Barbados turns sights on Benedict Cumberbatch in slave-owning families’ reparation row

A report by Robert Mendick and Lauren Shirreff for London’s Telegraph.

Caribbean campaign group says ‘any descendants of white plantation owners’ should pay damages, including the Hollywood actor

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.

Monument to slavery

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. 

David Comissiong
David Comissiong says ‘A lot of this history is only really now coming to light.’ 

The question of how to deal with Drax Hall, owned by the Dorset MP, has been discussed by the Barbados cabinet and the UK politician has met with Mia Mottley, the island’s prime minister and chairman of the wider Caribbean committee on slave reparations.

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.

The 2012 film 12 Years Slave is based on the 1853 memory of the same name by the former slave Solomon Northup, who was at one time owned by the plantation owner William Ford, a historical figure represented on screen by Cumberbatch.

The British star portrayed the plantation owner as a relatively benign but weak man, a depiction which was contested by Ford’s descendants, who said he was described favourably in Northup’s memoir, which states:  “There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.”

Cumberbatch has also previously played William Pitt the Younger in the film Amazing Grace, about Britain’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807, a role the actor has suggested he took by way of apology for his family history.

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