Updated: March 23, 2021 11:53:07 pm
The recent statements by the ‘Sussexes’, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, on Oprah Winfrey’s talkshow –– including allegations of racism within the British royal household –– have led to quite an uproar, with opinion sharply divided for and against the couple both inside and outside Britain.
As Meghan’s claim of “concerns” within the royal family on the colour of her baby fuel an already-raging debate on racism, questions have again been raised on if the Duchess of Sussex is indeed the first prominent British royal of mixed race.
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If some historians, and more of pop culture, is to be believed, Britain had a Black queen centuries before Harry married Meghan — Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), wife of King George III. This belief about Queen Charlotte was recently depicted in the popular Netflix series ‘Bridgerton’, in which she was played by Guyanese-British actor Golda Rosheuvel.
On what historical basis has Queen Charlotte been assumed to be Black, and how much do historians credit them?
The short answer is not very.
Theories of Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry hang on tenuous threads, but those who support them say her portraits could have been deliberately “Europeanised” to suit popular sensibilities of her time. While many historians have dismissed these claims outright, others say she lived so long ago that it is very difficult to conclusively prove or disprove vague claims about her ancestry.
What we do know of Queen Charlotte
According to the official website of UK Royals, born “Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz on 19 May 1744, she was the youngest daughter of Duke Charles Louis Frederick of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and Princess Elizabeth Albertina of Saxe-Hildburghausen. Mecklenburg-Strelitz was a small northern German duchy in the Holy Roman Empire, and Charlotte was born and brought up at Untere Schloss (Lower Castle) in Mirow.”
The wedding of Princess Charlotte and King George III took place at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, “within six hours of her arrival in England” on September 8, 1761, and their coronation took place on September 22 of that year.
Queen Charlotte founded Kew Gardens in London and was a great patron of music. According to the UK Royals’ website, the “Queen’s music-master was Johann Christian Bach, who was the eleventh son of the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach. An eight year old Mozart performed for The Queen and was invited to perform at the celebration of the fourth anniversary of The King’s accession in 1764. Mozart’s Opus 3 was dedicated to The Queen when it was published on 18 January 1765.”
Where do the claims of Black ancestry come from
The theory seems to have been first propounded by Jamaican-American author Joel Augustus Rogers in 1940, who claimed Queen Charlotte had the “broad nostrils and heavy lips of the Negroid type”. Horace Walpole (1717-1797), English nobleman and writer, is also said to have described Charlotte as “The nostrils spreading too wide; the mouth has the same fault.”
There are accounts claiming that the Royals’ personal physician, Baron Christian Friedrich von Stockmar, described her as having “a true mulatto face”.
However, the most popular proponent of ‘Queen Charlotte had African roots’ theory is historian Mario De Valdes y Cocom. Cocom traces a long maze of genealogical roots to claim that “Queen Charlotte, wife of the English King George III, was directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a Black branch of the Portuguese Royal House. Six different lines can be traced from English Queen Charlotte back to Margarita de Castro y Sousa, in a gene pool which because of royal inbreeding was already minuscule, thus explaining the Queen’s unmistakable African appearance.”
There are also comments ascribed to various characters from that era talking of the Queen’s “ugliness”, which some believe was the perception then of her African facial characteristics, though none seems to specifically say so.
Charles Dickens, for example, in A Tale of Two Cities, writes, “There was a king with a large jaw, and a queen with a plain face, on the throne of England” — a description as inadequate as it is uncharitable.
There is also a debate over her various portraits, where some observers have claimed that Queen Charlotte’s paintings by Allan Ramsay, a noted anti-slavery activist of the time, show her African features in the most pronounced manner, which other painters might have obliterated, what with Royal portrait makers concerned more with aesthetic appeal than accuracy.
“She did have mixed-race features, and Ramsay was a portraitist who reflected this accurately and didn’t make her look as if she was white,” historian Robert Lacey had told Time.
A poem penned on the occasion of her wedding and subsequent coronation is cited as more “proof”.
“Descended from the warlike Vandal race,
She still preserves that title in her face.
Tho’ shone their triumphs o’er Numidia’s plain,
And Alusian fields their name retain;
They but subdued the southern world with arms,
She conquers still with her triumphant charms”
What those who dismiss the theories say
Many British historians seem to believe Cocom’s theory is rather far-fetched. Margarita de Castro e Souza, whom Cocom says Queen Charlotte was descended from, was a 15th-century noblewoman. Her African ancestry is sought to be established by linking her to Madragana, a possibly African (she is described as a Moor) lover of the 13-century Portugal ruler Alfonso III. Thus, Cocom’s theory has too many centuries and too many missing links in it to be entirely believable.
Horace Walpole, though seemingly rather cruelly unimpressed by the Queen’s appearance, is also reported to have described her as “pale”.
The physician Stockmar was born in 1787, when the Queen was already in her forties, which calls into question the historicity of his “mulatto” comment.
The poem written on her coronation, as Time magazine points out, is confusing – while Numidia was indeed a North African kingdom, the Vandals were originally Germanic.
And about the debate on her paintings, many say the differences between Ramsay’s and other portraits are subjective, depending on what the viewer wishes to see.
Kate Davison, Lecturer in Long Eighteenth-Century History at The University of Sheffield, told indianexpress.com, “I think it would have been possible for her to have Black ancestry without people at the time considering her to be a woman of colour in the way we might. To people at the time, her religion, elite status, whether she blended in culturally, these would have mattered more than ancestry going back several centuries. However, people were conscious of differences in skin colour, and had they considered her appearance African, I think it would have found mention in the cartoons and caricatures of the Royals that were common in those times, which it does not.”
When the decision was taken to choose a Black actor to play Charlotte in Bridgerton, the makers said they saw it as an opportunity to “marry history and fantasy”. “What really struck me with the books from the beginning is that this was an opportunity to marry history and fantasy in a really exciting, interesting way,” showrunner Chris Van Dusen has been quoted as saying.
The Bridgerton series was based on novels by American author Julia Quinn, whose books did not include a reference on Charlotte or her ancestry. However, she was happy with the show’s decision to feature her, and said, “Many historians believe she had some African background. It’s a highly debated point and we can’t DNA test her so I don’t think there’ll be a definitive answer.”
In 1994 movie The Madness of King George, Queen Charlotte was portrayed by the decidedly white actor Helen Mirren.
As for the Royal Household’s views on Queen Charlotte’s ancestry, a spokesman had told The Boston Globe, “This has been rumored for years and years. It is a matter of history, and frankly, we’ve got far more important things to talk about.”
This story has been updated with additional quotes
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