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Why Britain's royals won't apologize for profiting off slavery, and why Prince Harry's admission matters

The monarchy and slavery
Prince Harry book reignites conversation about monarchy's connection to slave trade 03:53

London — The publisher of Prince Harry's new memoir Spare says it's selling at a record-setting pace. Readers bought more than 1.4 million copies of the Duke of Sussex's book the day it was published last week, and it's still making headlines.

One thing Harry put down on paper that has continued to stoke debate was a brief comment that his family had made a fortune from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Britain's centuries-old monarchy is known for many things, from pomp and pageantry to family discord. Its historical connection to slavery, however, has been far less a part of the public discussion, at least until recently. 

"I mean it goes all the way back to Elizabeth I," Esther Stanford-Xosei, a lawyer and reparations expert told CBS News. She said there was no doubt that the British monarchy was "heavily involved" in the financing of enslavement, including the voyages of slave traffickers between Africa, Europe and the Americas.

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But Stanford-Xosei said the royal family were "also beneficiaries of the labor of enslaved Africans."

"The governor of the Royal African Company was James II, otherwise known as the Duke of York," she noted, referring to one of the major business enterprises involved directly in enslaving and transporting Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries.

"They also found ways of branding African people with the inscription 'DY,' for Duke of York," Stanford-Xosei said. So many slaves will literally have had the initials of a senior member of the royal family permanently and indelibly etched onto their bodies.

Contemporary members of the British royal family, including Prince William, Harry's brother and the heir to the throne, have expressed sadness about their links to the slave trade, but none has ever apologized for the direct role their ancestors played.

"The appalling atrocity of slaver forever stains our history," William said on a visit to Jamaica last year. "I want to express my profound sorrow."

"The reason why he doesn't go further is that he's aware [of] what it will mean to actually apologize, in terms of the legal obligation to make reparation," suggested Stanford-Xosei. She said William and his family feared it would cost the monarchy, "not only money, but status… He will be exposing the criminality of this institution."

Historians say it's impossible to calculate exactly how much wealth the monarchy generated from trafficking human beings, but when William and Kate visited Jamaica last year, they were met by protests demanding not just an apology, but reparations.

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Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Prince William, Duke of Cambridge ride in a Land Rover as they attend the inaugural Commissioning Parade for service personnel from across the Caribbean, March 24, 2022, in Kingston, Jamaica. Pool/Samir Hussein/WireImage

The trip was criticized as a damaging throwback to the days of colonialism, including a meeting with local children who were kept apart from the royal couple by a fence.

Prince Harry is the one royal who has addressed his family's connection to slavery more explicitly.

In Spare, he acknowledges that the monarchy rests upon wealth generated by "exploited workers and thuggery, annexation and enslaved people."

CBS Presents "Harry: The Interview" 44:48

"In terms of Prince Harry going this far, it's really, really important," Stanford-Xosei told CBS News. "We can see the establishment reaction, including… the establishment media, who are seeking to belittle him, demonize him because he is daring to speak universal truths and actually be in touch with the conscience of humanity."

CBS News sought comment from Buckingham Palace on Monday for this report, but was told the royal family had nothing to say on the topic of reparations. The palace noted that Prince William had referred to slavery as "abhorrent," and said it never should have happened.

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