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William Knibb (1803 – 1845)

by James Culross, from Founders and Pioneers of Modern Missions, 1899

WILLIAM KNIBB, son of Thomas and Mary Knibb, was born at Kettering, on September 7th, 1803, in a corner house in Market Street. He was educated at Kettering Grammar School then under the mastership of the Rev. James Hogg. On leaving school he entered the printing office of Mr. J. G. Fuller, son of Andrew Fuller, the friend and co-worker of William Carey. Knibb’s brother, Thomas, four years his senior, also worked for Mr. J. G. Fuller, and both went with their employer when, in 1816, he removed his business to Bristol. The two brothers thus came early under missionary influences, and both cherished the hope of engaging in work in the foreign field. At Bristol they were both baptized by Dr. Ryland and became members of the Broadmead Church.

Thomas Knibb was accepted by the Baptist Missionary Society for work as a schoolmaster in Jamaica, and landed there in 1823. His course was, however, very brief, for died only three months after reaching the island.

The brothers had shared their hopes of missionary work, and when the news came that Thomas had fallen, William volunteered to take his place. He had a brief training at the Borough Road Training College, and sailed with his bride for Jamaica in November, 1824. He speedily won the hearts of the children, and his school so prospered that a new school-room was erected. On his health breaking down from the climate and hard work, he removed to more healthy quarters, first to Port Royal and afterwards to Ridgeland. In 1830 he went to Falmouth, which was the scene of the greater part of his life’s work. Here he-succeeded Mr. Mann, a missionary who had been sent in answer to the earnest entreaties of the people, but who after a short, but very successful career had fallen a victim to fever.

Knibb’s warm heart and ready sympathy soon drew the negroes towards himself. The people flocked to evening meetings after their day’s work was over, and the Sunday congregations were very large. But about this time opposition began.

For a time there had been a lull in the hostility of the planters to the spread of the gospel among the slaves, but the success of the missionaries aroused their anger anew. The negroes were forbidden to attend evening meetings, but it was difficult to prevent them singing their hymns and praying with each other. Persecution began, and one of the deacons of Knibb’s church was flogged and worked in chains by order of the magistrates for holding prayer meetings. Knibb stood steadily by the sufferer and in consequence of his representations the magistrates concerned were dismissed. An attempt was made in the Colonial Legislature to check the progress of the gospel by forbidding the slaves to subscribe to the erection of new chapels or the support of the ministry, but the Home Government refused to ratify the measure.

The chief cause of the anger of the planters was the progress of the Anti-slavery party in England. In 1831 Mr. Fowell Buxton brought forward a motion in the House of Commons respecting Colonial slavery, and although the Government did not accept the motion, it declared its intention to deal with the evil. ‘This sign that the efforts of the Anti-slavery Society would be at length successful, caused intense excitement among those interested in the continuance of the existing system. The planters indulged in the wildest and most unguarded language against the Home Government. From the masters the news spread to the slaves, who on their side rejoiced at the prospect of freedom. The idea got abroad among the negroes that “free papers” had already been sent out from England, but were withheld by their masters. In these circumstances difficulties were only too likely to arise, and the planters were eager to seize any opportunity of blackening the cause of the Negroes. The missionaries urged the slaves to patience and moderation, but the hostility of the two parties rendered peace impossible. The slaves demanded wages and incendiary fires occurred. As the friends of the slaves, the missionaries were particularly obnoxious to the masters. Knibb and others were arrested and sent to Montego Bay. The chapels were destroyed by mobs which were in some cases led by magistrates. The lives of the prisoners were in danger from the lawless mob, and also threatened by the lawful authorities, but after enduring great indignities and suspense they were released as there was :nothing on which a charge could be founded. Knibb at once returned to Falmouth and was rejoiced to find that his influence over the slaves connected with his church had restrained them from participation in the disorder. At this juncture Knibb was sent by his colleagues to England to vindicate and explain their action. The pilot who boarded the vessel in the English Channel, brought the news that the Reform Bill had been passed. Knibb on hearing it exclaimed, “Thank God, now I will have slavery down.” But there was much agitation needed and many prejudices to remove. The missionaries had to explain their actions to the committee as the policy of the Society was to carry on evangelisation without entering into any political strife. At the Annual Meeting of the Society in 1832, and at many subsequent gatherings Knibb told the sad tale of the wrongs of the slaves.

His presentation of the case swept all hesitation away and secured the co-operation of the churches in his campaign against slavery. In the following year the Government brought in their Abolition Bill. The measure satisfied neither the planters nor the anti-slavery party. The Abolitionists at once set to work to modify the measure in the interests of the slaves. The form ultimately taken by the Bill was to change slavery into a six years’ apprenticeship at the close of which the slaves should be absolutely free, and to give the masters £20,000,000 as compensation.

