How Kate’s ancestor played a key role in abolishing slavery… after the Sussexes’ barbs about royals and racism
- The Princess of Wales’s ancestor was known as ‘greatest American abolitionist’
- Harriet Martineau fought a lifelong battle to abolish slavery and racism in the U.S
Prince William made a landmark speech in Jamaica last year, denouncing slavery as ‘abhorrent’ in a public act of self-flagellation.
He said it ‘should never have happened’ and expressed his ‘profound sorrow’ over the forced transportation of millions of people from Africa to the Caribbean and North America — a trade which British monarchs either supported or profited from during the 17th and 18th centuries.
William’s comments were made following Prince Harry’s notorious interview with Oprah Winfrey — an interview in which, many maintain, Harry levelled an accusation of racism against the Royal Family with his claim that an unnamed relative had speculated on how dark his (then unborn) baby Archie’s skin would be.
Earlier this month, it emerged that in another significant move of contrition, King Charles is supporting an inquiry by Historic Royal Palaces and Manchester University into the monarchy’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.
Against such a backdrop, it is unsurprising that the new King’s aides are jittery over the inquiry’s eventual findings.
The Princess of Wales’s great-great-great-great-great-aunt, Norfolk-born Harriet Martineau, became known as ‘the greatest American abolitionist’
Yet the picture is hardly clear-cut. We can all agree that the slave trade was ‘abhorrent’ but, as the historian Lord (Andrew) Roberts has pointed out: ‘There is no justification for blaming Charles III for the actions of Charles II.’
In fact, the Daily Mail can reveal that the ancestor of at least one senior Royal played a key role in the movement that led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1837 and the United States in 1865.
For the Princess of Wales’s great-great-great-great-great-aunt, Norfolk-born Harriet Martineau, became known as ‘the greatest American abolitionist’ after fighting a lifelong battle to abolish slavery and racism in the U.S.
And, in a fascinating twist of history, it was her lobbying of U.S. Presidents James Madison and Andrew Jackson that ultimately set in motion Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — the declaration that freed the Duchess of Sussex’s great-great-great-great-grandfather Stephen Ragland from servitude.
Historian Michael Reed, who discovered the connection, said that although Harry and Meghan have been accused of inferring racism in the Royal Family, our future queen has an ancestor who nobly fought the battle to free slaves in America.
She may be relatively forgotten in Britain nowadays, but Norwich textile manufacturer’s daughter Harriet Martineau was a formidable sociologist and social reformer who was friends with a generation of Victorian-era visionaries, including Florence Nightingale.
A towering intellect, she confronted male prejudice to carve out a career as a writer, becoming friends with the novelists George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens, and the poet William Wordsworth, as well as the Darwin brothers Charles and Erasmus.
Although Charles Darwin was attracted by her brainpower, he unchivalrously bemoaned her looks, saying: ‘I was astonished to find how ugly she is.’
Martineau (pictured) was instrumental in helping two slaves from Georgia, who had managed to flee the state in disguise before emigrating to England
His physician brother’s more ambiguous reply was: ‘One ought not to look on her as a woman.’
Regardless of such barbs, and despite losing her hearing at the age of 12, which forced her to use an ear trumpet, Martineau was not short of professional success.
Her first commissioned book, Illustrations Of Political Economy, published in 1832 when she was 30 years old, won widespread acclaim and, despite its highbrow title, became a bestseller.
Queen Victoria was an avid fan and invited her to her Coronation in 1838, where she was recorded sitting in Westminster Abbey with ‘a pillar to lean against and a nice corner for . . . [her] shawl and bag of sandwiches’. She also had the foresight to take a book to read while waiting.
It was four years previously that Martineau had sailed to America with her young research assistant, Louisa Jefferys.
Over the next two-and-a-half years she travelled the length and breadth of the nation, visiting both New York and Boston as well as spending six months talking to slaves on plantations in the Southern states, including Georgia and Alabama.
Martineau was instrumental in helping two slaves from Georgia, who had managed to flee the state in disguise before emigrating to England. She provided an education for the couple, William and Ellen Craft, at a private school in Ockham, Surrey.
In her book Society In America, published on her return to the UK in 1837, she devoted a chapter to the slave trade in Georgia.
The Daily Mail can reveal that the ancestor of the Princess of Wales played a key role in the movement that led to the abolition of slavery
‘The slaves of Georgia and Alabama have less liberty of communication with each other than other slave states; they are deprived of the few means of instruction that they had, they are shut in earlier in the evening,’ she wrote.
