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King Charles III has prompted a “big moment” for the British monarchy by supporting research into its historic links with the transatlantic slave trade but he should go further and “take some responsibility”, a historical expert has said.

Buckingham Palace said in a statement this week that the king was supporting independent research into the monarchy’s links with the slave trade, after it was contacted by the Guardian about the extensive history of successive British monarchs’ involvement and investment in the enslavement of African people.

That history includes a document published for the first time showing that a previous monarch, King William III, received a transfer of £1,000 of shares in the slave-trading Royal African Company from Edward Colston, the company’s deputy governor, in January 1689.

Colston has become a notorious figure since historians and campaigners in Bristol challenged his portrayal as a benefactor in his home city, and Black Lives Matter protesters toppled his statue in 2020.

Prof Trevor Burnard, the director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull, welcomed King Charles’s statement and said he was “on a journey” of understanding the history: “This is a big moment for the palace and this country. It’s taking our history seriously, and recognising that slavery was a very important foundation of our wealth.”

However, he added that the royal household needed to do more: “What needs to happen is for the monarch to take some responsibility for the personal connections that his family has with this history, which is so well established. That would mean doing what other institutions have done: acknowledge what happened, and examine what they are going to do in response. That goes beyond supporting further research.”

Cost of the crown is an investigation into royal wealth and finances. The series, published ahead of the coronation of King Charles III, is seeking to overcome centuries of secrecy to better understand how the royal family is funded, the extent to which individual members have profited from their public roles, and the dubious origins of some of their wealth. The Guardian believes it is in the public interest to clarify what can legitimately be called private wealth, what belongs to the British people, and what, as so often is the case, straddles the two.

Read more about the investigation

Dr Wanda Wyporska, the chief executive of the Black Equity Organisation, an independent civil rights group, said: “We welcome the comments made so far by His Majesty King Charles which acknowledge the financial and other involvement of monarchs and their households in the evil that was the enslavement and trading of millions of Black Africans. We hope that this will also encourage a deep reflection on the role that enslavement and its ideologies played in establishing the building blocks of the structural racism that we witness in the present day.”

She added: “Such engagement should be regarded as a positive first step in recognising the role that the monarchy and the UK played in the transatlantic slave trade. However, we do expect this to be the beginning of substantial collaboration with historians and communities.”

Historians are increasingly documenting the extensive involvement British monarchs had in supporting slavery. For 270 years from Elizabeth I in 1594 to William IV, the king in 1833 at the time of abolition, monarchs supported or profited from enslavement. Through those centuries, millions of African people were captured and transported across the Atlantic, to be enslaved and exploited with appalling cruelty on the colonial plantations of the Caribbean and the Americas.

Charles has made moves to recognise this history in recent years, describing slavery as an “appalling atrocity”. In a speech to Commonwealth nations in Rwanda last June he said he was committed to “deepen my own understanding of slavery’s enduring impact” and that ways must be found to “acknowledge our past”.

In response to the Guardian’s questions this week, a spokesperson said: “This is an issue that His Majesty takes profoundly seriously,” and that the royal household was supporting independent research by providing access to the royal collection and royal archives.

The research backed is a publicly funded academic PhD by the historian Camilla de Koning. This is co-sponsored by Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) and supervised by Dr Edmond Smith of the University of Manchester. De Koning’s research is concentrating on the period from 1660, when the monarchy was restored after England’s brief period as a republic, to 1775. Successive monarchs in that period were significantly involved in supporting the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, including by personally investing in and being governors of the Royal African Company and South Sea Company, which transported thousands of captured African people in appalling conditions.

De Koning said she had been receiving positive cooperation from people working within the royal archives and HRP: “I hope through my research I can further document the links the monarchy had with the slave trade and the colonial empire. And to connect the monarch as individuals to the influence they had on the lives of people living in Britain’s colonies.

“The support from HRP is vital, and to get the most out of the huge royal archive and collections it is so important to have the opportunity to work with the archivists. My work will also involve how the information can be brought from research to digestible information for the public.”

The research is due to be published in 2026.

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