Despite booting out the late Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state back in 2021, the Caribbean nation of Barbados is not yet done with the country that first settled it as a colony in the early 17th century and from which it gained independence in 1966. Now it’s seeking reparations to be paid as compensation for the colonial impact of slavery.
Reparations are not new. For instance, corporations that profited from the Holocaust — whether train operators, banks, chemical companies or manufacturers — have paid out compensation to atone for their involvement in the atrocities. But in those cases survivors were still alive and evidence of direct commercial benefit was not difficult to find. It’s harder with slavery, which was abolished in the early 19th century thanks to sustained campaigns in Britain.
Calls for cash to compensate for the transatlantic slave trade were made 20 years ago at the 2001 United Nations Durban World Conference against Racism. However, the idea that anyone alive today who can be said to have ‘benefited’ from slavery should be made to cough up goes back many more years.
Payback for colonialism has long been the strategy of so-called ‘decolonisation’ campaigns — which search out every conceivable manifestation of colonialism in order to eradicate it. Sometimes statues are pulled down; historic benefactors, such as Cecil Rhodes, are traduced; or the curriculum taught in schools is denounced. And sometimes money is demanded.
Now the Barbados campaign for reparations has its sights not on a corporation or the coffers of HM Treasury in Whitehall but on the sizeable wealth of British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (shown above in the movie Twelve Years a Slave. In the late 18th century, one of the actor’s ancestors, Abraham Carleton Cumberbatch, bought land in Barbados to grow sugar and used slaves imported from Africa for labour on his plantation.
Slavery was strongly tied into the region’s sugar industry. When it was introduced to Barbados as a crop in the mid-17th century, the industry grew so rapidly that it soon displaced cultivation of tobacco and cotton — which had largely been handled by indentured labour from Europe. Sugar became so big that producers turned to slaves imported from Africa.
By the time Cumberbatch Senior started out, the free white population of Barbados numbered around 20,000 whereas there were nearly 60,000 enslaved Africans toiling in the Caribbean heat. Eventually, the appalling trade in human beings was outlawed, but not before several generations of the Cumberbatch family — along with other ‘plantocrats’ — made their fortunes.
Naturally, the plantocracy took an economic hit when the source of slave labour dried up. So, the British government, which had abolished slavery, compensated them for their loss. But now the Barbados government wants some of the money that was paid out as compensation to the Cumberbatch family.
They won’t get it from Rishi Sunak’s government, of course, which is strapped for cash. Fortunately, one of grand-père Cumberbatch’s descendants is that famous Oscar-nominated actor who is worth a bob or two and wouldn’t miss a couple of million dollars. And far easier to make Benedict the 21st century face of slave owners than a lot of faceless bureaucrats. Except that Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t own slaves and never has. Nor is a single victim of the historic transatlantic slave trade alive today.
It is true that Britain engaged with the slave trade and profited from it commercially. But however we may judge the morality of those who bought, used and traded slaves before the nefarious practice was ended by order of the British parliament, it is surely both offensive and unjust to assert that an individual today can be held responsible for actions of his family several centuries ago.
It is also true that slavery continues to be practised illegally today in many countries — including, tragically, Australia — where people are held against their will, denied their liberty and often physically abused. UN agencies estimate there are still 40 million slaves in the world today — three times as many as were transported from Africa to the New World in what became known as ‘the Middle Passage’.
Of course, many of the countries in which these 21st century slaves are frequently held were, themselves, formerly colonies. As such, decolonisation activists consider those countries to be not so much violators of human rights as hapless victims whose own societies are understandably marked by the enduring impact of historic European colonial activity. They are deemed, absurdly, innocent of any wrong doing.
Today, slavery is neither practised nor endorsed as a legal, commercial and profitable enterprise in any modern contemporary society. Nor is there anybody alive today to whom guilt or responsibility for the horrific historic slave trade can be attributed because nobody alive today — including Benedict Cumberbatch — was involved with it.
The fashionable pursuit of reparations from celebrities, who might shell out rather than run the risk of ‘cancellation’ and humiliation, smacks of extortion. But in the eyes of those hunting reparations for slavery, and who are untroubled by conventional notions of justice and fairness, guilt is totally ineradicable.
And for Barbados, weighed down by a national debt nearly twice the size of its GDP, this looks like easy money. After all, every imagined culprit of colonialism right down to the present day is fair game — and the more famous the culprit, the better.
Peter Kurti is Director of the Culture, Prosperity & Civil Society program at the Centre for Independent Studies, and Adjunct Associate Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame