Benedict Cumberbatch is descended from a somewhat infamous slave-owning family. Generations ago, the Cumberbatch family owned a plantation in Barbados, a plantation which was worked by slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. As present-day Barbados continues to cut ties with its colonial past, many in the Barbadian government want a larger push for reparations, especially from the families who owned slaves and profited enormously from slavery and the slave trade. So… it’s possible that the Cumberbatch family will be asked to pay reparations?
In the Oscar-winning movie 12 Years a Slave, Benedict Cumberbatch played a plantation owner to great critical acclaim. It was also close to the bone, his ancestors having run a slave plantation in Barbados during the 18th and 19th centuries. Now, the Cumberbatch clan faces the prospect of a legal battle with the island state after it declared it was seeking reparations from the families of slave owners.
The seventh great-grandfather of the Oscar-nominated star bought the Cleland plantation in the north of the island in 1728 that was home to 250 slaves until the abolition of slavery more than 100 years later. The slave plantation is reported to have made the Cumberbatch family a small fortune. Now the government of Barbados is cranking up its fight for reparations from the ancestors of slave-owning families.
Richard Drax, a Conservative MP, who has inherited his family’s ancestral sugar plantation, is under huge pressure to hand back hundreds of acres of prime real estate on the holiday island so that it can be turned into a monument to slavery. If Mr Drax refuses, Barbados will seek to apply for compensation from an international arbitration court. Any ruling in Barbados’s favour could see the island pursue the wealthy descendants of other slave-owning families.
David Denny, general secretary of the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration, said: “Any descendants of white plantation owners who have benefitted from the slave trade should be asked to pay reparations, including the Cumberbatch family.” Mr Denny, who has been campaigning for Mr Drax to pay reparations, said: “The money should be used to turn the local clinic into a hospital, support local schools, and improve infrastructure and housing.”
David Comissiong, Barbados’s ambassador to the Caribbean community and deputy chairman of the island’s national commission on reparations, is also agitating for Mr Drax and other slave-owning families to pay damages. When asked if descendants of the Cumberbatch estate would be pursued, Mr Comissiong said: “This is at the earliest stages. We are just beginning. A lot of this history is only really now coming to light.”
Cumberbatch’s ancestors were paid thousands of pounds in compensation when slavery was abolished in the 1830s, a sum now worth in the region of £1 million. The British government at the time took out a loan to pay off slave owners across the Empire, a sum that was only finally paid off in 2015. It is unclear if the family money helped Cumberbatch, who was educated at Harrow School. He is the son of the actress Wanda Ventham, who, he said, had encouraged him not to use his real name in his acting career because she was concerned that he could face claims for reparations over family links to slavery.
This history definitely gives some extra flavor to Benedict’s insistence that he was never posh, that his parents were merely working actors who saved up to send him to the best schools. The Cumberbatch family not only owned up to 250 slaves, they received financial compensation from the British government when slavery was eventually abolished. Maybe I would feel differently if I was descended from one of these families (on my mother’s side, I’m descended from hard-scrabble German and Scottish peasants), but I honestly feel like: yeah, take that guy’s land, and make these families pay reparations. Absolutely. I doubt the government of Barbados would be like “we’re taking all of Benedict Cumberbatch’s money!” There are so many potential deals which could be worked out, and I would like to think that someone like Benedict – who views himself as a politically progressive person – would be amenable to figuring something out.
Photos courtesy of Avalon Red, Instar.