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.
Not sure how progressive he is. Didn’t he have to apologize for saying coloured people in an interview?
I think he was attempting to say actors of color and bungled it. But yes he did say, colored actors.
He said some really bad stuff about autistic people.
Makes me think about when Ben Affleck tried to hide his ancestry on Finding. Your Roots. The line was that he was embarrassed. Maybe it was more than that—don’t let anyone know you’re descended from slave OWNERS or your stolen wealth might be taken back. Well, it should be. And I’m glad the shame of that era is shifting from being that of the descendants of enslaved, who often had internalized the worthlessness that whites had imposed upon them by forcing them to do free labor in exchange for nothing but occasional whippings, to the descendants of slavers.
Guess that is what is really behind the artificial Critical Race Theory “debate.” It’s not about not making white kids (aka slaver descendants) feel bad, it’s a cover for not making descendants of slavers face reality and literally pay for the crimes against humanity they benefited from.
Cumberbatch pretends not to be posh? I did not know that, though it doesn’t surprise me. He’s that type.
I’m descended in one line from someone who owned a massive slave plantation in the U.S. I have zero moneys — descended through the third daughter of a fifth son and someone was cut off for marrying “down” for love and whatnot. But if I were rich, yeah, I’d be like “Okay who in Virginia do I send a bunch of money to?”
Agreed Emily, I think most of us that are fortunate to have disposable income will make regular donations, if these people can’t quite get to the point of “these are ill-gotten gains”, surely they could consider the reparations payments as parting with their money for a good cause. It sounds like the government has a planned system in place for such payments to be used well.
I was going to comment that coming from a family that was wealthy 100 years or more ago does not guarantee wealth. I guess you have proven my point. Cumberbatch needs to pay up.
Right? Like I would call up Barbados and say I want to meet in good faith. Maybe work out the total to give back and a payment plan, and other non financial ways I could help the cause.
His family accrued generational wealth and, in that same process, forced generational poverty on others. Just the fact that his slave owning ancestors got a severance payment should be incentive enough to cooperate.
Instead of making a slave monument from the land it would be better to give the land to the descents of the slaves.
I don’t know if I’m certifiably descended from any slave owners, but I had ancestors in the south during colonial and civil war times. All the ancestors I know about though in recent history were dirt poor basically. Heck, among her many, many jobs, my maternal grandmother had to pick cotton in California during the 40s from time to time just to survive, so, whoever got the blood money from mistreating and exploiting human beings didn’t pass any of it down via my grandmother’s branch. Still, since I don’t have any money myself and if it did come down to reparations, I could give them free artwork: I’m a struggling artist and author. Art is all I could contribute.
I’ve been wondering about him recently; essentially, how well he did, disappearing from all the intense public gaze around Sherlock. I find him a bit overrated and self-conscious when he acts. Sherlock became a load of self indulgent crap towards the end, due to his phoned-in acting and the over-egged script writing.
And, yes, all that ‘humble family origins’ is a bit of a lie. Didn’t he go on several spiritual retreats after university. I’m sorry, but someone who can afford to drift around like that has the money to do so. It smacks of the mindset that says, “I’ve lived at one with myself, in poverty, and am set for life”. It’s the kind of guff you get on graduate CVs before the person goes off and makes a mint in the City. I’m being cynical!
He mentioned something about working different jobs to earn money for his trip to a monastery to teach English and travel around. No idea if he had family funds for it as well.
It sounds like the government is in the early stages of this policy, looking into who and what would be followed up on. So there’s no indications the family has been asked to pay and refused, or where Cumberbatch stands on it. By many accounts he personally has been generous to charitable causes including social justice causes, so we shall see.
Thank you, North of Boston. I sometimes think and type quickly because I WFH and get two things going on at the same time. Your intell sounds more right than my memory on this occasion!!
They’re all progressive until they might have to part with their ill gotten money. Its amazing that these governments are able to pay everyone (non Black) except the actual descendants of slaves.
