Monarchy in the UK: how White power does its thing

“Master, you eated me when I was meat, and now you must pick me when I am bone” (Anonymous Canadian slave, 18th century, reported in Patterson 1982, p. 338)

It was sobering to come across this very recent news item concerning a guest at a reception at Buckingham Palace being racially abused by a ‘Lady of the king’s household’, one Sarah Hussey, a godmother to William Windsor, the king’s son; and as it goes the widow of old Marmaduke – ever a name to conjure with – who used to be Chair of the British Broadcasting Corporation, way back and long before I built me a barrel to barf in.

Now, I don’t want to pile in upon, brandish my stick at or in any other wise throw  self-righteous stones at Lady Sarah, properly vertiginous as has been her fall. She definitely doesn’t get a free pass, but I am solemnly conscious that there are people much closer to me than her who might also not have shone on such an occasion. The thing to do, I believe, is not to locate racism in the even-more-privileged other, but to work all the harder to uproot it in oneself.

Ngozi Fulani, the founder of Sistah Space, who was the person abused, has indeed very aptly pointed out that what is clearly needed over at the palace is some cultural competency training, rather than (yet more) scapegoating – and so there we will leave the matter – except to say that here is a link to the Sistah Space website if you would like to find out how to support their very important work.

I begin with the incident at the palace, though, not for what might be inferred about any particular person who is part of the failing institution that is monarchy in the UK, but rather for what might be said about the institution itself – and about the White power that it propagates.

The story particularly caught my eye because, now that we have us a ‘Charles III’ on the throne of this country, my mind has kept going back to what was wrought by his forebear Charles II (and that ‘merrie monarch’’s brother the Duke of York, later James II). I then wonder what might be said about the period of world history that runs (on an admittedly parochial view!) between those two right Charlies: from the Restoration of the Monarchy (and the accession of Charles II to the throne of England, Scotland and Wales) in May 1660, up to and beyond the succession of Charles III (to the throne of the United Kingdom, and of those other ‘Commonwealth’ countries that still for various reasons bow the knee) this last September.

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Charles Stuart, exiled in Europe after being defeated by Cromwell in 1651 – and via many a jolly jape (dressing up as a servant, can you imagine?) as he escaped England and the fate that befell his father Charles I – lived off of the hospitality and generosity of his fellow monarchs for the rest of that decade, nursing his grievance and plotting his revenge, in France and then in Spain.

Perhaps part of the whole appeal of kingship, if you are professionally speaking a scion of a royal family between gigs, is first of all payback and, immediately following, nest-feathering. Certainly the very second thing that happened after Charles claimed back his father’s throne (and had those responsible for his father’s execution hung, drawn and quartered) was the Chartering in 1660 of the Royal Company of Adventurers Trading into Africa, afterwards known as the Royal African Company. Adventurers, indeed! James Stuart, Duke of York, was the company’s primary shareholder. Initially it traded in Ghanaian gold; but it was also an official instrument of State policy of taking control of the slave trade and excluding other European powers, at that time especially the Dutch, from its lucrative profits.

Bear in mind that ‘the scramble for Africa’ of mid to late Victorian times is yet two centuries into the future. The Portuguese had started taking sub-Saharan African people into slavery in the second half of the fifteenth century (armed with the blessing of, and a guarantee of immunity issued by, Pope Nicholas V, who decreed that any and all “Saracens and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be” might be reduced to ‘perpetual servitude’). But by the 1660s, the presence in the African continent of White European invaders is still limited to a hotch-potch of coastal forts and outposts, regularly changing hands as the next particular Power-of-the-day would come along to claim and gain the ascendancy.

The English muscled their way into the slave trade in the second half of the sixteenth century, after Henry VIII’s excommunication in 1538 had rendered irrelevant the continuing Papal protection of the Portuguese; and by the first quarter of the seventeenth century the demand for unpaid labour in the sugar plantations of Britain’s new Caribbean colonies had generated a sustainable ‘market’ for slaves. However, it was only when the Stuart family got in on the act that the violence and plunder began to escalate.

Here, if you don’t believe me, is the Company’s coat of arms, which rather says it all. Its Latin motto, incidentally, translates as “By royal patronage commerce flourishes, by commerce the realm”; or, to put more directly, “we expect a free pass, for we are only in it for love of country, and there’s gain for you all and plenty, if you turn a blind eye, o citizens of Thebes”. That there were no illusions, about who authorised this trade and who were the primary stakeholders, is evidenced by a contemporaneous reference to the ‘Barbary Company’ in Samuel Pepys’ diary.

