Thu | Jan 24, 2019

Icon of the Decade: William Knibb 1840s

Published:Wednesday | December 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM
William Knibb

Louis Marriott, Contributor

For some 150 years after the British capture of Jamaica from Spain, massive fortunes were made by British settlers and their families across the Atlantic on the backs of African slaves on Jamaican plantations, mainly in sugar cane.

However, in addition to the pressure applied by some courageous and rebellious slaves, like Sam Sharpe and other martyrs of the 1831 Christmas Rebellion, there was, by the turn of the nineteenth century, a sense of outrage expressed by enlightened Britons at the moral turpitude of the system of slavery and the racist dehumanisation of the Afro-Jamaican majority, who were legally, socially and economically defined as the white settlers' property.

While the Jamaican legislature, elected exclusively by men of considerable property - almost exclusively lily-white - supported the plantocracy to the hilt, there was a cadre of humane Britons back home, led by William Wilberforce, who were determined to play a role in emancipation from slavery. Born to a wealthy Yorkshire family, Wilberforce was a parliamentarian and Christian who used his status and access to men of power and influence to stir consciences for change. He won the support of Britain's Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, and another Cabinet member, Lord Grenville. But the King, George III, whose intransigence was a major cause of the American War of Independence, was known to be a supporter of slavery at a time when parliament had not yet won its unquestioned supremacy over the sovereign.


The abolitionists in Britain had a very significant impact on the termination of the transatlantic slave trade in 1907. In the second phase of liberation, total Emancipation from slavery, British Christian missionaries in Jamaica, mainly of the Baptist, Wesleyan and Congregational Churches, played a more decisive role. The Baptists were the most notable. Indeed, the 1831 Christmas Rebellion was alternately called the 'Baptist War'.

At the individual level, the most outstanding missionary was the Baptist preacher William Knibb, who first arrived in Jamaica in November 1824 to teach at the East Queen Street School. Within a few months, he established a church in Port Royal with some 120 members. After recovering from a grave illness that struck within four years of his arrival, he wrote that God had saved his "unworthy life" and that he would then devote himself more than ever to preach with more earnestness and pray with more fervour.

He admonished, in general terms, those who by their selfishness, greed and indifference to social problems, were adding to the troubles of the poor and needy. Migrating to Falmouth, in 1830, he took charge of and expanded a chapel built by Thomas Burchell three years earlier. He and other Baptist ministers urged restraint from the 1831 Christmas rebels. But their activities were misunderstood, and they were arrested and charged with incitement. Upon acquittal, he found that the chapel had been occupied as a military barracks and then completely destroyed.

Knibb went to Britain during the period of 'apprenticeship' that followed the end of full-fledged slavery, to spread the word about the horrors of slavery, complete with such props as halters and shackles. He also raised substantial sums of money from the British government and the Baptist Missionary Society to rebuild chapels in western Jamaica that had been destroyed in the aftermath of the 1831 uprising.

On his return to Jamaica, he dutifully resumed his activities as educator, social worker, business advisor, environmental watchdog, sanitation, and health monitor, and free-village developer. He was especially concerned about the cholera epidemic that devastated Jamaica in the middle of the nineteenth century and continually urged the colonial government to maintain higher standards of sanitation, while also educating communities to protect themselves against the disease.

In the changed socio-economic circumstances where substantial numbers of black and "coloured" Jamaicans were now own-account farmers and entrepreneurs of many kinds, Knibb taught people their rights as citizens, their participation as electors, candidates and office-holders; and he published a newspaper, The Baptist Herald.

Undoubtedly, he and such Baptist colleagues as Thomas Burchell and James Phillipo succeeded in persuading the authorities to curtail the period of apprenticeship and bring forward the advent of full freedom to August 1, 1838.

He admonished, in general terms, those who by their selfishness, greed and indifference to social problems, were adding to the troubles of the poor and needy.