1808. Clarkson’s History praised the Duke of Gloucester for ‘having opposed the example of his royal relations on this subject in behalf of a helpless and oppressed people’.”

Like the Duke of Clarence, the Duke of Gloucester also used his influence and position within Parliament to support his agenda, lambasting the ‘misery and desolation’ caused by the slave trade, according to Professor Schwarz’s article.

While these two cousins represented opposing views on the ongoing debate, the ideological positions of other members of the royal family at the time – including King George III - are harder to gauge, shrouded by, “conflicting evidence in the Royal Archives”.

First, Professor Schwarz writes that, “No clear evidence has yet come to light to trace the views of Queen Charlotte and the princesses,” while, on the contrary, explaining that King George III’s sons held a more obvious stance. “None of the king’s seven surviving sons, all of whom were entitled to vote in the House of Lords by virtue of peerages conferred on them, supported the Abolition Bill on its second reading in February 1807.”

As for the king himself, Professor Schwarz found that he expressed apparently contradictory views at different points in his reign.

At an early stage in his reign, or possibly prior to his accession to the throne, King George III penned an essay criticising the practice of slavery on moral grounds. However, these early views didn’t align with his later actions that pointed towards an anti-abolition stance. Professor Schwarz concludes that “on balance” it was likely that the king was “pro-slavery in outlook,” which informed the ideology of the royal institution at large.

A painted portrait of King George III
Portrait of George III (1738 - 1820), king of Great Britain and Ireland from 1760 - 1820, 1810s. (Photo by Getty Images)

What role did the royal family play in ending the slave trade?

Outside of isolated individuals acting in accordance with their moral beliefs, Professor Schwarz details how the royal family strongly defended the use of slavery as a means of preserving the power of the British Empire more broadly.

This position had consequences, according to Professor Schwarz: “the role of the royal family in supporting slavery and delaying abolition had a tangible human impact on the number of Africans uprooted and displaced by the trade.”


Driving home the impact of that support, she concludes, “if we take the period between 1787, the year that the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade was formed, and 1807, an estimated 769,000 individuals were transported in British ships. Of these, more than 76,000 did not survive the voyage.”

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James OsborneContent producer

James Osborne is a content producer at HistoryExtra where he writes, researches, and edits articles, while also conducting the occasional interview