Cornell University Press

Restoration Theater, Slavery, and a Barren Queen

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When in Seattle for the 2020 Modern Language Association meeting (my last such trip before the pandemic), I would walk past a bar and restaurant called the “Elephant and Castle” each morning.  The red phone booth at the entrance promoted the theme of Britishness, as did icons of elephants with disproportionately small castles on their backs, in imitation of the statue over the London tube stop of the same name.

Later that year Bristol protesters would throw a different statue—that of the slave trader Edward Colston–into the bay, but so far the Elephant and Castle—the trademark for the Royal African Company, through which Colston made his fortune—remains. Many things that Americans associate with quintessential Britishness—tea, coffee house culture—came from somewhere else and refer to empire rather than nation. 

Later that year Bristol protesters would throw a different statue—that of the slave trader Edward Colston—into the bay, but so far the Elephant and Castle remains.

In the midst of a pandemic that appeared in Seattle right about the time of the conference and that laid bare the continuing fallout of the Elephant and Castle, the descendants of those trafficked under its sign would once again call the empire and its former colonies to account. The Royal African Company was chartered by Charles II, who turned its management over to his brother, the future James II.

The restored monarch and his court hoped to develop a cosmopolitan culture that could compete with France. It was the Restoration that made tea, porcelain, coffee houses, and other imports fashionable. For the recently restored Charles II and his court, a nation with cosmopolitan aspirations also demanded great theaters; and Restoration drama has earned a reputation for sophisticated comedies with outrageous, envelope-pushing wit and credulity-straining tragedies set in exotic locations.

The restored monarch and his court hoped to develop a cosmopolitan culture that could compete with France.

Later writers left us with an image of Charles II as the “merry monarch”—a bitterly ironic phrase from the Earl of Rochester that lost its irony in subsequent repetitions—and the court as party central for wine, women, and song.  Post-Restoration moralists condemned the period’s sexual irregularity, but this dichotomy—the sexually lax court vs the sexually proper middle class eighteenth century—has obscured some enduring transformations brought by Charles II.

Images of the Restoration are more likely to conjure the “Protestant whore” Nell Gwyn than the Portuguese queen consort Catherine of Braganza, the least famous woman to have sex with Charles II, but whose impact on history was profound. Legend has it that “sugar and spice and everything nice” celebrates the petite Catherine (“little girls”), for the Portuguese paid her dowry partly in sugar, a product they received in abundance from slave plantations in Brazil. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to build slave forts—or “castles”—along the coast of Africa.

Images of the Restoration are more likely to conjure the “Protestant whore” Nell Gwyn than the Portuguese queen consort Catherine of Braganza.

Catherine of Braganza did not produce an heir but was mistrusted for other reasons as well. The diarist John Evelyn commented on the dark complexions of Catherine and her ladies; poets celebrated the marriage sometimes by admiring Catherine’s dusky skin, but other times went to extreme lengths to insist on her whiteness. 

When twentieth/twenty-first-century artist Audrey Flack created a statue of Catherine of Braganza, she deliberately gave the statue a “multicultural” appearance, responding to stories of Catherine’s mixed blood.  She reported in an interview that she modeled Catherine on her own bi-racial cousin, hoping that the statue would inspire ethnic and multiracial women. The statue was intended for Hunter’s Point in New York borough of Queens—named after Catherine—but never built due to local protests against honoring a monarch with ties to the slave trade.

When twentieth/twenty-first-century artist Audrey Flack created a statue of Catherine of Braganza, she deliberately gave the statue a “multicultural” appearance, responding to stories of Catherine’s mixed blood. 

Catherine’s dowry also brought Bombay, Tangier, and the fashionable taste for the Asian imports that the Portuguese had long relished. Theater productions promoted, analyzed, and mocked Stuart cosmopolitan ambitions through figures of its failure—the fop—and also through dangerous and exotic “Indian Queens” who evoked the Queen who brought the Indies.

Restoration drama engages this global traffic and its fallout more than is generally recognized. The continuing fascination with Charles II and his ex-actress lover may have emerged in part to turn attention away from the violence that underwrote imperial wealth.  History loves or hates his beautiful whores, but no one seems to want to remember his shadowy, barren queen.

*Featured photo Royal Cortege on the Palace Square from Museu de Lisboa, Palácio Pimenta.

Laura J. Rosenthal is Professor of English at the University of Maryland. She is the author of Playwrights and Plagiarists in Early Modern England and Infamous Commerce. Follow her on Twitter @LauraRosenthal.

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