From 1663 the Royal African Company’s renewed charter not only specified that slaves were part of its stock in trade but, according to the custom of those days, it explicitly claimed monopoly in that trade. By the 1670s the Stuarts had formalised the ‘triangular’ slave trade. Ships loaded with goods for trade sailed from England to Africa; captured and abducted slaves were transported to the West Indies (this was the ‘middle passage’); and plantation produce (more plunder) was then shipped to England – thus generating yet more wealth and profit, and new goods a-plenty to be traded abroad.

The Stuarts in the end didn’t profit quite as much as they no doubt had hoped, as that piratical royal ‘Company of Adventurers’ were in turn displaced by the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The slave trade as dominated by the English/the British in fact only really boomed after the Royal Family relinquished its monopoly in 1689. Nonetheless, between 1672 and 1731 the Royal African Company transported more than 187,000 slaves to the Americas (or towards the Americas: nearly 40,000 of these died en route).

The Company thereby violently displaced more human beings than any other single entity in the whole abominable history of the Transatlantic slave trade. Many of those 5,000-yearly people transported in the 1680s were branded on the face with the letters DoY (for Duke of York) or on the chest with the initials of the Company (RAC). The wealth generated and plundered by the triangular slave trade that the Stuarts inaugurated would kick-start the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions and power the might of British imperialism into the nineteenth century and beyond.

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This prolonged and terrible violence is a story that cannot be told often enough. It will be familiar to many if not most readers. However, I must also acknowledge that anyone with access to Google and a smattering of British history for background and context could put together a similar account – and I must also go no further without owning my own positionality as a White man and property-owner who is beneficiary if not accessory after the fact of this colossal criminality.

As I have already commented, neither is it open to me to attempt to project racism into the Other: it is mine for the owning. Anti-racism begins at home. So I must say now why this story needs this, my particular re-telling. The thing I want to do here is look at the history specifically as a history of White power and Whiteness: how it operates; how it propagates and reproduces itself.

Fear and disparagement or demonisation of the Other is as ancient an aspect of human history as the first forming of humans into social groupings. However, racism is a distinctively modern strain of ideology. The concept of ‘race’ came into being among the White colonial powers of Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century, at around the time of the Enlightenment – and the reign of the Stuarts. Racism launches and lands as ideology as part of the social, economic and political and philosophical processes that also birthed secularism and liberalism, industrialism and imperialism.

The historical moment in which racism, in what would become the modern sense (Audre Lorde defined racism as “the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance” (2007, p. 45)), is first enshrined in law arrives with the Barbados Slave Code of 1661 (the year after the Restoration). This piece of legislation, formally known as ‘An Act for the better ordering and governing of Negroes’, came into being because the White planters felt the need to scaffold their violent exploitation of their enslaved workforce with a legal framework. It was this document, not so much ruthless as pre-ruth in its conception, that established the legal status of slaves as ‘chattel’ of their masters (as the great Angela Davis noted, constructed as “a herd of subhuman labor units” (1981, p. 12)).

In order to profit to such an extent from treating human beings like cattle, it became ‘necessary’ to establish in law an equation with cattle as the status of certain groupings of people. Racism was the ideological rock out of which this legal dungeon was hewn. It set a grim and gruesome precedent, template and augury for the legal codification of the violence of slavery in multiple other jurisdictions, including the American colonies.

By means of and consequent upon its spurious clustering of all Black bodies as ‘Negro’ and its outright denial of their humanity, the colonists, traders and slavers of multiple European nationalities came to construct themselves, in antithesis, as White and human:

“The Atlantic slave trade had taken Africans from numerous and widely differing cultures and ethnic groups and defined them en masse as ‘negroes’. Now the pioneers of English plantation slavery … ushered all Europeans, irrespective of their ethnic or social backgrounds, into the new category of ‘white’; a term that had to be explained to newly arriving Europeans who were unfamiliar with the working of the new slave society” (Olusoga 2016, p. 71)

‘Whiteness’ and ‘human-ness’ became a subliminal equation built into the molecular structure of modernity. WEB Du Bois famously observed that “[t]he discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing” (1903, p. 227). The emergence of skin colour as the imaginary determinant of identity and worth and the construction of Black-ness as equivalent to dangerousness, worthlessness and Other-ness (an inferior, ‘sub-human’ Other-ness) has led, among other disastrous consequences, to the emergence of a (mostly but not always) subliminally-held and (perpetually) self-reinforcing belief system built around the assumption of the ‘good’ of Whiteness.

