The Memo: Does Benedict Cumberbatch owe reparations to the descendants of slaves in Barbados?

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Does Benedict Cumberbatch owe reparations to the descendants of slaves in Barbados?

Charity Agasaro – 30 January 2023

It’s a question that has made the rounds on TikTok, news articles and Twitter threads, and it will likely have significant implications moving forwards. So, what exactly do the descendants of slave owners owe to the descendants of slaves?

British-driven slavery began on the island of Barbados around 1627, with British slaveowners overseeing the forced labour of people taken from their homes in places like West Africa. In Barbados, as in countless developing countries all over the world, the descendants of these communities still reel from its impact. So, what responsibility do the descendants of slave owners have towards those their ancestors enslaved? During the 18th Century, the Cumberbatch family is reported to have purchased a plantation in Barbados, along with the 250 slaves that were put to work on it. While the family has expressed regret at the actions of its ancestors, the case has undoubtedly shone a light on existing tensions.

The struggle for reparations is not new. In places like the Caribbean, where a majority of the population is black, political commentators have suggested that reparations offer a way of restoring and improving economies in developing countries. Yet retrieving compensation from those who weren’t there at the time is not something that is currently enforceable by law. Where the relevant parties legally own plantation land, for example, there is a statute of limitations, and wrongdoings cannot be passed down generations. Indeed, reports from the Barbados National Task Force on Reparations have revealed that there have been no official claims brought against individual families.

Of course, it is worth noting that it was only in 2015 that the British government finished paying off the debt it acquired when compensating former slave owners after the abolition of slavery, but social attitudes towards these cases are changing. As it stands, some past atrocities have resulted in reparations, but those with half an eye on the law will know that advances have been slow. For proponents of the move, while reparations cannot match the losses, they play an important part in acknowledging the harm done.