Before Meghan and Harry: The British royals′ historical views on race | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 09.03.2021

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Before Meghan and Harry: The British royals' historical views on race

Meghan Markle is not the first nonwhite member of the British royal family. An Indian princess was brought into the fold in the mid-1800s and wrote about wanting to escape royal life.

While pregnant with her first child, Meghan Markle, wife of Prince Harry, had to hear that their son wouldn't be given security and the "prince" title, along with "concerns and conversations about how dark his skin might be when he is born," Markle revealed in a much-publicized interview with Oprah Winfrey. The duchess also mentioned having "a clear and frightening thought" about suicide while she was a working member of the royal family.

The pressures of being a British royal are legendary, as is exemplified by its many members, including Prince William; his father, Charles; his late mother, Princess Diana; and most recently his brother, Prince Harry.

Meghan is not the first nonwhite person to have become a British royal. According to Dr. Priya Atwal, a researcher at the University of Oxford and the author of the book Royals and Rebels: The Rise and Fall of the Sikh Empire, Queen Victoria adopted multiple children from the colonies in the 19th century as a "way to learn about her new territories and project a benevolent image of her family." Atwal wrote her thoughts on the subject on a Twitter thread that has been shared hundreds of times.

The happy family?

"If we cast the net a bit more broadly, when you look at British royal family history, you will find other characters of color that crop up," Atwal told DW. 

Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), for example, the wife of King George III, was believed to have been of Black ancestry several generations before her, although the claim is disputed.

Indeed, in a 1999 article, the historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom has argued that Charlotte, the daughter of the German Duke Charles Louis Frederick of Mecklenburg and his wife, Princess Elisabeth Albertine of Saxe-Hildburghausen, "was directly descended from Margaritade de Castro y Sousa, a Black branch of the Portuguese royal house."

"That was picked up in the popular Netflix series Bridgerton, which cast a mixed-race lady to play the queen's character," Atwal said, adding that the claim is disputed and not all historians agree with it.

Atwal looked into the colonial wards and the colonial godchildren of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), "and they were a group of several young figures from chiefly houses from across colonized territories that were taken over by Britain." These young people included Prince Duleep Singh and Princess Gouramma from India, but also Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an African orphan from modern-day Nigeria, whom Queen Victoria took under her wing.

Queen Victoria

Queen Victoria adopted many wards from British colonies

"It was fascinating for me to see that there are photographs for example of Princess Gouramma, Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Maharaja Duleep Singh and his children included in family photo albums that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert put together. What we have to bear in mind is that photography ... became more widespread in the 1840s," Atwal said, adding that this was probably the first concept of a family album and, interestingly, all these characters appeared in it. For Atwal, this showed how Victoria and Albert saw their family members.

Less racist than today?

Does that mean the British royals were less racist in the past? Indeed, mixed-race marriages were common between Englishmen and Indians in the mid-18th century, according to the British author William Dalrymple, who discusses his own mixed-race ancestry in the book White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth-Century India.

Atwal said the concept of race was not restricted or even determined by skin color. "It's interesting that Queen Victoria didn't see things in those terms. She saw someone like Gouramma, someone like Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Duleep Singh ... somewhat as equals, somewhat as kin, but not because of their skin color. She understood the ultimate marker of society to be if you had royal blood or not," she added.

Queen Victoria's intentions were nevertheless ambiguous. Perhaps still squeamish about her colonial wards marrying English people, she tried to arrange to get Princess Gouramma and Maharaja Duleep Singh married — after Singh converted to Christianity. The queen felt "they would be the ideal couple, the ideal poster pair to champion this new model of the Empire. In some ways similar to what the pressure was on Harry and Meghan to stand as idealized figures before the Commonwealth," Atwal said.

A still from Bridgerton showing a man and a woman

Based on the Regency era, 'Bridgerton' stood out because of its mixed-race cast

'Escape' from royal life

Queen Victoria's matchmaking didn't work out however, and Gouramma struggled with the pressures of royal life, including, "intense scrutiny by her guardians, by the wider society and by being the ward of the queen," according to Atwal's research.

Gouramma was also shunned by Duleep Singh because he felt she was an unsafe wife, following rumors that she had fallen in love and wanted to run away with a servant. "In the letters that I found… it was more that, in her words, she wanted to escape into a life of anonymity and she could see that the servants could live ordinary lives and she wanted to become like them," the Oxford researcher explained, emphasizing that Meghan and Gouramma's stories are very different, but their need to want to escape from the pressures and expectations, from the decorum of royal life, from suppressing their feelings, made their situations similar.

So, have the British royals changed at all in these 150-odd years? "It's complicated, we're just starting to do more of this research," Atwal said, adding that despite Queen Victoria bringing these non-white children into her family fold, she was ready to brush away her ward, Duleep Singh, when he wanted to marry an English lady.

Like in Meghan Markle's case, the question was, "What will the children look like?"