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Is the conversation on reparations shifting?

From TikTok to the Church of England, reparations talk is going deeper, wider - and more practical

February 04 2023, 12.14pm

In early January, as I scrolled my Twitter feed, I came across a TikTok video discussing reparations, made by a creator named Kudeejah. This is revealing for two reasons. The first is about my age: Few things scream Millennial more than finding a TikTok not on the app itself, but on another platform altogether. And the cross-posting can be a tentative sign that a conversation has become part of ‘the discourse’. 

In her video, which has more than 200,000 likes, Kudeejah alleged that her paternal great great great great grandfather was born an enslaved man on a plantation in St Andrew, Barbados. The owners, she claims, are the ancestors of British actor Benedict Cumberbatch. Kudeejah’s paternal grandmother, Enid, had the maiden name Cumberbatch. It was customary for enslaved people to be given the surname of their owners. That is where my own surname – McIntosh – is derived from. 

This isn’t the first time Cumberbatch and his family’s links to slavery, have been a topic of discussion. In the 1700s, the actor’s seventh-great-grandfather, Abraham Cumberbatch, bought two large estates in Barbados that were developed into sugar plantations, where, from the 1800s the family owned nearly 300 slaves. In 2014, the New York City commissioner, Stacey Cumberbatch, the granddaughter of Caribbean immigrants to the US, said she was related to the Sherlock actor through the slave trade. But just before Christmas in 2022, The Telegraph reported - incorrectly - that the Cumberbatch family would be facing reparation claims from the National Taskforce on Reparations in Barbados. This prompted Kudeejah to make her TikTok, asking Benedict Cumberbatch to ‘run her family their money’. 

Writing in the newspaper Barbados Today, David Comissiong, the Deputy Chairperson of the National Task Force on Reparations, said he was deliberately misquoted out of context. He hadn’t even heard of Benedict Cumberbatch, nor the family’s links to slavery. The concentration on one, famous, individual was distorting the discussion, moving it away from the actual demands being made by the Bajan government and other Caribbean nations.

The global movement for reparations has a long history and specific demands. It is much bigger than asking specific individuals to give back their money. In the introduction of his book, Reconsidering Reparations, Professor Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò explains there is “a haze of ambiguity around reparations.” He then poses the question: “what are they about?” 

Reparation comes from the Latin word for ‘repair’ and reparations advocacy has been around in one form or another for more than a century. In her book, Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History, Professor Ana Lucia Araujo argues that enslaved and freedpeople have been demanding reparations since the eighteenth century. In pamphlets, public speeches and judicial claims on the subject, written in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, they demanded justice using synonyms such as redress, compensation, atonement, repayment and restitution. They knew they had experienced a grave injustice and it had made their masters and former owners very wealthy. 

In 2013, a coalition of Caribbean Government Leaders established the CARICOM Reparations Commission (CRC). Their mandate is to make the case for reparatory justice, establishing the moral, ethical and legal case for not only the enslavement of Africans, but also the genocide of the indigenous people that populated the islands before European imperialism, the treatment of Indian indentured labourers, and the continued harm from these legacies. 

More than 10 million Africans were shipped to the Caribbean during the 400 years of enslavement. At the end of slavery in the late 19th century, less than 2 million remained. Some 40% of enslaved Africans were shipped to the Caribbean Islands, which, in the seventeenth century, surpassed Portuguese-owned Brazil as the principal market for enslaved labour. In 1661, the Barbados Slave Codes were passed: a set of laws that legalised slavery, described Africans as “a dangerous kind of people” and allowed the most violent punishments for supposed slights of “deviance”. Meanwhile the native Caribbean population experienced genocide. A community that in 1700, numbered at over 3 million people, was reduced to less than 30,000 people by the year 2000.

When slavery was abolished in the Caribbean, it was replaced by the ‘apprentice’ system, forcing former enslaved people to continue working for their former masters. When this system was abolished in 1838, oppression shapeshifted into new forms. British planters in the Caribbean sought new means to continue to profit from their sugar plantations. Indentured labourers from India were brought in under contracts that quickly descended into abuse, including beatings, sexual assaults and unsanitary living conditions that led to death. And whether through voter repression, suppressed wages, violent clampdowns on protest, or biased courts, freedom remained elusive for Africans while the economies of the Caribbean were damaged irrevocably. Caribbean governments have dedicated more than 70%of the public budget to deal with the health and education problems resulting from colonialism and slavery.

There has been no restitution for the victims of both the CARICOM Reparations Commission and the European Parliament describe as crimes against humanity. There was, however, for the slave owners. The British government borrowed £20m to compensate the slave owners for their loss of ‘property’, after slavery was abolished in the British Empire - equivalent to £17bn in today’s money. The taxpayer was paying this back until 2015. Beneficiaries of compensation include the ancestors of former Prime Minister David Cameron, his wife Samantha Cameron, and Benedict Cumberbatch. 

In 2007, when asked about the wealth his family derived from slave plantations and compensation in an interview with Scotland on Sunday, Benedict Cumberbatch 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.” 

