Monday 19 March 2018

The royal myth of racial purity

Sinead Ryan examines how a new movie has put the Queen's 'blue bloodline' firmly in the spotlight

Meghan Markle
Meghan Markle
Sinead Ryan

Sinead Ryan

The British monarchy has long been associated with horse racing. The present Queen has owned dozens of thoroughbreds, won many trophies, breeds ponies on two estates and takes a passionate interest in bloodstock, startling even experts by her knowledge. It's said by her friends that if she wasn't Queen, she'd be happiest immersed in the equestrian world.

Breeding, of course, is a science. Mating the right stallion with the right mare can result in a foal worth millions.

The same goes for the aristocracy. For hundreds of years they've married their sons and daughters off to the 'right' people, merging upper-class families and creating dynasties in the process.

The term 'blue blooded' is a medieval reference to the palest of white skin, through which blue veins can be seen - proving purity of breeding and class before these things ever became political or unfashionable, and in contrast to hard working peasants browned by the sun, or worse, race.

Kings and Queens throughout history understood the political importance of the 'right' stock. Love was far down the line of necessary qualities in a match.

Eight of Queen Victoria's nine children ended up ruling or marrying rulers of royal families across Europe. Most were arranged to cement the 'empire'. If they happened to also like each other, it was simply an added bonus.

Royal seal of approval: Prince Harry is expected to ask Meghan Markle for her hand in marriage. Photo: PA
Royal seal of approval: Prince Harry is expected to ask Meghan Markle for her hand in marriage. Photo: PA

Today sees the opening of Victoria and Abdul, the long-awaited follow-up movie to the highly successful Mrs Brown, and tells of that Queen's (in another potentially Oscar-winning performance from Judi Dench) near obsession with an Indian servant, Abdul Karim. Victoria was a widow longer than she had been a wife, and enjoyed strong and passionate, but almost certainly platonic, relationships with younger men over her remaining years.

As Empress of India, she also went through a phase in later life of buying art, shaping buildings and sculpture, colour and food, with sub-continent influences, but it remained a place she never actually visited, so when Karim arrived in her household as a servant in 1887, she was instantly fascinated, promoting him to a position far above his station. He, in turn, became overly 'familiar' with her, opening up the monarchy to gossip.

Naturally, her children and palace courtiers were horrified. It was one thing maintaining a quasi-friendship with a ghillie (John Brown), but quite another with a foreigner, and one of colour to boot. Abdul was swiftly dismissed and deported after Victoria died and was only remembered after his letters were found in his home town in India (the Queen's daughter Vicky had all her personal diaries burned, fearing the airing of salacious comment and thus robbing generations of her more fascinating thoughts).

The film deals primarily with the tricky topic of race, because it was this, more than any insalubrious relationship, that the upper crust most feared.

Race relations: Victoria and Abdul focuses on Queen Victoria’s friendship with an Indian servant. Photo: © Focus Features
Race relations: Victoria and Abdul focuses on Queen Victoria’s friendship with an Indian servant. Photo: © Focus Features

Today, coincidentally, is also Victoria's great (x 4) grandson Prince Harry's 33rd birthday. There is much speculation that he might choose it to pop the question to his girlfriend, Meghan Markle, the gorgeous American Suits actress he's been dating for a year.

In a recent cover interview for Vanity Fair magazine, she painted their coupling as a "great love story", but tongues are already wagging - if not tutting - for Meghan is bi-racial. Her mother is black, her father white.

Depending on which online forum you get your gossip from, Meghan has been described as black, half black, African-American, mixed race, nearly white, or not quite white enough. The actress, and potential princess herself, prefers "half black, half white", which is both entirely accurate and should be unremarkable.

But Meghan is remarkable, because if she had children with Harry, they would be one quarter black, in line to the throne, and present the monarchy with an unprecedented (and to some, unthinkable) injection of new, definitely not blue, blood. Even Prince Harry, in an unprecedented statement condemning media harassment of his new love, noted the "racial undertones" in coverage of their relationship.

It won't be the first opposition she's encountered. In an interview she gave to Elle magazine, she said the inability to define her colour had affected her work. "I wasn't black enough for the black roles and I wasn't white enough for the white ones," she said before finally finding success with the character of Rachel Zane in legal drama Suits.

Meghan's real name, incidentally, is also Rachel, so whether she would keep her stage name is also up for grabs.

The Queen, to her credit, has always told her children to marry for love, as she did. That three of the four of them ended up divorced feeds the still present, although thankfully dwindling narrative, that 'breeding' or arranging marriages, however discreetly, is best.

Instructing your heirs to get on with it and put up with a bad marriage which is a good match is still viewed in some circles as the right approach.Harry needs his grandmother's permission to marry, under the Succession Act, and there is little doubt the Queen would grant it. Where she (and the Act) draws the line, is being Catholic. Divorced and black is less of a hurdle than religion.

Harry's mother also caused raised eyebrows when she took up with, firstly, Dr Hasnat Khan, and, latterly, the most unsuitable Dodi Fayed, with whom she was tragically killed.

The horror was most keenly felt, not because she had lovers, but because those she chose were both black and Muslim.

It fed the conspiracy theories that would follow her death (leading to two inquests), with Dodi's father, Mohamed Fayed, firmly of the view that the royal family had somehow 'knocked off' Diana due to her relationship with a Muslim. Needless to say, this was completely dispelled in all investigations.

As Diana had already delivered the heir and the 'spare', any future children she might have had wouldn't be in the royal line anyway, but there would be many noses out of joint that even as 'half' siblings to the future king, it would be too much of a whiff of integration.

The irony, of course, is that the current Queen is monarch to 16 realms, many of them in the Caribbean. The British Empire spanned many more colonies during the Victorian era, so there were far more subjects of different races and colour than there were white British.

As an African-American, Meghan's ancestors were never part of the colonies, but despite the progress on race relations and equality made across political systems, economies and social classes, the upper echelons of British aristocracy have a long way to go.

Will Meghan be forever prefixed with 'black' before HRH?

She has her own view: "You create the identity you want for yourself, just as my ancestors did when they were given their freedom." The potential Duchess of Sussex may well be the breath of fresh air that opens the stuffy royal doors.

Irish Independent

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