The 12 Years a Slave actor and his family may be facing a financial squeeze from Barbados in the coming months, as government officials are beginning to seek reparations from former plantation-owning families. After officially becoming a republic in 2021—breaking 396 years of the British monarchy’s control over the island—Barbados government officials have begun to seek reparations from the descendants of onetime slave-owning families and plantation holders.
Cumberbatch’s seventh great-grandfather bought the country’s Cleland plantation on the north side of the island in 1728, and held ownership of it until slavery was abolished in Barbados in 1834. The Cleland plantation is said to have been home to 250 enslaved people and been the source of the Cumberbatch family’s small fortune.
Last month, the Barbados government announced its plans to pursue reparations from conservative member of the British Parliament Richard Drax, who inherited the island’s largest plantation, Drax Hall. The sugar plantation on the south side of the island is the only plantation that remains within the family of its original owners. Barbados officials have been putting the heat on Drax to hand the land back to the government. If Drax refuses, Barbados will push for compensation from an international arbitration court.
If Barbados wins out in court, it will set a precedent allowing its government to seek reparations from other wealthy descendants of enslavers, like Cumberbatch. The Telegraph reported this week that general secretary of the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration, David Denny, told the paper, “Any descendants of white plantation owners who have benefitted from the slave trade should be asked to pay reparations, including the Cumberbatch family.” Though the Cumberbatch family no longer owns Cleland plantation, the sum they were paid when slavery was abolished is said to be worth around $1 million in British pounds.
“The money should be used to turn the local clinic into a hospital, support local schools, and improve infrastructure and housing,” Denny said of the potential uses for the Drax family’s reparations.
Cumberbatch has faced familial controversy before, once revealing that his mother advised him not to use his real name for fear of reparation claims. The actor has suggested in the past that he took his role as a plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave in part to atone for his family’s past.
Barbados’ deputy chairman of the island’s national commission on reparations, David Comissiong, insisted that the call for reparations would continue for some time. When asked whether or not the Barbados government had any definite plans to pursue legal action against the Cumberbatch family, Comissiong told The Telegraph, “This is at its earliest stages. We are just beginning. A lot of the history is only really now coming to light.”