Lots of actors don’t use their real names for a variety of reasons. I wonder how many changed their last names to avoid this same dilemma…
Rich upper-class people always, always, always downplay how much money they have. It’s almost an unspoken rule.
And there are good reasons for that. The world is filled with con artists, aggressive pseudo charities, and distant acquaintances who suddenly want to be your best friend and who oh btw have business plans that need investors. Everybody loves a naive heiress who talks to much and gives too casually. Money contaminates relationships if you aren’t careful, and too much money at the wrong time in your life can derail you completely.
I went to a fancy lass college once upon a time and saw what can happen to hapless trust fund babies who run off at the mouth and are way to casual about throwing it around. The ones who did not end up on the menu in the end were the ones whose families drilled home the “keep your mouth shut and act like you don’t have money” approach.
I know someone who does math tutoring for rich, upper class highschool kids in Canada. During a tutoring session, one of these teens said his dad’s job is a CEO, while his younger sister said “No, our dad is a contractor” (with heavy emphasis on the last word). Her brother didn’t get the hint and said, “What are you talking about, dad’s a CEO”. Clearly the kids had been taught to downplay their wealth, but the older one didn’t see the point. The teen brother also drove around in a Mercedes Benz and thought nothing of bragging about his many privileges to his math tutor of all people.
And this is why wealthy families are typically careful about what they tell their children about their wealth. They know it is likely to become playground talk, and the next thing you know everyone knows their net worth. Children don’t know better and like bragging. Also, who wants to raise a spoiled brat? I feel sorry for that kid. His behavior mirrors what he is probably hearing at home.
The reparations movement is not about paying money to individuals,but to investing in communities that have been historically deprived, or in the case of countries that are economically struggling as a direct result of colonialism- paying off some of the national debt.
Speaking to Bajun friends last night, they considered the Drax family the worst, especially as Richard Drax is a serving MP and in a position of influence.
The Guardian has a full piece here on the Drax family-it’s appalling.
Yes, reparations should be about giving back to the previously existing slave communities. Health care, education, improving infrastructure, and perhaps maintaining a fund for future hurricane relief? Climate change is devastating the West Indies, and many other island communities, so having a funded FEMA like organization standing by on each island seems essential.
This is a progressive platform Cumberbatch could and should get behind, rather than trying to oppose some kind of reparations settlement. It’s bad PR, appearing rigid and tuned out to the needs of the communities in Barbados that his ancestors brutally exploited for the sake of wealth.
I knew he was from a Posh family. Quite a few British actors are. Redmayne’s father was the Queen’s choir master or something. That doesn’t mean they grew up with a lot of money, necessarily. Connections and education, which mean everything in the long run, but don’t automatically translate to cash. But BC could certainly afford to pay something now.
My parents are from North Carolina. Most of their ancestors were small farmers or in trade, economic migrants from Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Germany. But I have at least one ancestor who owned slaves and was wealthy before the Civil War. None of that made its way down to my family or to me, though. Like many, they lost their land and wealth eventually.
But I’d gladly send some money to a reparations fund if asked. I would think Cumberbatch would too. I’m not a huge fan of his, but he seems OK. A little pretentious but not a bad sort over all.
Edward Norton was on the most recent episode of Finding Your Roots, where he learned that he is descended from a family that owned hundreds of slaves. I believe his family is still wealthy, aside from his own significant wealth.
I have mixed feelings about this, but I’m not rich nor come from generational wealth. Holding people accountable for the sins of their ancestors feels like a slippery slope. I do think it would be in good faith, if you have the money (which he absolutely does), to meet with these communities and see what you can contribute. I just don’t know that I agree with going after individuals when it was the governments that allowed it to happen.
They are targeting families that still have land and have not given up their land. This is land where the enslaved provided the wealth to what the Bajans consider outsiders and usurpers. Because these people still have physical assets tied to the country, the government is creating a new policy to take the land or fees for reparations.
