Was Queen Charlotte black?


Was Queen Charlotte, our city's namesake, black?

Her African heritage is part of the legends and facts that cling to the petite German woman who married "mad King George" and who inspired not only Charlotte, North Carolina, but at least eight other places in North America– including our town.

Although she was German, Charlotte was directly descended from Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a member of the black branch of the Portuguese royal house. Whether her lineage affected her appearance is contested.

Historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom says that her features, as seen in royal portraits, were conspicuously "negroid" and reports that they were noted by numerous contemporaries including the queen's personal physician, Baron Stockmar, who described her at age 84 as "small and crooked, with a true mulatto face."

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, explains that Charlotte's ancestor, Margarita de Castro, descended from Portuguese monarch Alfonso III and his mistress, Mourana Gil, an African of Moorish descent.

The Wikipedia blog contains an ongoing argument, with one blogger writing, "This is precisely the kind of thing historians would love to cover up." Another objects, "The whole 'Queen Charlotte was black' thing is total garbage." A third answers, "It's apparent that racist sentiments seem to find their way into the simplist [sic] of arguments." "An African ancestry doesn't mean she's black." "It is actually quite certain that all European royalty has a slight amount of black ancestry." And so on.

De Valdes notes that in 1952 the English royal family referred to Queen Elizabeth II's Asian and African bloodlines as a justification for her coronation as head of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Elizabeth is a direct descendant of Charlotte.

The most decidedly African of her portraits were painted by Sir Allan Ramsay, an anti-slavery artist who was responsible for the majority of the paintings of the queen. A full-length Ramsay portrait of Queen Charlotte in its original Chippendale frame hangs in the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Could the queen's features have had significance to the Abolitionist movement? By the time of his portraits, Ramsay was married to the niece of Lord Mansfield, the English judge whose 1772 decision was the first in a series of rulings that ended slavery in the British Empire.

How was the young Charlotte depicted by her contemporaries? One English description glowed, "Her appearance... was pleasing beyond description... her whole person possessed of that inexpressible something that is beyond a set of features, and equally claims our attention. To be sure, she has not a fine face, but a most agreeable countenance, and is vastly genteel, with an air, notwithstanding her being a little woman, truly majestic."

On the other hand, historian J.H. Plumb described her as "plain and undesirable." When King George sent out scouts to engage his bride, none of them thought her beautiful, but they did agree she was healthy, amiable, and gay.

A poem that may refer to her African features was written in her honor for the royal wedding on September 8, 1762:

Descended from the warlike Vandal race,

She still preserves that title in her face.

Tho' shone their triumphs o'er Numidia's plain

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.

 The Vandals were a Germanic tribe, and Numidia was in northern Africa, so these lines are puzzling.

According to Margaret O'Bryant, librarian for the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society, there are no original paintings or sculptures of the city's eponym on display in the Charlottesville area.

However, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, known as the Queen City, has two sculptures of Queen Charlotte. A statue at the airport, installed in 1990, shows the queen in the middle of a reflecting pool, dramatically bent backwards as if buffeted by a gust from a jet engine. The other statue, located downtown, is quite realistic, showing a woman in her mid-thirties walking in her garden with two dogs.

The sculptor of the 1989 downtown work, B. Graham Weathers, researched his subject by going to England to see her many portraits. He says he found as many variations of her image as there were artists.

"I did not find the Negroid features of the wide nose, large lips, etc. I saw a small, young girl who had an overbite..." In an article in Citi Magazine, Weathers also comments, "To me it doesn't matter if she is black or not."

Whether Charlotte's African heritage matters, Charlottesville should acknowledge that she's part of our heritage and appreciate her interesting personality.

Before she married, she supposedly wrote an anti-war letter that was circulated all over Europe. Addressed to Prussian king Frederick the Great, the letter said, "The same success that has covered you with laurels has overspread the county of Mecklenburg with desolation... I know you may think it more properly my province to study the art of pleasing, or to turn my thoughts to a domestic nature; but, however unbecoming it may be in me, I can't resist the desire of interceding for this unhappy people."

The teenager's plea went unheeded. Some say that the letter was sent to England and much admired there. In fact, it was rumored that after reading it, George III's mother decided she wanted the writer to become her son's bride.

Owen Hedley, the most respected of Charlotte's biographers, believed the letter to be forged. In fact, Hedley maintains that George would never have taken the letter-writer as his bride because he was skittish about "petticoat government."

Eventually, the king and queen produced 15 children– six daughters and nine sons, only two of whom died before reaching adulthood. Two of her sons became kings, and her granddaughter became Queen Victoria, the longest-reigning monarch in British history.

Charlotte took an active interest in the American Revolution, accompanying her husband to review the fleet and inspect the troops. She became such a patriot that she wrote her brother William, "I ought to become an Amazon and defend the country with the rest.... Forgive my vanity, dear Brother, but... I am of opinion that if women had the same advantages as men in their education they would do as well...."

Charlotte stood by the King through his apparent "madness"– which, in fact, was a disease called porphyry, then thought to be insanity. His illness started with acute pain in the stomach and cramps in the leg muscles, and soon caused excessive talkativeness. Eighteenth-century doctors treated him by burning blisters on his legs and putting him in a straitjacket.

The queen's good sense and dignity enabled her to assume control and preserve the crown for George until he recovered ("petticoat government," indeed!). A bill was passed making her Regent until he resumed his duties after three attacks. But the fourth and last was too severe, and he did not return to governing thereafter.

Fascinated by horticulture, Charlotte founded the famous Kew Gardens and sponsored the nine-volume Botanical Tables, written by Lord Bute. The Bird of Paradise plant is named Strelitzia reginae after her home state, Mecklenburg-Strelitz In 1800, she introduced the Christmas tree, a German custom, by decorating a fir for her children.

During George III's reign, Charlotte reportedly played a role in abolishing the punishment of burning at the stake. She certainly had a strong sense of social responsibility– her public donations fill a long list, some of them with larger significance.

She supported the creation of the Queen Charlotte Maternity Hospital for poor women and paid for girls to attend Phoebe Wright's school of embroidery.

She loved intelligent conversation and hired popular writer Fanny Burney as her personal attendant. Burney kept a diary during the five years she worked as companion to the Queen, a diary valued today for its astute descriptions of 18th-century life.

Burney once witnessed an intimate meeting between the king and queen. Burney was alone with the queen when the king rushed in with some letters. Ignoring Burney, he spoke to the queen in German, and pushed the letters into her hands. Charlotte took the letters "and endeavoured to kiss his hand as he held them. He would not let her, but made an effort... to kiss hers. I saw instantly in her eyes a forgetfulness... that anyone was present, while, drawing away her hand, she presented him her cheek. He accepted her kindness with the same frank affection that she offered it."

Burney and the queen had a common interest in literature and the arts, and the writer came to respect Charlotte's "nobleness of mind that sets her above all false fears or vague suspicions."

Was the beloved Queen Charlotte black?

As we search today for true "black history," it's an intriguing question. Her African lineage is established, although through a very distant relative. Some of her contemporaries thought her face reflected her African heritage, and some of our contemporaries believe you can see it today in the Ramsay portraits.

The author is a businessperson who served on City Council during the 1990s, including a stint as mayor.


Sir Thomas Lawrence painted this one in 1789-90


Ramsay painted this one, with her two children, in 1765


Six years after unveiling his 1989 dog-walking sculpture in North Carolina, American sculptor B. Graham Weathers donated to UNC Charlotte his bust of the queen as she may have looked in her 30s