Barbados, Reparations and Justice

By Michelle

What could justice look like for those deeply affected by enslavement and colonisation? The answer to this question would vary depending on who it is asked to. Barbados is one country which has begun to ask, and answer, this question. The legacy of enslavement has been at the forefront of several Caribbean countries, and Barbados is no different. 

Barbados is an island nation in the Caribbean with unique geological origins. Early inhabitants of the island were agricultural people who cultivated all manner of crops, from cotton and cassava to guava. In 2021, Barbados removed Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state to officially become a republic. It has been a fully independent and sovereign nation as of November 2021, though it still remains in the Commonwealth.

The arrival of European colonists such as the British and Portuguese in the 1600s coincided with the creation of a market for enslaved people, cash-crops such as cotton and sugar and colonial motivations. Barbados was an island that housed enslaved Africans who through forced labour brought wealth to its slave owners and their operations.

After the abolition of slavery in 1834, compensation was paid to slave-owners and slave-owning operations. No compensation was given to those previously enslaved, or their descendants. Many countries deserve reparations and justice, but have not been given it. Barbados is continuing to pursue justice. 

Today, in the topic of justice, compensation and reparations, Barbados is in the process of considering calling for reparations from the estates and descendants of slave owners and plantation owners. The families of slave owners and other slave-owning operations received compensation from the British government after abolition, which was only paid off in 2015.

Tory MP Richard Drax is being urged by campaigners in Barbados to give back the sugar plantation that he inherited, or face a claim for compensation. The sugar plantation that Richard Drax MP inherited was established in the 1620s by enslaved labour. The Drax estate comprises hundreds of acres of real estate in Barbados – all of which is being urged to be returned to the island. The plantation in particular is at the forefront of this claim, with desire for it to be turned into a memorial for those previously enslaved. 

The family of Oscar-nominated actor Benedict Cumberbatch is the latest (at the time of writing) to face the prospect of legal action for their links to enslavement in Barbados. Joshua Cumberbatch, the seventh great-grandfather of Benedict Cumberbatch, bought the Cleland Plantation in Barbados in 1728, where it kept 250 enslaved people until the abolition of slavery in Britain 1834. 

Benedict Cumberbatch had revealed that he was aware of his family’s slave-owning past, and it is reported that his mother, actress Wanda Ventham, advised him to abandon his last name when he began pursuing an acting career so that he would not be a target for reparations or be associated with the family history. Benedict Cumberbatch’s family was compensated with a sum worth £1m today.

These reparations could greatly contribute to the nation’s development as it could be used to support the expansion and creation of key infrastructure such as schools and hospitals, and address socio-economic concerns such as housing. 

Justice may look different to each country, and it is crucial that Barbados receives support for seeking justice from those who harmed it. Barbados’ desire for justice for its previously enslaved inhabitants will hopefully serve as a green light for other countries affected by colonialism and enslavement, and may even lead to a coordinated effort for reparations.

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