The ideology of racism emerges out of slavery, but slavery pre-existed racism for millennia. Black people were not exposed to explicitly ‘racial’ prejudice until the British planters in the Caribbean required ideological justification for the slave trade and the plantation system it serviced and sustained. The construct of ‘race’ is the ideological creation of White people and Whiteness is an offshoot of ‘race’. Emergent white European capitalism and imperialism (and the profits to be made from sugar, cotton and tobacco if labour costs were minimised) begat the Atlantic slave trade; the slave trade (gradually) begat ‘race’; and ‘race’ begat ‘Whiteness’, which Guilaine Kinouani defines as “the production and reproduction of the dominance, and privileges of people racialized as White” (2019, p. 62)

Racism as an ideology is therefore not alien to, or outside of, or some aberrant offshoot of the emergence of modernity in the Global North: it is foundational and central to that historical process. Hiding in plain view amid the outpourings of hostility towards racially minoritized peoples is the elevation and idealisation of Whiteness and the White body, of White culture and aesthetics, dressed up as the ‘natural order of things’. The ‘bleaching’ or ‘White-washing’ – both representationally and conceptually – of the Brown bodies of both the Ancient Greeks and the historical Jesus and his disciples offers one example of how discourses and aesthetics of Whiteness continue to dominate thought and perception and practice in the Global North. Indeed, Orlando Patterson has chillingly pointed out that the very idea and ideal of ‘freedom’, so exalted and beloved in the West, emerged

“as a necessary consequence of the degradation of slavery and the effort to negate it. The first men and women to struggle for freedom … were freedmen. And without slavery there would have been no freedmen” (1982, p. 342).

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So, let’s ask: what is it that White people need, in order that Whiteness may continue to be propagated? The answer, my friend, is not so much ‘companies of adventurers’, though there have been plenty of those. What White people need is institutions: institutions steeped in Whiteness, dedicated to reproducing themselves, having survival as their primary task. The monarchy of this no-longer-really-very-United Kingdom is but one example of this phenomenon.

Every so often a sudden, fleeting cloud of consciousness scuds across the white-walled face of that institution. ‘Hang on a second’, the cloud seems to whisper, as – just for example – happens when a local charity is rewarded for its work with a reception at the palace: ‘isn’t it somehow our task to stop this sort of thing happening?’

Perhaps this fragment of awareness is what possessed Sarah Hussey to act into her given role in such disinhibited fashion the other evening. But it’s only by seeing that her words were not egregious in relation to their context that the institution she represents can be seen in a clear light: not as harmless, decorative, ossified, irrelevant, but rather as living and breathing and propagating, beating out its ancient and deadly rhythms with a steady hand and a constant pulse.

It won’t do to simply squeeze the zit, cover up the traces with a dab of foundation, carry on as per usual. It’s the internal toxins that need draining and cleansing and healing.

Acknowledgements

Much of the line of thought in this blog and some of the forms of words derive from my work with Chris Scanlon and in particular from Chapter Eight of our book together that came out earlier this year (Scanlon and Adlam 2022). I no longer know where my thought ends and Chris’s thought begins and I find that this is an experience to cherish rather than to worry about. But thank you, Chris!

Many thanks also to Leslie Brissett, whose conference presentation earlier this year caused something to ‘click’ inside me about Whiteness, and who put me on the trail of that old villain and war criminal, Pope Nicholas V.

References

Davis, A.Y. (1981) Women, race and class. Reprinted 2019. London: Penguin Modern Classics.

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903) The souls of Black folk; with ‘The talented tenth’ and ‘The souls of white folk’. Reprinted 2018. London: Penguin Classics.

Kinouani, G. (2019) ‘Difference, whiteness and the group analytic matrix: an integrated formulation’. Group Analysis 53(1), pp. 60-74.

Lorde, A. (1978) ‘Scratching the surface: some notes on barriers to women and loving’, in Lorde, A. and Boreano, N. (eds) Sister Outsider: Essays and speeches by Audre Lorde. Berkeley: Crossing Press, pp. 45-52.

Olusoga, D. (2016) Black and British: A forgotten history. London: Pan Macmillan.

Patterson, O. (1982) Slavery and social death: A comparative study. Reprinted 2018. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Scanlon, C. and Adlam, J. (2022) Psycho-social explorations of trauma, exclusion and violence: Un-housed minds and inhospitable environments. London: Routledge.

2 thoughts on “Monarchy in the UK: how White power does its thing

  1. Yes!!! wonderful, fascinating, beautifully researched and argued. Typical of your work, John, you end with proper groupishness, and both its destructive and creative potential. On the negative side – a Lady-in-waiting ‘acting in’ and becoming psycho-socially ‘symptomatic’ . On the creative side: Sister Space’s Ngozi Fulani bravely calling out hostility cloaked as Royal hospitality (this distinction being the area of ‘learning from experience’ for which she was being honoured in the first place. Well done to Ms Fulani for bringing her skills and insight undaunted through the Palace gates). Also the invaluable creative decades of Adlam-Scanlon thinking together while exercising a proper practice of hospitality for anyone who cares to join them in curiosity and debate along the way.

    Liked by 1 person

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