Happier times. Credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

March 9, 2021   5 mins

In 1850, an eight-year-old orphan from west Africa called Sarah Forbes Bonetta Davies was sent on the long journey to England. Sarah, a Yoruba from what is now Nigeria, had been captured by the King of Dahomey during a conflict in which both her parents were killed, and spent two years as a slave until a Royal Navy Captain, on a diplomatic mission for the Queen, took pity on her and persuaded the ruler to hand her over, telling him: “She would be a present from the King of the Blacks to the Queen of the Whites.” Once in England, Queen Victoria had Sarah raised by a couple from Chatham, and the girl became a regular visitor to Windsor Castle.

Alas, the story did not have a fairytale ending. Sarah died, aged just 40, from tuberculosis in 1880 after travelling to Madeira to convalesce, Victoria by now queen of much of Africa.

It was not so unusual for the Queen of the Whites to play host to an African girl. As ruler and empress of much of the globe, Victoria saw herself as the benevolent ruler of a family of nations, of all shades of humanity; at the same time, millions of her subjects at home lived in abject poverty, and when Miss Davies was growing up barely 1.5m could vote out of a population 20 times that.

Most American men, in contrast, could choose their head of state, thanks to the revolution that had ousted Victoria’s grandfather. The creation of Jefferson, Hamilton and the other Founding Fathers had been a tremendous success, not just in terms of wealth and power but in fulfilling its high-minded hope that all men might be able to pursue happiness. President Andrew Jackson was raised in the Waxhaws, a backcountry region of the Carolinas, the son of Irish immigrants, and had gone on to the White House; Abraham Lincoln grew up in a log cabin and reached the very top.

Yet Sarah Davies could never have dreamed of dining in the White House. Although there had been black guests since the time of Lincoln, the first African-American to be invited to have dinner at the president’s home was Booker T Washington – in 1901. Even then, it caused such anger that it wouldn’t be repeated for decades.

Such a visit would have raised few eyebrows in Britain, where Queen Victoria’s circle hosted people from various backgrounds, as did those of her successors; George V, in particular, had views on race that were unusually liberal for the time. The House of Windsor, whatever their other, many faults, have always stood for what most regard as basically decency on the subject — which is why perhaps the most damaging revelation in yesterday’s Oprah Winfrey interview was Meghan Markle’s suggestion that Harry had heard “there were concerns and conversations about how dark [Archie’s] skin might be”. The Oprah interview has placed race at the heart of the royal fall-out, and, as a result, the British Royal Family has been cancelled by American progressives. The Windsor family fall-out has, unfortunately, become part of The Discourse.

Obviously the royal family should be cancelled by progressives; hereditary monarchy is, after all, a very reactionary concept. Americans cancelled the monarchy in 1776. Yet monarchies have also historically been, paradoxically, more racially tolerant than republics.

The America that rebelled against Victoria’s grandfather came to be both more egalitarian and at the same time more racially conscious and prejudiced than Britain; it developed a “colour bar” and “one-drop rule”, ideas designed to separate races into a hierarchy (although these ideas were far more pronounced in the South). Most African-Americans, when given the chance, sided with Britain in 1776, as did pretty much every Native American, because they rightly understood that as racial outsiders they were better off with a monarch ruling an empire, rather than an egalitarian republic from which they were excluded.

But these American ideas about race did not develop back in Europe; they didn’t even develop in some other parts of the Americas. Modern academia, largely colonised by the American narrative, is obsessed with ideas of “whiteness” and race even though they make little sense in the context of pre-20th century British and European history. At the end of George III’s reign, life expectancy among slaves in Trinidad was 17. For the working class in Preston it was 18, while in Liverpool it was 16. What on earth does “white privilege” mean in the context of 19th century Lancashire? What does it even mean in 21st century Lancashire?

It’s an American concept, fitting the fact that Americans historically had far more antagonistic views about race. During the Second World War the behaviour of British people towards black soldiers — and the behaviour of British women in particular — shocked US soldiers stationed here. Indeed, it was the objections of US servicemen to sharing a hotel with a black man that led to British courts reaffirming that segregation did not and could not exist in England.

That racial attitudes in Britain were not as harsh as those in America partly reflected demography — there just weren’t many black people until the 1950s — but they were also the product of the hierarchical, class-bound nature of British society. In contrast to the awesome ascent of Jackson and Lincoln, Britain didn’t have a working-class MP until (arguably) 1874, 30 years after a mixed-race man of African heritage first sat in the Commons. The UK didn’t have a working-class prime minister until 1924. No one born in a Cornish mining community could have risen to the top in Victorian England. They certainly wouldn’t have been invited to dine with the Queen.

In Britain class differences were far more important than race and were often so highly formalised as to resemble segregation. When Blackburn Rover’s Jimmy Forrest became the first professional — i.e. working-class — footballer to play for England, he had to wear a different coloured shirt to his gentleman team mates. “Professional” players also had to have separate dressing rooms. That kind of open snobbery has always been anathema to the US, even if it had its own class system and elite schools.

In contrast, various Indian cricketers played for England in the Victorian and pre-war period, five of whom had princely titles, men such as Iftikhar Ali Khan, the 8th Nawab of Pataudi. Of course, there was racial prejudice. Had the Nawab of Pataudi turned up in a Victorian pub, he might have been treated as an outsider in a way that Jimmy Forrest wouldn’t have been. But among important people who mattered, there would have been little doubt who came further up the pecking order.

Even monarchy itself is by nature multi-racial; whether or not George III’s wife Queen Charlotte really had African ancestry, royalty has always been mixed, since the earliest “peace-weaver” princesses of the early middle ages. Yet Harry and Meghan’s marriage was treated by an America-brained press like it was an earth-shattering event, when hardly anyone cared about the racial angle, another dog that didn’t bark for the media. And now, thanks to our own Americanised discourse, we’re forced to see everything through the narrative of race rather than the more salient issue of class — even the tragic self-destruction of a family the Americans decided a long time ago they wanted rid of.

Ed West’s book Tory Boy is published by Constable