It’s no secret that Benedict Cumberbatch’s ancestors owned slaves on a plantation on the Caribbean island of Barbados throughout the 1700s and 1800s.
But just before the new year, British publication the Telegraph reported the Oscar-nominated actor and his family would be facing reparation claims from Caribbean Community nations for their involvement. News of the possible reparation claims against Cumberbatch blew up online.
Then Monday, a member of the Caribbean Community reparations commission who was quoted in the Telegraph article clarified the task force’s position this week and said it is not currently seeking any reparations from the Cumberbatch family.
“To date, neither [the Caribbean Community’s reparations commission] nor Barbados has officially leveled a Reparations claim against a European family,” wrote David Comissiong, a Barbados politician, activist and member of the commission, in an op-ed in Barbados Today. He added that it is easier for the task force to focus on legal entities such as governments or companies, rather than a family. Comissiong said he was misquoted in the Telegraph article.
Even so, the idea of demanding compensation from a wealthy film actor whose family benefited from slavery resonated with many. Some applauded the reports as a New Year’s resolution. Many online pointed to the irony of Cumberbatch’s performance as a real-life Louisiana slave owner in the 2013 film “12 Years a Slave.”
Although Cumberbatch will not be facing reparation claims, the reports and online buzz come amid ongoing movements to push reparations in California, the U.S. and across the globe. And it reignited conversations about who should pay.
In the 1700s, Cumberbatch’s seventh-great-grandfather, Abraham Cumberbatch, bought two large estates in what was then a British colony. The properties would be developed into a sugar plantation — the Cleland Plantation — which reaped profits for the British crown, according to a 2014 Daily Mail report on the estate.
On the plantation, the Cumberbatch family owned nearly 300 slaves, according to records from the early 1800s. When slavery was abolished throughout most of the British Empire in 1833, the British government compensated former slave owners for their financial losses.
Cumberbatch’s great-great-great-grandfather, Abraham Parry Cumberbatch, was paid 5,388 British pounds, the present-day equivalent of more than 700,000 pounds, or $900,000.
Although the Cumberbatch family no longer owns the property, Cumberbatch has acknowledged his family history, commenting in a 2007 interview with Scottish newspaper the Scotsman, that his mother told him not to use his last name professionally to avoid reparation claims.
“There are lots of Cumberbatches in our former Caribbean colonies,” he told the Scotsman, according to a 2014 BuzzFeed report, which included excerpts of the 2007 interview. “When their ancestors lost their African names, they called themselves after their masters. Reparation cases are ongoing in the American courts. I’ve got friends involved in researching this scar on human history and I’ve spoken to them about it. The issue of how far you should be willing to atone is interesting. I mean, it’s not as if I’m making a profit from the suffering — it’s not like it’s Nazi money.”
In 2014, Cumberbatch’s connection to slavery resurfaced when Stacey Cumberbatch, a New York City commissioner and granddaughter of Caribbean immigrants, said she was related to the “Sherlock” actor through the slave trade.
Her ancestors were slaves on a Barbados plantation and took the surname of their owners, Stacey Cumberbatch told the New York Times.
Cumberbatch has acted in several films about slavery: first in the 2007 film “Amazing Grace,” where he plays former British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, who is sympathetic to slave abolition, and then in 2013 as a Southern plantation owner and slaveholder, William Prince Ford, in “12 Years a Slave,” which won the 2014 Oscar for best picture.
“Maybe I was trying to right a wrong there,” Cumberbatch said in the 2007 interview, referring to his performance in “Amazing Grace.”
For the last half-century, Caribbean nations that were once British colonies have been grappling with the social, economic and cultural effects of slavery.
Barbados became an independent state within the Commonwealth in November 1966. Fifty-five years later, in November 2021, it became a republic, shedding allegiance to the crown and closing a 400-year colonial legacy.
As more countries in the Caribbean gained independence, various nations formed CARICOM in hopes of boosting the region’s economy. In 2013, the organization — which includes nations such as Jamaica, the Bahamas, Haiti, Guyana, Belize and Barbados — formed the CARICOM Reparations Commission, or CRC.
The commission calls on European governments that benefited from slavery and apartheid in the Caribbean, including the United Kingdom, to take part in reparation efforts.
Its main goals include formal apologies from European governments, land returned to descendants of formerly enslaved Africans, mental health and education programs for Indigenous populations, and the cancellation of public debt.
Who is facing reparation claims?
Although the CRC is targeting governments and companies, it has recently focused on a British politician, Richard Drax, who in 2017 inherited Drax Hall, a 600-acre estate in Barbados that used enslaved labor. The Draxes also owned a plantation in Jamaica and were instrumental in the establishment of sugar production and slavery in the Americas in the 1700s.
Both the government of Barbados and the Jamaican government have expressed a desire to seek reparations from Drax.
“If the issue cannot be resolved we would take legal action in the international courts,” said Barbados lawmaker Trevor Prescod, chairman of Barbados National Task Force on Reparations, part of the Reparations Commission, according to a Guardian report. “The case against the Drax family would be for hundreds of years of slavery, so it’s likely any damages would go well beyond the value of the land.”
Drax has reportedly visited Barbados to meet with its prime minister, Mia Mottley, to discuss the terms of possible reparations, the Guardian reported.
Comissiong complained that the recent Cumberbatch reports distract from the actual reparations efforts the commission is making, such as those surrounding Drax. He accused the Telegraph of yellow journalism and “effectively putting words in one’s mouth.”