by Clifford Longley in THE TABLET
American commentators, often Afro-Americans, have piled into the attack on the British royal family in the wake of the Oprah Winfrey interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The consensus among them, largely devoid of nuance, is that the royal family is racist. They are making the common mistake, not only of Americans but also some British, of reading British race relations through the lens of American race relations. They are not the same; not even similar. Almost without remark, persons with brown skin occupy two of the chief Offices of State in a Conservative government, and one of them is strongly tipped to be the next Tory prime minister.
It is commonly said that slavery, and the seemingly permanent damage it has done to relations between the races in the United States, is the country’s original sin. Like original sin in theology, it is passed down through the generations and it is independent of the good intentions of individuals. That is not true in Britain. A highly relevant piece of evidence of this is the judgement of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield on 1772 in the Somerset case, ordering that the Black slave Somerset be set free immediately, because slavery was “so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the Black must be discharged.
Why did this not apply to all the colonies then under British jurisdiction, including the 13 along North America’s eastern shore? The answer appears to be – because the settlers in the colonies (and their supporters in the UK) would not allow it. Indeed, the possibility that the British might free the slaves in North America was one of the triggers of the America War of Independence, along with similar fears regarding the rights of American natives.
Yet the slave trade was still going on across the Atlantic. The abolitionists’ strongest card was indeed the “odiousness” of slavery and the slave trade; and the task, in which they eventually succeeded, was to persuade public opinion of that. It was an appeal to common humanity. Josiah Wedgwood’s abolitionist medallion with the caption “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” that depicted a naked Black man in chains, became one of the most powerful political devices of the 18th century. The argument was largely conducted in religious terms that are now unfamiliar to us, especially the unlikelihood of converting Black Africans to Christianity while Christians were treating them so badly. And the belief that, as a country enjoying God’s special favour, Britain’s conduct had to be above reproach.
The charge that British society is racist in an American way also invokes colonialism, which is seen as being motivated solely by British economic interests. That somewhat contradicts the story Americans tell themselves: that the primary motivation for colonising that land was the search for “freedom”, driven by a Calvinist repugnance for anything that smacked of Popery.
There is no doubt, however, that slavery was powerfully profitable. Mansfield’s phrase, “Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision,” would have referred to the possibility that his judgement would be applied through the empire, to the detriment of British overseas slave owners.
Abolition became so dominant an idea in British foreign policy that the Royal Navy deployed a permanent squadron off the coast of Africa to intercept slave ships, and hundreds of thousands of slaves were given back their freedom as a result. Many sailors died in the heat and squalor of those warships. Often they were little more than slaves themselves.
It is not sufficiently acknowledged that abolitionism itself became a driver of colonialism. The Scottish Presbyterian missionary Dr David Livingstone reported back from one of his earliest African journeys that slavery was endemic in the heart of Africa, regardless of the trade in slaves with outsiders at the periphery. Perpetual small tribal wars in pursuit of captives who could be used or traded was what drove the African economy, he said. Arab slave traders, from the north, took their pickings where they could. He called on all decent Englishmen to commit themselves to wipe out this evil by going to Africa and initiating an alternative economic model, based on farming. The salvation of Africa was to be sought in the “Three Cs”, Commerce, Christianity and Civilisation. It was the divine purpose of the British people to deliver them.
By 21st century standards people might find assumptions of racial superiority behind this call to action. It would be nearer the truth to say that the superiority being claimed was for Protestant Christianity over pagan religions and cultures. By the insights of the time, the so-called Whig view of history, the British machinery of government was so perfect as to be almost God-given, and could therefore be exported wholesale in his name. The legacy of that can be seen throughout the modern Commonwealth, where free elections for a Parliamentary form of Government under a system of law administered by an independent judiciary are still the norm, though not always observed.
In so far as the British royal family has a set of assumptions about superiority, they are largely about class. Racism, where it exists, is a subset of that. If there is an original sin in British ruling circles, it is snobbery; the valuation of a person according to family and birth. This is partly a hangover from flawed biological theories about “blood”, hence “royal blood”, “blue blood” and so on. But being a member of that class does not automatically make one personally a snob – it is institutional. That is why it has been so difficult to eradicate.
The theory arranges humanity in a hierarchy of esteem – which includes power and wealth – according to “breeding”. The better bred one is, the more noble and deserving of respect. So class is inherited. What designates good breeding, of course, is education. That, and accent. The best bred Englishmen and women go to expensive private schools (traditionally known misleadingly as public schools) and then on to Oxbridge. And they talk the Queen’s English. Class, wealth and voice go together.
My impression is that Americans, of all colours and whatever their breeding, are given a “pass” by the English class system, provided they follow the rules. The story goes that a visiting African-American went into a shop in a multi-racial community in London and observed that white people were being served before he was. When the queue had gone and his turn came, and he asked for what he wanted, the shopkeeper apologised profusely, saying: “I am so sorry, sir, I didn’t realise you were an American.”
The American accent, from whichever part of that country it comes, trumps lower class British accents and strong regional accents – though there is a hierarchy there too. This is one of the fundamentals of the British class system that Meghan Markle and Prince Harry – and indeed, Oprah Winfrey – failed to understand. The duchess would have slotted perfectly into the class system had she wanted to. But it meant respecting its values and obeying its rituals, towards which she seemed almost culpably ignorant and indifferent. And that is what triggered the snobbery, of which she was undoubtedly a victim.