What purpose does it serve to call out the descendants of plantation owners in modern Britain? 

Mainly, it aims to address to a lack on multiple fronts: a lack of education on the realities of slavery and colonialism and a lack of redress for its long-lasting impacts. A comment like Cumberbatch’s that dismisses these legacies of the past are still having an impact, is only possible when people speak of a history of which they know little. These are not marginal events: they are central to Britain’s economy, the global economy and contemporary patterns of inequality. 

The profits generated by the slave trade and produce from the plantations contributed to Britain’s industrial revolution and long-standing institutions. The Bank of England, The Church of England, Barclays Bank, the library at All Souls College, Oxford, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, and the invention of the steam engine benefited from profits from slavery. But there were lasting impacts on Caribbean societies too. After slavery was abolished, the priority of the imperial powers was to maintain the status quo, not development. The economies of the islands continued to be oriented towards meeting the needs of European industry, with the surpluses available for investment transferred abroad and goods for locals imported. By the eve of independence from Britain, Jamaica suffered from chronic levels of unemployment. To this day, despite being a majority Black country, a racial hierarchy still exists, where being white or lighter-skinned correlates with better outcomes in education and higher household income. Since the 1960s, academics have argued that the slavery and its colonial hangover - the plantation economy - have had a detrimental impact on the development of Caribbean economies, including a continued reliance on food imports, and debilitating debts

In January, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) interviewed more than 2,000 British people from a range of ethnic backgrounds about the UK’s role in colonialism and education. Sharing their findings with The Voice newspaper, they found that 62% of Britons reported having been taught not very much or nothing at all about Britain’s colonial past in school. The data was even more stark for white students. Only 8% of white pupils said they had been taught a great deal about Britain’s role in colonisation compared to 17% of Black pupils.

This is also true for support for reparations that track along racial lines. Only 24% of white people said they supported the UK government or UK businesses that profited from slavery to compensate people whose ancestors were slaves. This increases to over 60% for Black people. 

What is hopeful, for the movement for reparations and for the country, is the level of support for teaching the histories of slavery and colonialism and their impact on the world today in secondary schools. While 62% support this move – only 9% oppose teaching about the slave trade. And a mere 8% oppose teaching British colonial history. This is in line with a YouGov poll from 2019, that also signalled a potential shift in public attitudes. 

Meanwhile, the reparations movement is growing globally. The Caribbean Reparations Commission has a programme committed to national and international reconciliation. Their ten-point programme sees reparation payments as a development strategy, not for individuals but to deal collectively with the economic and educational issues of the present that share their origins with the past, caused by the history of slavery, and colonial era genocide, underdevelopment and exploitation. Debt cancellation, illiteracy eradication initiatives, and support for surviving indigenous groups all feature. A full formal apology by European governments that acknowledges the impact of enslavement is fundamental for the healing process to begin. To ‘remember, reclaim, restore and repair to secure rights and achieve reconciliation.’

To date, reparation commissions have been set up, or are in development, in the United States, Canada, Brazil, Venezuela, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Last year, Germany acknowledged that it committed genocide during its colonial occupation of what is now Namibia. The government stopped short however, of calling this reparations. The government has promised a series of development projects. Whereas last month, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised for the government’s role in enslavement and the slave trade. But he stopped short of offering any compensation to descendants of enslaved people. They are opting instead for a €200 million fund to raise awareness of the impact of slavery on contemporary times. 

The Church of England has recently followed a similar pattern. Earlier this month, they announced a £100m fund is being set up to compensate for its historical benefit from the international slave trade. The Church Commissioners, who manage the fund, have eschewed the term reparations. They argue this because their scheme will not compensate individuals but will support projects “focused on improving opportunities for communities adversely impacted by historic slavery”.

This speaks to a misunderstanding of what reparations can be. Or to be less generous, choosing the path of least resistance by focussing on the demands that don’t require a significant restructuring of the world economy or European governments giving up power or upsetting their electorates. The demands for reparatory justice differ across countries and regions, and within them. In Brazil, the struggle for land rights is central to the fight for reparations for Black rural communities. The CARICOM Reparations Commission and the National African-American Reparations Commission, share many demands such as a formal apology from the responsible governments, and investment in education and health. But there are differences too, anchored in the specificity of their histories.

What unites all of them is the fight for a greater recognition of history, of acknowledgement over denial and ignorance. It isn’t about individual guilt or going after famous faces. It’s about reckoning with the global racial and economic inequalities that exist in plain sight and what caused them, and offering serious restitution. And this is no fringe view. Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, launched a landmark report on racial justice and advocated for reparations in multiple forms. 

In Reconsidering Reparations, Professor Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò calls reparations a construction project. By this, he asks us to think about reparations as a global fight for justice and reconciliation. A battle that is in continual conversation with the past. 

"What if the project for reparations was the project for safer neighbourhoods and better schools," he says. "For a less punitive justice system, for the right to a decent and dignified livelihood?”