Knibb would gladly have returned to Jamaica as soon as this great success was gained, but other objects detained him. The chapels had been wantonly burned by mobs, in many cases with the encouragement of the magistrates, but the island authorities refused to grant any compensation. The total loss was estimated at £17,900. On application to the Home Authorities, the Government undertook to recommend a parliamentary grant of £5,510 towards the rebuilding of the chapels, and held out a hope that if the Society would raise half of the remainder the Government might recommend a grant of the other moiety. An appeal for this object was made to the churches, and August 7th, 1884, fixed as the day for bringing in the amounts. The result so far exceeded all expectations that the amount raised was £13,000, which rendered further appeal to the Government unnecessary.

Knibb left for Jamaica during the same month. While he was in England, Emancipation Day, August 1st, 1834, had come, and been observed by the liberated slaves as a day of holy joy to be devoted to worship.

Emancipation, however, was only the exchange of slavery for a six years’ apprenticeship, and a1though this was a great step, there still remained much to be done. The chapels had to be rebuilt, and great care exercised in dealing with the large numbers who applied for church membership. Schools were needed, but schoolmasters were few. Very few of the slaves could read and it was necessary to educate the apprentices to use wisely their coming liberty. Evening schools were established on the various estates, and so great was the intellectual progress of the people, that Knibb estimates that during the four years, 1832-1836, the number of persons in. his congregation who could read rose from about 50 to 600.

Difficulties had also to be met in another direction. The apprenticeship system was not working well. It. proved to be very much like slavery under another name. The apprentices were often ruthlessly punished by flogging or the treadmill. By representations to the Governor direct, Knibb was able to get wrongs redressed in some cases, but the system as a whole remained untouched. The feeling was growing that the period of apprenticeship should be shortened. The Marquis of Sligo set the example of freeing his apprentices. Some others followed. Slaveholding came to be regarded as inconsistent with the Christian profession. These private manumissions prepared the way for the shortening of the apprenticeships by two years; and on August lst, 1838, complete freedom was granted throughout the British’ West Indies.

On the evening of July, 31st, 1838, the chapel at Falmouth was crowded an hour before midnight. The closing hour of the last day of slavery was passed in worship. As the clock struck twelve Knibb exclaimed, “The monster is dead, the negro is free,” and the people rose as one man and burst out into a loud and long cry of rejoicing. The services were continued on August 1st, and notwithstanding the great excitement the day passed without disorder.

The following day was given to the children’s celebration of their freedom, and its meaning impressed upon them by the burial of a coffin containing a slave collar, chain and whip.

The relation between the planters and the negroes had now changed from that of master and slave to that of employer and employed, but it was difficult for the parties to adjust themselves to their altered circumstances. The planters combined to compel the negroes to take as low a wage as 6d. a day with hut and allotment ground. This combination Knibb, with others, met by a counter-combination among the negroes to accept nothing less than 1/- per diem. Wherever he could, Knibb helped them to a fair settlement of the wages question, to the advantage of both parties.

In many cases the freed negroes were unable to continue working for wages on the estates on which they had been slaves. Some masters refused to employ free negroes, and evicted them from their estates, and there were others for whom no free man would work. This led to the purchase of sites for villages and the resale of the land in plots to the negroes who were obliged to leave their old homes. The first of these villages was started by Mr. Phillippo, and called Sligoville.

During these negotiations, the importance of educating the people was not forgotten, and to further it a college for Pastors and Schoolmasters was planned, which developed into Calabar College.

In 1840 Knibb was deputed by his colleagues to visit England to contradict the false reports respecting them which were assiduously circulated by the planters’ friends. There were also mis-conceptions respecting some of their methods which required to be removed, and even in those days the charge of luxury was made against the missionaries because they kept horses for their work, and used food, which although cheap abroad, was dear in England.

During the voyage the ship struck upon a reef and narrowly escaped being wrecked. Knibb was successful in his errand, and he pleaded for more missionaries, for Jamaica, and that a mission should be begun in Africa, the fatherland of the negroes. Both of these requests were acceded to. The Rev. John Clarke and Dr. Prince began work at Fernando Po in 1841. This was the beginning of the African Mission of the Baptist Missionary Society, and it is now represented by the work upon the Congo River.

In 1842 the Jubilee of the Missionary Society was celebrated, and Knibb was present as one of the prominent speakers. He could tell of a great work accomplished, and he also brought a message from the native churches of Jamaica that they would support their own pastors from that time, there being the tacit understanding that the Society would begin work in their fatherland, Africa. On his return he found the affairs of the Mission in difficulties from several causes. Some of the loans which had been readily granted by the Banks for the erection of chapels, were called in, and two seasons of severe drought had brought great privations to the negroes settled upon small allotments.

To obtain help Knibb came to England for the last time. The Committee voted £6,000 to the churches in Jamaica, leaving the mode of its application in the hands of the Missionaries in the field. Knibb spent two months in England helping to raise this sum by meetings and also pointing out the way in which some of the laws of Jamaica unjustly affected the negroes, and the unfair incidence of taxation. During this visit (on June 18th, 1845) Knibb attended a special meeting in College Street Chapel, Northampton, the last public occasion of any consequence in which he spoke in England. At that gathering he pleaded his cause respecting unjust traffic, as the friend, as he always had been, of the negro.

