Culture

Why Benedict Cumberbatch Could Be Made To Pay Reparations For Slavery

Attempts at reparations in Barbados have been making international headlines, thanks to actor Benedict Cumberbatch's slave-owning ancestors.

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The pursuit of reparative justice in Barbados has been making international headlines, courtesy of Benedict Cumberbatch’s enslaving ancestors.

The online buzz around the actor followed a piece in UK newspaper The Telegraph published last month, who spoke to members of a Caribbean campaign group who reportedly want the descendants of those who owned enslaved people to pay damages, including Benedict Cumberbatch — the actor whose family tree is much darker than that of most nepo babies under attack of late. 

In a surprise twist, the Deputy Chairperson of Barbados National Task Force on Reparations has come out since the article dropped, stating that he never said he knew who Cumberbatch was; nor does he know anything about “his family’s supposed involvement in slavery in Barbados”. 

There’s a lot to unpack here, especially since this isn’t the first time the Cumberbatch name has entered the slave-trade-leading-to-tainted-family-money chat. Let’s get into it.

Barbados As An Early Site Of British Slavery

Much like activists in the US, for decades Caribbean activists have been campaigning for former colonial powers to pay reparations to those who suffered at the hands of colonialism, enslavement, and violence. 

English colonisers invaded Barbados as early as 1627, slaughtering local people and claiming the island for themselves. This gave way to the ‘sugar revolution’, whereby hundreds of thousands of West Africans were kidnapped and enslaved to work in the Caribbean. 

Barbadian historian Sir Hilary Beckles writes that “… the beautiful Caribbean island known today for its social amiability and political civility, was Britain’s colonial site of the first “black slave society” – the most systemically violent, brutal and racially inhumane society of modernity”.

Slavery finally came to an end in 1833 with the British Empire paying ‘reparations’ to slave owners for the future loss of their “property”. 

That brings us to the Cumberbatch connection.

The Cumberbatches

Abraham Cumberbatch, Benedict’s seventh great grandfather, is said to have purchased a sugar plantation on Barbados back in 1728, where it is believed that 250 people were enslaved. 

Not only did the family amass a fortune in the process, they were reportedly paid out a generous lump sum when slavery was abolished – money that would’ve set the Cumberbatch’s family up quite nicely for generations to come. 

Notably, Benedict’s parents were also actors and actually changed their last names to avoid any affiliation with their shady ancestry. In 2007, Benedict revealed that when he entered the profession his mother tried to convince him to change his surname or “they’ll be after you for money”. 

Like any rebellious son, the actor ignored his parents and even tried to ‘right a wrong’ by choosing roles that reflected his blood-stained lineage, starring in movies like Amazing Grace about the 18th century campaign to end the British slave trade, and 12 Years A Slave, where he bagged an Oscar for his role as benevolent slaveowner William Ford.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in 12 Years A Slave

Reparative Justice Doesn’t Come Easy

Reparation cases have been unfolding in US courts for a while now. In 2020 a bill passed through the California state government that led to a landmark task force being assembled last year to recommend reparations payment schemes to the eligible descendants of enslaved people. 

Closer to home, the Australian government established a Federal fund of $280 million dollars was established in 2021, to compensate First Nations peoples affected by the Stolen Generations — a partial and long overdue response to one of the recommendations made by the landmark 1997 Bringing Them Home report. 

It’s important to note, though, that reparations are always meant to be a part of a broader response and commitment to the people impacted, many of whom these initiatives won’t even reach.

As for Barbados, the country finally achieved independence in 1966. In November 2021, then-Queen Elizabeth was removed as its head of state and the country became a republic — oh, and world-famous Barbadian Rihanna was named an official National Hero of Barbados.

Reparations Are Just One Piece Of The Puzzle 

As for reparations work, the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC), which comprises 20 countries, is committed to “the process of national international reconciliation”, with preparations being just aspect of a much broader reparatory plan. 

In doing so, the CRC has called on European countries for formal apologies, repatriation, debt cancellation, and investment in Indigenous peoples’ development programs, cultural institutions, and public health.

To date, however, there has been no official reparations claim levelled against a European family, according to the Barbados National Task Force on Reparations.

The Drax Hall Estate

The Drax family, however, is one that has been unofficially singled out to potentially pay reparations. 

Richard Drax, a British conservative politician and MP for South Dorset, still owns a functioning sugar farm in Barbados to this day. Known today as Drax Hall Estate, the plantation enslaved an estimated 30,000 people in the 17th century.

The Barbados’ National Taskforce on Reparations are willing to take Mr Drax to international arbitration if he refuses to hand Drax Hall back to Barbados. If that were to happen, it could trigger future pursuits for the island seeking compensation from other descendants of slave owners — say, for example, Benedict Cumberbatch.

You may remember when nine years ago, Stacey Cumberbatch, “a proud granddaughter of Caribbean immigrants” was appointed as a New York commissioner, declaring that she and the actor are related — “if not by blood, then by geography and the complicated history of slave trade”.

Of course, Cumberbatch isn’t the only Hollywood celebrity with a family history tainted by slavery. Glass Onion’s Edward Norton recently expressed his discomfort after learning that his ancestors owned a family of slaves and Ben Affleck’s “slave-owning family” has routinely made headlines.

It’s probably not surprising the descendants of enslavers would be ubiquitous in an industry as privileged as Hollywood. But acknowledgement, ultimately, is just the beginning; and at some point, it may just be time to pay up.


Photo credit: Getty Images