Also, the UK was still paying reparations to the slaveholding families as recently as 2015. Anyone who accepted that money should absolutely give it back.
Edited to add: I just saw Sunday’s more detailed (better) response below.
Just a small note, his family did not ‘own slaves,’ his family enslaved, brutalized, and abused 250 human beings. He absolutely should be made to atone for that. The families whose lives his ancestors ruined (those that survived, because not all did) certainly are still affected by the generational trauma of white supremacy, and his career and posh education is proof that he is still reaping the benefits of the system as well. The payouts to the plantation owners – the enslavers, not the enslaved – ended in 2015. This isn’t in the past, it impacts Black people’s lives every day and I applaud Barbados for demanding justice. If individuals didn’t want to be held responsible for their ancestor’s actions then they shouldn’t have continued to accept government money through Twenty-freaking-fifteen for their ancestors grotesque enslavement of other humans.
@Sunday, thank you for putting this so succinctly and perfectly. People always play the “i had nothing to do with that’ card. But they’re still benefiting and people of color are still suffering.
So because someone’s ancestors did something bad they should be held accountable? Should we go through your family tree and find out if there were any criminals, slave-owners or people who committed war crimes among your ancestors? You realize it’s likely if we go back a few hundred years we’ll find more than one. You do know that much of the population of the U.K. and the U.S. has someone who owned slaves in their family tree. Even people whose ancestors were slaves sometimes also have slave-owners among their ancestry. People should be held responsible only for what they themselves have done. Nothing more.
considering his family history, a history of which he was clearly aware when he started his career, him accepting a role to play a slave owner was in extremely poor taste unless his plan was to use that role to acknowledge his family history and use his earnings from that tole to create some sort of trust for the purposes of making at least some of reparations to the descendants of the enslaved people his ancestors owned.
I was thinking that too. If he didn’t do it as a “statement’ it’s definitely gross.
Without holding him morally personally responsible for something that happened before he was born- a million pounds (with a possible tax write off) would be easy peasy for Cumberbatch to hand over and set an example. The fact that his mom feared this was coming is more alarming to me. If my mom enlightened me to such facts and my net worth was something like $ 40 million, I would be running to post that check.
Plus, his PR team would be able to milk that FOREVER.
I feel like if your family made any of its wealth off the backs of slaves, then they owe it to the ancestors of those slaves. The money and the land. Any generational wealth/businesses that have been passed down need to be passed on. And I don’t have much sympathy for the Benedict Cumberbatch’s of the world who continue to benefit from their slave owning families.
While slavery must always be condemned, especially by descendants of those who engaged in it, I also think it’s a slippery slope to suggest that people could be monetarily responsible for the actions of their ancestors. It’s akin to holding all Germans responsible for the actions of the Nazi government. A few issues to consider:
1. Any one person who enslaved others, say, 200 years ago would have dozens if not hundreds of descendants now, if they had children. How do you decide which descendants pay? This would presumably include people of colour whose ancestors were raped by their owners.
2. How does the Bajan government force citizens of other nations (which most of these people will be) to pay? Guilt would only go so far. Realistically, the best they could hope for is some goodwill donations or banning them from entering Barbados.
3. What this recent press does is generate debate and I’m all for that.
Jezebel quotes Cumberbatch here (from the Daily Mail which I refuse to click on) saying that he took on the slaveowner role in 12 Years a Slave and William Willberforce in Amazing Grace as a way of addressing his family’s past.
There are so many people, mostly Black, with the last name Cumberbatch in the Caribbean. That indicates that their ancestors were probably from the Cumberbatch plantation. It was common for enslaved Africans to have their names taken away from them (part of dehumanization) and named after those owners who profited off the literal labour of enslaved people or plantation overseer.
@ Pinky – As noted above, some of the descendants still own land in Barbados. They should immediately relinquish their rights to that land. Additionally, the UK was still paying reparations to the slaveholding families as recently as 2015. Anyone who accepted that money should immediately donate it to Barbados.