She also spent two days at the plantation of former President James Madison and his wife Dolley in Montpelier, Virginia, in February 1835, lobbying America’s fourth president, who was dubbed the Father of the Constitution after he drew up the Bill of Rights about the evils of slavery.
She had been given a letter of introduction to him by a Philadelphia friend, John Vaughan.
Dated December 24, 1834, it stated: ‘Miss Martineau from England, whose name must be familiar to you, will have the pleasure of presenting this letter: she is accompanied by her friend Miss Jefferys, & has made a visit to this country to form for herself a more correct opinion of this country than she could gather from the accounts of other travellers. She has a letter to my Venerable Friend Mr Madison, but I wished to reserve to myself the credit of her introduction to yourself.’
The former First Lady wrote back to Vaughan on February 26, 1835: ‘The visit of Miss Martineau was rendered very interesting, even, by the slight view we had of her distinguished talents and amiable manners. We regret much, that she and her friend Miss Jefferys had on leaving us, so chilling a specimen of our variable climate as the present snowstorm, which may make their journey to Richmond hazardous, although followed by many good wishes for their safety and happiness.’
A few weeks later, Dolley Madison told her niece Mary Catts: ‘I was anxious to write and tell you of Miss Martineau’s visit, and how much we were pleased with her enlightened conversation and unassuming manners.’
She wrote to another friend, Ann Maury: ‘We have lately had the pleasure of a visit of two or three days from Miss Martineau, whose character and writings you are familiar with no doubt — she was so interesting that we hastened to procure her books, and are now reading her Political Economy, so handsomely illustrated.’
By the time Martineau returned to Britain in 1836, she had also dined at the White House with President Jackson, an American lawyer, planter, general and statesman who served as the seventh President from 1829 to 1837.
Prince Harryclaimed that an unnamed relative had speculated on how dark his (then unborn) baby Archie’s skin would be in the notorious interview with Oprah Winfrey
Afterwards she wrote in her 1837 book Society In America: ‘Every man of colour who is a citizen of the United States has a right to be as free as any other man: and it would be a dignity added to the White House if such were seen there.’
However, it would be another 28 years, after the American Civil War, before President Abraham Lincoln’s 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified and slavery was finally abolished.
The following day, a thrilled Harriet Martineau welcomed the news, saying that it was ‘a day not soon forgotten’.
By then, Meghan’s great-great-great-great-grandfather Stephen Ragland was 17 years old and living in one of five slave houses owned by the wealthy cotton farmer Lemuel Ragland, 58, and his wife Mary on a plantation in Jonesboro, Georgia.
Back in 1850, slaves had little hope of emancipation: the American Civil War, between the Union in the North and the Confederate states in the South, was still ten years away and the issue of slavery had yet to become an ugly battleground.
But in 1860, with Lincoln as President, the war to abolish slavery began. By the time he was assassinated in 1865, Congress had passed the 13th Amendment — and in that same year, Stephen and his wife Ellen were working as sharecroppers, renting parcels of land to cultivate.
The 1920 census shows the elderly couple growing cotton near the town of Stockbridge, about five miles from Jonesboro. It was Stephen and Ellen’s grandson Jeremiah — Meghan’s great-great-grandfather — and his wife Claudie who set the family on the road to gentrification: they were the first of the Duchess of Sussex’s direct ancestors to leave rural Georgia, moving 130 miles to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
There, Jeremiah became a tailor and established his own business in the city, while Claudie was a lady’s maid who later worked in the Miller Bros department store.
The Princess of Wales’ ancestor was instrumental in helping two slaves from Georgia, who had managed to flee the state in disguise before emigrating to England
In turn, Meghan’s grandfather became a successful antiques dealer with a fine collection of vintage cars. It is in his home in the View Park-Windsor Hills neighbourhood of Los Angeles that his daughter, the Duchess of Sussex’s mother Doria, now lives.
As for Martineau, she of course had moved back to England, where more than a century later, one of her family’s descendants became a flight dispatcher for British Airways called Michael Middleton.
So while Prince William was expressing his ‘profound sorrow’ over slavery on that tour to Jamaica in 2022, Kate could at least rest assured in the knowledge that one of her forebears was a pioneering abolitionist who helped bring an end to that barbaric and abominable transatlantic trade.
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