Was Queen Charlotte Black?
The idea that George III’s consort Queen Charlotte was a black woman is one that seems to be growing in popularity in recent years. Netflix’s decision to portray Charlotte as a black woman in Bridgerton has also brought more attention to this topic. This idea that Charlotte was a black woman is one that historians have treated with skepticism or have rejected outright.
Before I give my own views on the matter, I want to start by stating that I think addressing this issue is important not only for the purpose of correcting the historical record, but also because this focus on a European queen who may or may not have had African ancestry reinforces a Eurocentric outlook of history by suggesting that Africans must seek validation in the history of others rather than looking at our own history and culture. This is precisely the point which I made in an article for Huffington Post in which I pointed out that African monarchies are generally not treated with the same reverence and respect as European monarchies are. The attempts to claim Charlotte as a black queen, in my view, only reinforces this Eurocentric focus on history.
The claim that Queen Charlotte was black seems to have originated with J.A. Rogers. Below is an excerpt about Charlotte from his book Sex and Race, Volume 1 Negro-Caucasian Mixing in All Ages and All Lands — The Old World.
100 Amazing Facts About the Negro with Complete Proof: A Short Cut to The World History of The Negro by Rogers also included an image of Charoltte.
Rogers’ claim was based largely Allan Ramsay’ depiction of Charlotte, which depict her with “negroid” features such as full lips and a broad nose. The problem with relying on Rasmay’s depiction of Charlotte is that there were several other depictions of her which vary in appearance.
Her appearance was also caricatured in the press, as demonstrated by the examples below:
One can see from the examples above that the “negroid” features which are present in Rasmay’s paintings are not how Charlotte was portrayed in other paintings and caricatures.
This view that Charlotte was a woman with African features became the center of a controversy when an activist from South Africa named Rev. Motlalepula Chabaku complained that a statue of Charlotte altered her African features.
B. Graham Weathers wrote the following response to the charge that he had altered Charlotte’s features.
The following newspaper article also explored this debate over the various portraits of Charlotte:
Mario de Valdes y Cocom wrote an article for PBS titled “The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families” which also makes the case for Charlotte having African ancestry. Cocom’s claim relies partly on the previously mentioned portraits by Ramsay. Cocom writes:
The Negroid characteristics of the Queen’s portraits certainly had political significance since artists of that period were expected to play down, soften or even obliterate undesirable features in a subjects’s face. Sir Allan Ramsay was the artist responsible for the majority of the paintings of the Queen and his representations of her were the most decidedly African of all her portraits. Ramsey was an anti-slavery intellectual of his day. He also married the niece of Lord Mansfield, the English judge whose 1772 decision was the first in a series of rulings that finally ended slavery in the British Empire. It should be noted too that by the time Sir Ramsay was commissioned to do his first portrait of the Queen, he was already , by marriage, uncle to Dido Elizabeth Lindsay, the black grand niece of Lord Mansfield.
Even Cocom notes that Ramsay’s portraits of her were the most African in appearance, which is a clear acknowledgment that Charlotte was not typically portrayed as having such features.
Cocom also writes:
Queen Charlotte, wife of the English King George III (1738–1820), was directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a black branch of the Portuguese Royal House. The riddle of Queen Charlotte’s African ancestry was solved as a result of an earlier investigation into the black magi featured in 15th century Flemish paintings. Two art historians had suggested that the black magi must have been portraits of actual contemporary people (since the artist, without seeing them, would not have been aware of the subtleties in colouring and facial bone structure of quadroons or octoroons which these figures invariably represented) Enough evidence was accumulated to propose that the models for the black magi were, in all probability, members of the Portuguese de Sousa family. (Several de Sousas had in fact traveled to the Netherlands when their cousin, the Princess Isabella went there to marry the Grand Duke, Philip the Good of Burgundy in the year 1429.)
