Prioritizing the Fragments of History: Brooke Newman’s journey in writing “The Queen’s Silence”
June 8, 2023
What is your book about?
My book is called “The Queen’s Silence: The Hidden History of the British Monarchy and Slavery.” It’s about the history of the British monarchy’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and focuses on the rise and decline of African slavery in the Americas. One of the central arguments in the book is that the monarchy spent nearly three centuries profiting from and defending slavery prior to its abolition. The royal family was strongly opposed to ending the British transatlantic slave trade, but much of the influence they exerted was behind the scenes. However, Prince William (later William IV), the third son of George III, was a vocal pro-slavery supporter. He spoke out against abolition in the House of Lords. As a teenager he served in the Royal Navy and spent time in the Caribbean, so he saw slavery firsthand. He was close with members of the Jamaican Assembly and the public ally of slaveholders, and they wined and dined him. But over the course of the 19th century, the British monarchy and members of the royal family shifted from pro-slavery to anti-slavery—primarily because of slave rebellions and enslaved resistance. What the book reveals is that even though the monarchy was involved in the transatlantic slave trade from the very beginning, the Crown has not addressed its historic links to slavery.
How did you come up with the book project?
The idea for this project emerged while I was writing my first book, which traced the development of slave society in colonial Jamaica from the mid-seventeenth century to the eve of emancipation. While I was working on that book, I found correspondence from the Crown to the Jamaica Assembly marked “private and confidential.” The letters detailed the monarchy’s instructions to colonial administrators to attempt to suppress potential insurrections on the island by appealing to free people of multiple ancestries (referred to then as “people of color”). I later wondered why no one had written a book about the monarchy’s historic links to slavery. I decided to work on this project several years before the 2020 Black Lives Matter Movement, and it became increasingly clear how relevant and pressing the topic was, especially in the U.K. As activists pulled down statues of notorious members of the slave-trading Royal African Company, like Edward Colston, multiple different institutions began investigating and apologizing for their role in the transatlantic slave trade. But Queen Elizabeth said nothing. I was fascinated by the fact that there was this long history of royal involvement in slavery, yet few people were talking about it at the time.
What has the creative process been like?
This is the first book I’ve written specifically for a wider audience—what is known as a trade book (instead of an academic book). It will be simultaneously published in the US and the UK. I’m trying to write for potential readers who are interested in the topic, but they don’t know much about it. At the same time, the research process remains the same and has involved many years of working with historical manuscripts in multiple archives. I have spent months reading and transcribing documents in, for example, the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle, the British National Archives, and the British Library. These documents include colonial office records, the records of slave-trading companies, the private papers of monarchs and members of the royal family, and the records of pro-slavery and abolitionist groups, among others. The only way to analyze royal involvement in the transatlantic slave trade is to examine a wide variety of archival materials, because this history is patchy and not at all comprehensive. But the paper trail exists. Ultimately, I’m trying to lay out the extensive history of the Crown’s links to slavery over the centuries in a way that is narrative and accessible to scholars, students, and members of the public.
What kind of sources do you look for during the writing process?
The royal archives have the surviving materials of various monarchs. So, I would go in and I would look at what’s called the royal calendar. And the calendar for someone like George III, who reigned for 60 years, has tons and tons of boxes. What I did with his reign was methodically work through each box of the calendar. We’re talking hundreds of boxes, just for George III. Each box would have correspondence, diary entries for the day, various things he scribbled, and notes he took based on what he was reading. Sometimes he would write down his thoughts, but often he didn’t. For instance, George III would note that was going to meet with an MP who I knew was involved with the abolition movement, but then he wouldn’t say what they discussed. For me, the archival process started with the royal records in Windsor, seeing whom the monarchs were meeting with and who formed their inner circles, and then trying to see if those people had surviving archives available for me to access.
What would you say has been your favorite source to work with?
I would say manuscript letters, both personal and official correspondence. I have collected hundreds of letters from members of the royal family, abolitionists, politicians, and Black activists as well as letters from colonial officials, slaveholders, and members of the West Indian lobby. Letters allow access to a wide range of different voices from the period and varied perspectives. Letter writers occasionally reveal details in private correspondence that contradict what they’ve said in public or offer insight into their underlying motivations. In some cases, such as correspondence between the colonial office in London and government administrators in the colonies, the letters will be straightforward and bluntly state what they are trying to achieve. When comparing printed evidence with manuscript letters, historians can get a glimpse of what people were thinking and doing behind the scenes.
Could you describe any challenges you have encountered along the way?
I would say that the biggest issue I’ve had, which became clearer after the Queen died last September, is tracking not only the extent of the wealth the monarchy amassed from slavery but also how much of it the current royal family has inherited. Unfortunately, those records do not exist. For example, we know that members of the royal family invested in the Royal African Company or the South Sea Company, and we know how much they invested. But we typically don’t know what they did with the dividends they received. Additionally, information about everyday life and the experiences of countless African men, women, and children who were caught up in this system is absent. I’ve worked hard to prioritize the fragments I have found that enable me to tap into some of those perspectives. Like the perspectives of former enslaved men who joined the abolition movement in London and appealed to the royal family to join their cause. There are a lot of dead-ends in the archives, and unlike fiction authors, historians can’t make things up. So, as an author, you just have to say, the paper trail goes cold here.
What would you say if you described the book as a reviewer (so far)?
What I’ve heard from those who have read draft chapters is that it’s a fascinating history about an understudied topic that most of us think we should know more about. This is a book that seems like it should already exist but doesn’t. It sheds new light on the history of slavery and on the history of the British monarchy itself. It also draws connections between the distant past and conversations we’re having right now about racial justice. One of the things that I hope the book shows, and I hope reviewers will also say, is that it makes a clear case for the involvement of the monarchy in the rise of the transatlantic slave trade and the creation of Britain’s slave empire.
Is there anything that you would like to tell VCU history students about researching?
You never know what you’re going to find in the archives, and it’s great to be open to following the threads. Pick research topics that excite you and keep you up at night. Really! I would go to bed thinking about this project and still jot down ideas in the middle of the night. I’m always thinking about this project. If you’re not fascinated by and invested in the topics you pick, whether it be for a short paper or a long senior seminar paper, you’re going to lose interest. You’ll get to the point where you force yourself to finish against your will. We’re all dealing with so many issues, whether it be personal obligations or burnout, especially since the pandemic. I always encourage my students to follow their passions and think about what interests them. Go down the rabbit holes and see where they lead. You may find your next research project.