Benedict Cumberbatch is a British actor who is famous for his radical portrayal of “Sherlock Holmes.”
More recently, he has narrated an IMAX documentary on “Jerusalem” and starred in the critically acclaimed movie, “12 Years a Slave.”
The producer of the documentary, interviewed on CBS, revealed that, at the end of making the documentary on the 3,000 year old city, Cumberbatch asked: “Why didn’t they teach us all this in school?” I am not surprised that British schools no longer teach the basics of Christianity, another casualty of multiculturalism. So Cumberbatch shouldn’t feel too bad about his historical ignorance on the significance of the ancient city.
He would, however, not be wise to venture into further comments on history.
He recently made the film “12 Years A Slave,” which tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in New York, who was kidnapped prior to the Civil War and taken into slavery. While the story is tragic, Cumberbatch was ingenuous when he apologized for his ancestors’ role in the business of slavery. His apology only fuels the frequently raised demand for financial compensation.
How can we apologize for our ancestors? The world was a very different place two centuries ago and we cannot sit in judgment of those who came before us.
Slavery was universally practiced throughout history. It wasn’t just a black and white problem. In the eighteenth century, one million white people were held as slaves by Muslims across the Middle East. Considered property, they were called “White Gold.”
To my knowledge, the Muslims have never apologized for this, nor have any of their descendants demanded compensation.
According to a book on the origin of surnames, my family name “Rhodes” owes its origin to the island of Rhodes. The Rhodes’ were apparently Jews on the island, expelled when the island was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1522. I would very much appreciate it if the Turkish government would apologize for confiscating our family property and offer compensation, adjusted for inflation, of course!
Perhaps the British government should take up the cry and demand the Italians apologize for the Roman occupation of their island that lasted almost four centuries. As the Italians are currently rather broke, they might have to take an IOU to be claimed at some future date.
As stated, slavery was a universal condition throughout history.
What is significant, and Cumberbatch should know this as a Brit, is that Great Britain was the most progressive of all the major powers two hundred years ago when it abolished slavery. The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was a major step forward in liberating mankind from this great evil. But a change in the law did not change everything.
The Royal Navy was then given the job of stopping ships on the high seas and freeing slaves, white or black. The famous missionary and explorer David Livingstone went into Africa determined to stamp out slavery. He was well aware that African chiefs were selling their own people. The expression “sold down the river” dates back to this time.
The slave trade in Livingstone’s time was carried out by Muslims, who took Africans to be sold in the Middle East. The Arab slave traders were aided by Africans themselves.
The Royal Navy patrolled the West African coastline throughout the nineteenth century in its determination to end the trade.
Sadly, according to the UN, five decades after independence, slavery is back in every African country! Only one African leader has apologized for it – former Ghanaian President John Kufour, who recognized that his own people were actively involved in the slave trade – and explained that slavery continues in his own country (a fact further publicized by Oprah Winfrey on her television program). His apology coincided with the two hundredth anniversary of the British abolition of the trade, sponsored by William Wilberforce.
Actors need to be careful venturing into history. Mel Gibson made two of the most historically inaccurate movies ever made, “Braveheart” and “The Patriot.” After making the second one, he snapped at a film critic who challenged his interpretation of history, making it clear where he stood. As I remember it, he said: “We’re not in the business of teaching history. We’re in the business of producing entertainment!”
This, of course, does not mean that movies aren’t influential – “Braveheart” has been very influential in fueling the fires of Scottish nationalism, which may result in Scotland leaving the UK in September of this year. Few voters will have read that the movie contains a record 87 historical inaccuracies (that’s not my figure, I only realized three – but you can Google it). (You can also Google “To Kill a King,” described as the most historically accurate movie ever made.)
Let’s all remember when we watch an historical movie to realize that it’s first and foremost entertainment provided to make money; and let’s also realize that no actor is qualified to comment on history any more than a historian is qualified to act.