The claim that Margarita de Castro y Sousa is from the black branch of the Portuguese royal house is misleading. Madragana’s own racial identity is unclear. She has been described as being a Moor, but as I pointed out in an essay I wrote on the Moors, Moor is not a racial term. There were white Moors and black Moors. It is possible that Margarita could have been a black Moor, but there is no historical evidence to suggest that she was and because of this it is incorrect to definitively state that there was a black branch of the Portuguese royal family. So the evidence here is speculative at best, but Cocom treats this as definitive proof of African ancestry in Charlotte.
Cocom also mentioned Dr. Hedley’s reference to Charlotte having a “a true mulatto face.” Such a statement means very little since Charlotte clearly was not a mulatto — which refers to an individual with a black parent and a white parent. This is what Charlotte’s parents looked like:
The reference to Charlotte having a mulatto face was therefore not a reference to her actually being a mulatto. In The First Gentleman of Europe, Lewis Saul Benjamin provides another context for the remarks about Charlotte’s “mulatto face.” That context was the general view that Charlotte was a physically unattractive woman.
Cocom also describes a literary allusion to Queen Charlotte’s appearance in a poem celebrating her marriage to George III as being evidence of her African features:
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,
O! born for rule, — to whose victorious brow
The greatest monarch of the north must bow.
The Vandals were a Germanic tribe, so this poem certainly reinforces Charlotte’s European ancestry. It is not really clear where this poem alludes to Charlotte’s “African appearance,” however. So once again we are left with a piece of evidence which is far from convincing.
It is possible that Charlotte may have had some African ancestry, but based on the historical records we simply do not know with any certainty. Even if it is true that she did, it would have been a distant African ancestry. Unless one applies the American “one-drop” rule to Charlotte — and I stress American because Europe countries generally did not apply the one-drop rule — she simply was not a black queen, but a white European queen who may have had some distant African ancestry. It is important to note that Charlotte herself never claimed to be black or African. If she did have African ancestry, it was either unknown to her or she did not feel that it was important enough to announce it.
It is important to understand that race is not only biological, but it is largely a social construct as well. During the period of slavery, it was not uncommon for mixed race individuals to attempt to “pass” for white to escape the oppression and discrimination which Africans experienced. In my book A Legally Created People, I wrote of the case of Elizabeth Key, a mixed race (“mulatto”) woman who successfully sued for her freedom from slavery. She married a white man and her white descendants eventually became slave owners themselves. If it is true that Charlotte did have African ancestry, such ancestry would have been heavily diluted, allowing Charlotte to marry into the same imperialistic royal family which enriched itself through enslaving, colonizing, and oppressing Africans throughout the world. I mention this because regardless of what African ancestry Charlotte may have had, culturally and socially she was a European woman who was in a position of privilege over African people. I make this point to demonstrate the difference between having black ancestry and being black. Being black is not only a biological specification. It is a social one as well. An individual who passes for white in order to escape racism and benefits from institutions which are built from the exploitation of black people cannot be said to be black in any social sense of that term.
I understand that there is a history of trying to hide the achievements of African people throughout history, which has included denying the African ancestry of certain historical personalities. The debate over the race of the ancient Egyptians is an example of how racism in scholarship has led to the denial of that certain historical personalities were black, but that is not the case with Charlotte. The paintings of certain Egyptian rulers such as Amenhotep III clearly depict dark-skinned Africans. Moreover, Egyptians maintained a cultural connection with the rest of Africa. Therefore, anyone who argues that the Egyptians were not black would be denying both the biological representations of the Egyptians, as well as their cultural connections to Africa. With Charlotte, the biological representations are questionable at best and there is no cultural connection to speak of. Not even those who have argued that Charlotte was a black queen have argued that she maintained a cultural connection to her African ancestry.
In Destruction of Black Civilization, Chancellor Williams warned us against trying to “blackize” the history of others. Doing so can lead to poor historical scholarship, but it also perpetuates the psychological colonization of African people by causing us to claim the history, culture, and achievements of other races. As Marcus Garvey said: “We must canonize our own saints, create our own martyrs, and elevate to positions of fame and honor black men and women who have made their distinct contributions to our racial history.”
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.