With features as conspicuously Negroid as they were reputed to be by her
contemporaries, it is no wonder that the black community, both in the U.S. and
throughout the British Commonwealth, have rallied around pictures of Queen
Charlotte for generations. They have pointed out the physiological traits that
so obviously identify the ethnic strain of the young woman who, at first
glance, looks almost anomalous, portrayed as she usually is, in the sumptuous
splendour of her coronation robes.
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.)
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
Queen Charlotte's Portrait:
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.
Thus, from just a cursory look at the social awareness and political activism
at that level of English society, it would be surprising if the Queen's
negroid physiogomy was of no significance to the Abolitionist movement.
Lord Mansfield's black grand niece, for example, Ms. Lindsay, was the subject
of at least two formal full sized portraits. Obviously prompted by or meant to
appeal to abolitionist sympathies, they depicted the celebrated friendship
between herself and her white cousin, Elizabeth Murray, another member of the
Mansfield family. One of the artists was none other than Zoffany, the court
painter to the royal family, for whom the Queen had sat on a number of occasions.
It is perhaps because of this fairly obvious case of propagandistic portraiture
that makes one suspect that Queen Charlotte's coronation picture, copies of
which were sent out to the colonies, signified a specific stance on slavery
held, at least, by that circle of the English intelligencia to which Allan
Ramsay, the painter belonged.
- More on Queen Charlotte
- Revealed: the Queen's black ancestors
The Times of London reports that a Portuguese descendent of Queen Charlotte confirmed Valdes' research into her heritage. (June 6, 1999)
- Was this Britain's first black queen?
"The suggestion that Queen Charlotte was black implies that her granddaughter (Queen Victoria) and her great-great-great-great-granddaughter (Queen Elizabeth II) had African forebears. Perhaps, instead of just being a boring bunch of semi-inbred white stiffs, our royal family becomes much more interesting." (The Guardian, March 12, 2009)
For the initial work into Queen Charlotte's genealogy, a debt of gratitude is
owed the History Department of McGill University. It was the director of the
Burney Project (Fanny Burney, the prolific 19th century British diarist, had
been secretary to the Queen), Dr. Joyce Hemlow, who obtained from Olwen
Hedly, the most recent biographer of the Queen Charlotte (1975), at least half
a dozen quotes by her contemporaries regarding her negroid features. Because
of its "scientific" source, the most valuable of Dr. Hedley's references would,
probably, be the one published in the autobiography of the Queen's personal
physician, Baron Stockmar, where he described her as having "...a true mulatto
Perhaps the most literary of these allusions to her African appearance,
however, can be found in the poem penned to her on the occasion of her wedding
to George III and the Coronation celebration that immediately followed.
Descended from the warlike Vandal race,
She still preserves that title in her face.
Tho' shone their triumphs o'er Numidia's plain,
And 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.
Finally, it should be noted that the Royal Household itself, at the time of
Queen Elizabeth II's coronation, referred to both her Asian and African
bloodlines in an apologia it published defending her position as head of the
More about Research into the Black Magi:
In the Flemish masterpieces depicting the Adoration of the Magi, the
imagery of the black de Sousas had been utilized as both religious and
political propaganda to support Portugal's expansion into Africa. In addition,
the Flemish artists had drawn from a vocabulary of blackness which, probably
due to the Reformation and the Enlightenment, has long since been forgotten.
There was a wealth of positive symbolism that had been attributed to the black
African figure during the Middle Ages. Incredible as it would seem to us
today, such images had been used to represent not only Our Lady - evidence of
which can be found in the cult of the Black Madonna that once proliferated in
Europe - but in heraldic traditions, the Saviour and God the Father, Himself.
Researched and Written by Mario de Valdes y Cocom, an historian of the African