English monarchs & rulers

From at least the sixteenth century, English monarchs were interested in exploiting and plundering the wealth of other countries for financial gain.

Gold from overseas, often Africa, was minted with an image of kings and queens, linking money with power. One denomination called the guinea, alludes to the fact that the gold to make it came from Guinea in West Africa. Other coins and later, notes, show the companies and countries with which individual monarchs traded and appropriated as part of the British empire.

Queen Elizabeth I, reign 1558 - 1603

From 1561, Elizabeth I provided money and ships for privateers like John Hawkins and Sir Walter Raleigh to voyage abroad. In 1562, Hawkins violently captured around 300 Africans on the West African coast, selling them for huge quantities of spices, sugar, jewels, and other commodities.

Elizabeth I continued to profit from this and similar excursions which she funded, as well as skirmishes with Portugal and Spain. In 1585 she formed the Barbary Company in order to trade with places like Algiers and Morocco in North Africa.

In 1600 she granted a royal charter to the East India Company (EIC) with a mandate to trade with the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. The EIC was dissolved by the British government in 1857 when it took control of India during a period called the British Raj.

Gold sovereign depicting Queen Elizabeth I, 1594-1596 © The Trustees of the British Museum

King James I, reign 1603 - 1625

In 1606 James I granted a royal charter to the Virginia Company with a mandate to explore and colonise North America. Made up of merchants and nobles, it sought to develop colonies in Virginia and Sagadahoc, Maine which survived through the export of tobacco which was often itself used as currency. The first enslaved Africans were transported to Point Comfort, Virginia, in 1619.

In 1618 James granted a monopoly to the Company of Adventurers of London Trading to the Ports of Africa, at that time generally known as the Guinea Company.

Gold coin depicting King James I, 1604-1605 © The Trustees of the British Museum

King Charles I, reign 1625 - 1649

In 1625 Charles decreed that the colony of Virginia should be under royal authority. It was increasingly reliant on plantations worked by enslaved Africans.

By 1631 the Guinea Company had run into economic difficulties and was reformed with Charles I granting a royal charter to the Company of Merchants Trading to Guinea. After this, they set up a factory called Wiampa on the Gold Coast of Africa. By the 1640s the Guinea Company had been trafficking enslaved Africans to Barbados for some time to work crops such as indigo, ginger, sugar, tobacco, and cotton. In 1636 the Governor and Council of Barbados said “[enslaved people]…that came here to be sold, should serve for Life, unless a Contract was before made to the contrary.”

In 1637 Charles I was concerned that too many people were leaving England, and issued a proclamation that only approved Anglican conformists could emigrate to New England in North America, requiring everyone to have a testimonial from their minister to say that they conformed to the order and discipline of the Church of England.

Charles I also required clergy to obtain permission from both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London in order to emigrate, as he was worried they might otherwise promote non-conformist divisions. This is one of the earliest occasions when the Bishop of London was given some oversight over the Church of England in the colonies, although it was probably not until Charles II’s reign that he was formally given jurisdiction overseas.

Silver crown coin depicting King George I, minted by the South Sea Company in 1723 from South American silver in an effort to refinance its debts after the company collapsed © The Trustees of the British Museum

King Charles II, reign 1660 - 1685

Charles II became king once the monarchy was reinstated after the republic presided over by Oliver Cromwell. In 1663 he granted a royal charter to the Company of Royal Adventurers of England Trading into Africa. This gave it exclusive trading rights with Africa and a 40 year monopoly over the English transatlantic slave trade.

In 1672, the Company of Royal Adventurers was reformed as the Royal African Company (RAC) and was funded by the king, the state, merchants, aristocrats and the Royal Navy. It was given the legal monopoly and regulation of the slave trade in Africans for over 2,500 miles of the African coast.

King James II 1685 - 1689

James II served as governor of the Royal African Company for 28 years, first as the Duke of York, and then as king. For all that time, the company, and James himself, profited from the trafficking of enslaved Africans.

Although he sold his majority share for the modern equivalent of £1 million when he was usurped by William and Mary, without this continuous supply James ran out of money and tried to raise more when he sought refuge in Ireland.

Gold medal of King James II, made in Britain at the start of his reign in 1685 © The Trustees of the British Museum

King William III & Queen Mary II 1689 - 1694

The Bishop of London, Henry Compton was one of many to support the Protestants William and Mary in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ to oust King James II.

New research by Dr Brooke Newman, of Virginia Commonwealth University, has discovered that William was given £1,000 in Royal African Company shares, which would be worth about £163,000 today. Dr Newman also thinks that William and Mary continued to profit from the shares during the expansion of the slave trade.

King William III and Queen Mary II by Bernard Lens (II), published by Edward Cooper, mezzotint, 1689-1702, NPG D31079 © National Portrait Gallery, London

King George I, reign, 1714 - 1727

George was governor of the South Sea Company which was set up to supply enslaved Africans to the Spanish West Indies as part of the trade agreement called the Treaty of Utrecht which granted the British a monopoly. It was called the Asiento de Negros and allowed the South Sea Company to work with the Royal African Company.

It is thought that George made a profit from his shares despite the company’s catastrophic collapse.

Silver crown coin depicting King George I, minted by the South Sea Company in 1723 from South American silver in an effort to refinance its debts after the company collapsed © The Trustees of the British Museum

Queen Elizabeth II 1952 - 2022

Elizabeth was the monarch when many countries gained their independence from British rule. Her face was depicted on the bank notes of the countries where she remained head of state.

Many of her properties and much of her wealth is thought to be the result of the monarch’s historical links with slavery.

Ten rupee bank note depicting Queen Elizabeth II, issued in Seychelles, sub-Saharan Africa, 1968. © The Trustees of the British Museum

King Charles III, reign 2022 - present

King Charles III has expressed his ‘profound sorrow’ about the transatlantic traffic in enslaved Africans, and has announced that he is supporting research into the English/British monarchs’ historic links with transatlantic slavery. The Historic Royal Palaces are facilitating access to its collection and archives for this purpose. Some people think King Charles should apologise for the monarch’s role in slavery and make some reparation to descendants of the enslaved.

Ten pound bank note issued by the Bank of England due to enter circulation in 2024

Further reading