Stacey Cumberbatch, New York City’s newly appointed commissioner of citywide administrative services, said in an interview after her introduction at City Hall last week that she shares a last name with the British actor Benedict Cumberbatch because her ancestors were slaves owned by his family.
The commissioner, who is the granddaughter of Caribbean immigrants, told the New York Times that the actor’s fifth-great-grandfather owned a plantation in Barbados and explained that it was common for slaves to take the surnames of their owners during that time. The British Cumberbatches were a famous family of “merchants and adventurers” in the 18th and 19th century, and it is a matter of public record that Abraham Cumberbatch (Benedict’s fifth-great-grandfather) founded the family’s fortunes on a sugar plantation in Barbados.
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about his father’s family’s “dodgy” legacy in the Caribbean in the past. In an interview with Scotland on Sunday in September 2007, he talked candidly about his slave-owning ancestors and his mother’s advice not to use his last name professionally to avoid becoming the target of reparations lawsuits:
Cumberbatch is his father’s name and the old man’s an actor too, although Dad wasn’t brave enough to use it and instead works as Timothy Carlton. “Cumberbatch — it sounds like a fart in a bath, doesn’t it?” he laughs. “What a fluffy old name. I can never say it on a Monday morning. When I became an actor, Mum wasn’t keen on me keeping it. ‘They’ll be after you for money,’ she used to say.”
By “they” he means the descendants of Britain’s slave trade. “There are lots of Cumberbatches in our former Caribbean colonies,” he says. “When their ancestors lost their African names, they called themselves after their masters. 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. 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.” But the Cumberbatches, he thinks, were “pretty dodgy”.
Wow. There I was, ready to ask: “How’s your mum looking these days?” Here Cumberbatch is, ‘fessing up to a dark family secret. But the acting world turns strangely. Cumberbatch, in his professional life to date, has already impersonated William Pitt the Younger in the film Amazing Grace about the campaign to end the slave trade. “Maybe I was trying to right a wrong there,” he says with an edgy smile.