Professor's Research Reveals 18th Century Royal Family's Polarised Attitudes to Slavery

gpp-schwarz-suzanne-content ‘© His Majesty King Charles III 2023’.
Professor Suzanne Schwarz in Windsor Castle's reading room (photo courtesy of the Royal Archives © His Majesty King Charles III 2023)

Distinguished historian, Professor Suzanne Schwarz of the University of Worcester, an internationally renowned expert on the history of the Atlantic slave trade, has now published an article on this theme in the September issue of the English Historical Review, which is the ‘oldest journal of historical scholarship in the English-speaking world’.

The article reveals strongly polarised attitudes between, in particular, the Duke of Clarence who strongly favoured the retention of the slave trade whilst the Duke of Gloucester strongly and actively advocated for abolition.

A vital part of Professor Schwarz’s research for this article was intensive work at the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle during her Georgian Papers Programme Fellowship. Following the launch of the Georgian Papers Programme (GPP) by Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2015 ( , Professor Schwarz was one of the first recipients of a GPP fellowship in 2016.

Over the past 7 years Professor Schwarz has carefully studied hundreds of documents at Windsor Castle and has linked these to other archival collections in Britain, America and Sierra Leone. She has pieced together fragmentary evidence on the views of members of the royal family during the reign of King George III, but notes that assessing that the then King’s own views on the slave trade is complicated by “areas of silence, as well as conflicting evidence in the Royal Archives”. It is, of course, well know that King George III was very unwell for considerable periods during his reign.

In the English Historical Review article, Professor Schwarz notes that: “Against a backdrop of huge support for abolition across Britain, it is significant that George III’s views were not made public, and his sons took on responsibility for opposing the measure.” She adds that: “In the absence of direct statements by George III, various contemporary observers made assumptions about his views.”

The balance of historical evidence indicates that George III was opposed to the abolition of the slave trade. His sons, particularly the Duke of Clarence, spoke in defence of the trade in the House of Lords. Professor Schwarz argues that “Clarence and his brothers were taking their political lead from George III.”

In her journal article, Professor Schwarz notes that: “By defending planters and the British slave merchants who supplied them, the duke [Clarence] publicly associated himself, and by implication the royal family, with men castigated for their cruel, vulgar and uncivilised behaviour.”

She added: “As a result of his [Duke of Clarence] intervention, the views of British slave merchants and agents for Jamaica and other Caribbean islands were heard almost verbatim in the Lords, as he not only tabled their petitions but also restated their arguments in his speeches.”

By contrast, however, Professor Schwarz points out that the then Duke of Gloucester used his influence in an attempt to bring an end to the inhumane traffic in “human cargo.” He was, according to the historical evidence, the only dissenting voice in the royal family. His presence and advocacy in the House of Lords was regarded as vital to the progress of abolition by the then prime minister, Lord Grenville.

“Speechmaking and checking legislative proposals were among the ways Gloucester supported the progress of abolition, but his main importance lay in his influence on policies to enforce abolition and secure international treaty agreements,” Professor Schwarz writes. After the passage of the Parliamentary Bill to abolish the slave trade, the Duke Of Gloucester played a significant role in the implementation of suppression policies, as a result of which Royal Navy ships intercepted slave ships, mainly at Sierra Leone

Professor Schwarz’s research is published just months after King Charles III signalled his support for research into the monarchy’s links to slavery.

“King Charles’s support for such research is very positive and will hopefully encourage more widespread teaching and understanding of this complex area of historical debate,” she said.

Professor Schwarz notes that in the period between George III’s accession and the abolition of the slave trade, British ships transported more than 1.5 million Africans into slavery, with more than 200,000 of these people perishing during the Atlantic crossing.

Her research reveals how, during the late 18th and early 19th centuries members of the Royal family’s “interventions in debate affected (and on balance, impeded) the progress of abolition, and had direct repercussions on the lives of hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans”.


Read the full article in the English Historical Review