About a year ago, I was asked by a well-known woman film director to take on an (unpaid) job as consultant on an historical film, based on the life of George III’s consort Queen Charlotte. I didn’t hold out much hope for the historical quality of the script once it informed me that Charlotte received the news of her royal engagement by telegram in 1761. Nonetheless I read to the end, as the director promised that the film addressed an extraordinary “secret”; namely that the queen was of mixed-race heritage, specifically of African descent.
I had been aware of this theory, which has been knocking around online since 1995, and expressed my astonishment that anyone continued to take it seriously. I received in return a document listing the supposed historical proofs for the argument. I replied, giving my opinion that none of them was remotely credible and advising her to be very cautious about further involvement with the project.
I was quite surprised, therefore, to hear on Radio 4 that a similar film is being produced. Both the script and the proof document appeared, fairly cynically, to be attempting to link Queen Charlotte’s purportedly mixed-race ancestry with the marriage of Meghan Markle into the royal family. The departure of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex from duties as senior royals has been vociferously attached to charges of racism. Whatever one’s opinion of such claims, it seems important to disengage them from an idea which is, quite simply, extremely dubious historical practice.
The presumed evidence for Queen Charlotte having been of African descent derives from a theory published online by a Portuguese historian of the African diaspora, Mario de Valdes y Cocom. Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz was born in 1744 in the eponymous north-German dukedom. Cocom traces her ancestry to Margarita de Castro e Souza, a fifteenth-century Portuguese noblewoman who in turn was descended from the mistress of the thirteenth-century king Alfonso III, a woman named Mandragana. The exact relationship between Mandragana and Alfonso is unclear, but Cocom “takes” the former to have been a Moor, which he considers to mean having black ancestry. “Moor” did not necessarily refer to a person of African descent, but as a general term to the inhabitants of the Moorish empire in North Africa and Spain. We have no idea of what Mandragana looked like. She may have had Berber, Spanish, Arabic or indeed African features, but she might equally have had blonde hair and blue eyes, as after the fall of the Roman empire tribes from Northern Europe, including East Germany and Scandinavia, invaded the Moorish kingdoms. Moreover, the 500 years between Mandragana and Charlotte would suggest any African bloodline would have been significantly diluted.
The next piece of evidence was that Queen Charlotte’s physician, Baron Stockmar, described her at birth as having “a true mulatto face”. This might appear convincing, were it not that Christian Friedrich von Stockmar was born in 1787. It was therefore impossible that he could have seen Queen Charlotte as a baby. In fact, Stockmar, (whose memoirs, translated from the German in 1873 are available from the British Library online), was physician to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who married Princess Charlotte, the daughter of George IV, in 1816, two years before Queen Charlotte’s death.
Cocom describes a literary allusion to Queen Charlotte’s appearance in a poem celebrating her marriage to George III as being decisive evidence that she possessed 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 Andalusian 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 an Eastern Germanic tribe, who, as noted above, spread across Europe after the decline of the Roman Empire. They established a kingdom in North Africa in the fifth century, but they were colonial conquerors, not indigenous inhabitants. Such allusions to ancient and illustrious ancestors were a common trope of celebratory poetry (one might compare Tudor propaganda which traces the bloodline of Henry VII to Aeneas). Possibly, the use of “Vandal” might be interpreted as satirical —since the Vandals were “barbarians”, it could have been a sly and derogatory dig at Charlotte’s German blood, but it has no bearing whatsoever on the colour of her skin.
A portrait of Queen Charlotte by Allan Ramsay and studio is cited as the final proof. Ramsay made several portraits of the queen and one in particular has been perceived as showing her with “mixed” (I quote from the document) features. The plot of the film centred around the presumption that Ramsay had been obliged to tone down and Europeanise Charlotte’s face, but nonetheless “his representations of her were the most decidedly African of all her portraits”.
This film had a black woman producer and a black woman scriptwriter, who wanted to tell the story regardless of its historical veracity.
In the portrait in question, it’s true that Charlotte’s features might be seen as “mulatto” (again I quote). However, as I pointed out to the director, we have to be cautious about what we see. To my eyes, the Ramsay portrait shows a reddish-haired woman with blue-grey eyes, a large nose, heavy chin and full lips. Such features were considered unattractive according to the standards of beauty of the age and since royal portraiture is not known for its harsh realism, these features may certainly have been softened by other painters, without any necessary disguising of the colour of Charlotte’s skin.
A good comparison of the flattering tendency in royal portraits is Van Dyck’s painting of Queen Henrietta Maria in the Royal Collection at Windsor, where her famously awful teeth, described by a contemporary as protruding from her mouth “like guns from a fortress”, are invisible. It is possible that Ramsay was unusual in daring to depict the queen as she was, rather than bowing to flattering convention, but there is, equally, considerable similarity between his painting and those of other artists, such as the Dance Holland portrait and the picture by Francis Cotes, which latter was described by Lady Mary Coke, who knew Charlotte well, as “so like that it could not be mistaken for any other person”.
None of the other considerable body of portraiture, for example works by Zoffany and Gainsborough, is suggestive of “mulatto” blood. While Cocom argues that this was a cover-up job, it seems unlikely that in an age when cartoonists depicted the royal family in the most scurrilous of situations (having sex, defecating), there should be no other visual reference to what, after all, would have been a fairly startling feature.
Cocom’s theories have been spread, though not entirely accepted, online. Both The Times and Guardian have run features on them, which, at a quick glance, gives them an aura of superficial respectability. Nonetheless, he has very little credibility as an historian. A search through JSTOR, the online collation of peer-reviewed academic journals, throws up just one reference, from The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (Vol 27, Spring 2000), in which his theory is repeated without any notes or citations.
I called a contact at Sotheby’s, who dismissed the Ramsay argument as a canard and several other historians, all of whom concurred that there is not one piece of creditable evidence that Queen Charlotte was of African descent. Cocom’s ideas are no more than speculations which have, as yet, absolutely no plausible basis in fact.
Obviously, historical films take liberties with hard facts, but when I presented my conclusions to the director, I suggested that to promote a biography of Charlotte in which her skin colour was the salient differentiator was, to the best of my knowledge, inaccurate and unwise. Suggesting that African descent is a trans-historical category which trumps gender, class and acculturation places one in some fairly unsavoury intellectual company. The response I received was puzzling. This film had a black woman producer and a black woman scriptwriter, who wanted to tell the story regardless of its historical veracity.
I dislike the term “black history” for the same reason I dislike “women’s history”. The qualifier suggests a hierarchy of scholarship which I feel is unnecessary and patronising. Surely all history should be subject to the same rigorous research standards regardless of subject, yet this did not seem to be the inference I was meant to draw. The director’s response seemed insulting to a large body of valuable and highly significant historical work around a previously marginalised group about which much more needs to be discovered and acknowledged.
That the contribution of people of African descent to academic history has been shamefully neglected is true — for example, in a recent post for Art UK, Paterson Joseph passionately drew attention to the disregard of African figures in British art history. Estimates of the African diaspora community in eighteenth century London alone are between 8,000 and 20,000. That’s a lot of real lives and a lot of real stories. Were any significant evidence of Queen Charlotte’s racial inheritance to come to light, hers might be one of them, but thus far, it just isn’t there.
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