At the conclusion a vote of thanks was passed to him, and in reply he stood up, and in his own manly, effective way he said, “Well! Mr. Chairman, I can’t but say I hope I have been of some little service,” and after a few words in that strain, he stretched out and lifted up his hands – his usual gesture when animated – and further added, “But what of that Mr. Chairman, and what of all I can do –

A guilty, weak, and helpless worm, On Thy kind arms I fall; By Thou my Strength and Righteousness, My Jesus and my All.

Soon after his return to Jamaica, a walk home in the rain when in a perspiration after preaching, brought on fever, and on the following Saturday the worker finished his task and. entered into the joy of his Lord. on November 15th, 1845.

Of the joys and sorrows of Knibb’s family life we may gain a passing glimpse from a memoir of his eldest son, William Knibb, a promising boy who was his father’s dearest hope, and whose early death was one of his darkest troubles. Although this son died in. 1837, at the age of twelve years, he showed such sympathy with his father’s work and such ability in any service which he could render, that it seemed probable that ultimately he might have taken his father’s place. The exciting months of the insurrection with the burning of chapels, the arrest of the missionaries, the searching of Knibb’s house by the soldiers, and the cruel punishments of negroes suspected of complicity in the rebellion, must have had a great influence upon the young and imaginative boy. In 1832 he came to England with his parents, but the arrangements which they hoped to make for his education were frustrated by the medical opinion that for a time he must live in a warmer climate. He returned to Jamaica in 1834. From his earliest years he had shared in his father’s love of liberty, and as his mind opened he showed a tender conscience, a sense of his need of Christ, sincere trust in Him, and a desire to work for His Saviour among the negroes. Although his life was so short he accomplished some actual work. At the time when the education of the apprentices was the most pressing need he was left in the care of his cousin, Mrs. Dexter, at Stewart Town, while Mr. Dexter and Mr. and Mrs. Knibb attended some Association meetings. During that visit the boy commenced a school by gathering thirty children around him and teaching them to read. Somewhat later, during a visit to Savannah-la-Mar, he attended the prayer-meetings of the negroes, and read portions of Scripture and gave out hymns when the missionary was absent through illness. He did similar work on his return home. But this early promise was blighted by a short and painful attack of fever, which resulted in his death on July 25th, 1837. In view of such a life we can enter into the feelings of his father, who, writing of the day of complete emancipation (August 1st, 1838) says, “Oh! had my boy, my lovely slavery-hating boy been there!”

Knibb’s busy life of Christian service had its motive and support in his personal devotion to Christ. His many trials were patiently borne, and his enterprises energetically prosecuted because in private he walked with God. It may seem that the relations of a Christian with his Redeemer are too sacred to talk about, but to neglect them altogether would be to miss the great secret of his life. The earnest piety of Knibb shows itself in ‘various ways.

It was the love of Christ which made him love the slave children in his school and win their love in return. It was the preciousness of salvation to him which made him anxious that all whom he knew and loved should be sharers in it. We see this especially in his desire that his children should decide early for Christ. He wrote to them when they were absent, and in those cherished home letters he found room for a word about his Saviour. We are told that his son William took such a letter into his room and prayed over it, with his heart deeply touched by his father’s anxiety that ho should grow up a good man. Another letter tells of his joy in baptizing his daughter Catherine, who dated her conversion to the grounding of the vessel on the voyage to England, a danger in which her father’s calm showed that death had no terrors for him.

In the time when Knibb was opposed by all interested in the continuance of slavery, his naturally warm temper was kept in check by constant communion with God. After an especially virulent newspaper attack, to which a reply had to be written, his friend Saffrey found him in prayer very early in the morning. On his apologising for disturbing him Knibb replied that he wished to secure some time for prayer as without it he could not trust himself to write the answer.

But perhaps his Christian character is most impressively seen when at the early age of forty-one he had to bid his family farewell. After saying good-bye to his daughters, to whose care be commended their mother, the delirium came on which left him afterwards but one brief space of consciousness. In that last moment of conscious life he took his wife’s hand and said “Mary, it is all right.” These were his last words. To him it was “all right,” though he had to leave so much work unfinished and so many dear ones behind him, “all right” because it was his Father’s will. It was a trustful end which well fitted a life of such faithful service.

Further details of Knibb will be found in the “Memoir of William Knibb,” by Mrs. J.

J. Smith, and in the “Life of Knibb,” by J. Howard Hinton, M.A.

A monument, with the following inscription, has been erected to his memory at Falmouth for so many years the scene of his incessant toil

To the Memory of William Knibb Who departed this life on the 15th November, 1845, in the 43rd year of his age. This monument was erected by the emancipated slaves to whose enfranchisement and elevation his indefatigable exertions so largely contributed; by his fellow-labourers, who admired and loved him, and deeply deplore his early removal; and by friends of various creeds and parties, as an expression of their esteem for one whose praise as a man, a philanthropist, and a Christian minister, is in all the churches, and who, being dead, yet speaketh.

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