In an address to Commonwealth leaders in Rwanda on Friday, Prince Charles expressed regret over slavery and acknowledged that the origins of the organisation lie in a terrible period of history.
Some member states have called for a reckoning with the colonial past.
Charles informed the assembled Commonwealth leaders during the opening ceremony of a two-day summit in Kigali, Rwanda, “I want to acknowledge that the roots of our current connection reach deep into the darkest time of our history.”
“I cannot express the depths of my personal grief for the suffering of so many as I continue to increase my understanding of slavery’s enduring consequences.”
Between the 15th and 19th centuries, Britain and other European nations enslaved more than 10 million Africans and shipped them across the Atlantic to work on plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas. Many died along the route.
Members of the Commonwealth include West African countries such as Nigeria and Ghana, where slaves were taken, and 12 Caribbean nations, where they lived out the remainder of their lives.
The Commonwealth has never before officially addressed the legacy of slavery. Some ministers in the Caribbean have demanded that it be discussed, particularly the topic of reparations, which Charles did not bring up.
“If we are to construct a shared future that will benefit all of our inhabitants, we must also discover novel ways to recognise our past. Simply put, the time for this dialogue has come “Charles said.
Several delegates stated that Charles’s statements were a welcome recognition of past suffering, but that the focus should be on the future.
“The idea of his address is that we need each other, and our strength is our combined effort to ensure that we move forward and learn from the terrible and tragic history that Commonwealth members faced,” said Gambian diplomat Muhammadou Kah.
Before Charles spoke, Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whose country joined the Commonwealth in 2009, addressed the assembled leaders with a distinct perspective.
“The fact that this summit is being held in Rwanda, a new member with no historical ties to the British Empire, demonstrates our determination to continue rethinking the Commonwealth for a changing world,” he explained.
The summit will discuss the bids of former French colonies Togo and Gabon to join the Commonwealth, an indication of disillusionment within France’s area of influence in Africa and the allure of an English-speaking club.
Attending the meeting are 29 heads of state and government. The remaining 25 member states, including South Africa, India, Pakistan, Australia, and New Zealand, sent ministerial or diplomatically-led delegations.
In the backdrop, there are sensitive concerns surrounding the host nation.
Human Rights Watch was one of 24 civil society organisations that stated earlier this month that the Commonwealth’s human rights mandate would be weakened if leaders failed to press Rwanda on its record during the summit.
They claimed that the Rwandan government was responsible for persecuting, harassing, and torturing dissidents, a claim Rwanda disputes.
According to British media, Prince Charles criticised Britain’s contentious policy of deporting asylum seekers to the country as “appalling.” Both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and President Kagame have supported it.