Benedict Cumberbatch could face legal action over family’s link to slave trade

Photo: Getty

Doctor Strange actor Benedict Cumberbatch could soon face a challenge from the government of Barbados over his ancestors’ history as slave owners.

Barbados may soon be taking legal action to retrieve reparations from former plantation-owning families, The Telegraph reports.

Barbados has a long and painful history with slavery, with an estimated 387,000 enslaved Africans sent to Barbados in the 17th and 18th centuries.

About 250 slaves were owned at the Cleland plantation, a sugar cane estate that was owned by Cumberbatch’s ancestors.

According to official records, his seventh great-grandfather, Abraham, purchased the land in 1728, and the land remained in the Cumberbatch family name for more than 100 years.

The plantation reportedly made a small fortune for Cumberbatch’s ancestors, up until slavery was abolished in Barbados in 1834.

His family reportedly accepted £6000 ($10,600) in compensation at the time, now worth about £3.6 million ($6.39 million).

David Denny, general secretary of the Caribbean Movement for Peace and Integration, directly called out the Cumberbatch family in the media.

“Any descendants of white plantation owners who have benefited from the slave trade should be asked to pay reparations, including the Cumberbatch family,” he told The Telegraph.

“The money should be used to turn the local clinic into a hospital, support local schools, and improve infrastructure and housing.”

The government has also singled out British Conservative MP Richard Drax, whose family also profited from slave ownership.

There are now calls for Mr Drax, who inherited his family’s Barbadian plantation from his late father, to pay millions of pounds in reparations for his ancestors’ past.

David Comissiong, the deputy chairman of Barbados’s National Task Force on Reparations, says Mr Drax and other families could face litigation if they fail to pay reparations.

“It is now a matter that is before the government of Barbados,” he told The Guardian in December.

“It is being dealt with at the highest level.”

Dark family secret

As for Cumberbatch’s acting career, it’s been an awkward case of art imitating life.

Cumberbatch starred in 2013 film 12 Years a Slave, alongside Lupita Nyong’o, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt.

The film, which won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, was based on the 1853 slave memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, a free Black man who was kidnapped and sold into the slave trade.

In the film, Cumberbatch played William Ford – a sympathetic plantation owner based in New Orleans.

Earlier in his career, Cumberbatch played William Pitt the Younger in Amazing Grace, a film about the end of the slave trade in Britain.

Cumberbatch told Sunday in Scotland back in 2007 that he was trying to “right a wrong” by accepting the role.

The actor, who is worth an estimated $US40 million ($58.8 million), also shared his thoughts on generational reparations.

Although he didn’t discount the idea altogether, he didn’t sound too keen to open his pockets.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch (centre) played a plantation owner in 12 Years a Slave. Photo: IMDB

The Cumberbatch name

To the dismay of Cumberbatch’s adoring fanbase, the so-called “Cumberbitches”, the actor nearly decided against using his real name at the start of his acting career.

He said his mother, Wanda Ventham, encouraged him to adopt a stage name to ward off repatriation lawsuits from descendants of slaves.

“When I became an actor, Mum wasn’t keen on me keeping it. ‘They’ll be after you for money,’ she used to say.”

His father, Timothy, is also an actor. However, he decided against using the Cumberbatch name for the same reason, instead going by the last name Carlton.

Another high-profile individual who shares the Cumberbatch name is NYC police commissioner Stacey Cumberbatch.

Upon her appointment in 2014, Cumberbatch revealed that she and the actor are likely connected.

Cumberbatch told the New York Post that her ancestors were Barbadian slaves almost certainly owned by the Cumberbatch family.

She explained that they likely took the Cumberbatch last name while under the family’s ownership.

Although Cumberbatch was uncertain whether she and the actor were related by blood, she said they were linked by geography and the complicated history of the slave trade.

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