William Knibb's father had been a teacher in a Baptist school in Kingston, Jamaica. He died after only 15 months, but William volunteered to take over his father's position. He sailed to Jamaica on 5 November, 1824.
The situation for nonconformist missionaries in Jamaica in the 1820s was very difficult. When Knibb arrived in the colony in 1825, the dissenting missionaries were barely tolerated. The planters distrusted the missionaries' involvement with the slaves, and this situation was made worse by the British government's decision to ameliorate slavery, beginning in 1823. At first Knibb taught at a school in Kingston and, as was to be the case so often in the future, was instrumental in the construction of a new building for the school (he never seemed to hesitate in undertaking heavy expenditures for building and buying land and was frequently personally encumbered as a result). He also preached at a chapel in Port Royal, near Kingston, before starting a new mission in 1829 in Savanna la Mar, in south-western Jamaica. Although he was to remain at this mission station only briefly before moving to Falmouth on Jamaica's north coast a year later, it was in Savanna la Mar that he ran into his first serious difficulties with the planters.
While Knibb was in Falmouth during the Easter period in 1830, some of his church members used his house in Savanna la Mar for prayer meetings. During one of these meetings, a group of people headed by a free coloured carpenter interrupted the prayers and reported them to the magistrates. The complaint was that slaves and free coloureds were preaching and teaching without permission, which was a violation of the slave code. Their leader, Sam Swiney, the slave deacon of the Baptist church, was found guilty and sentenced to two weeks' hard labour and twenty lashes. On the day of the punishment, Knibb accompanied Swiney at the flogging, and, as he was taken away to begin hard labour, Knibb shouted, 'Sam, whatever you want, send to me and you shall have it'. The case generated considerable publicity and eventually reached the Colonial Office, where the judgment against Swiney was declared illegal.
Tension in Jamaica rose dramatically in 1831, when the British government sought to have the Jamaican colonists pass an order in council further ameliorating the condition of the slaves. A massive slave rebellion broke out in western Jamaica just after Christmas 1831, and in scenes of confusion and disarray Knibb, along with several other missionaries, was arrested and threatened with death. The white people blamed the missionaries, and especially the Baptists, for the slave rebellion and destroyed most of the Baptist and Methodist chapels in the western part of the island. Although Knibb was indicted, the case was thrown out of court. The missionaries then dispatched Knibb to England to defend themselves against the slanders of the planters.
On landing in England and on hearing that the Reform Bill had been passed, Knibb was reputed to have said, 'Thank God. Now I'll have slavery down. I will never rest, day or night, till I see it destroyed, root and branch'. He spoke at a large meeting of the representatives of the dissenting bodies at Exeter Hall in London, and was a witness before select committees of both houses of parliament. In his views on slavery Knibb was considerably ahead of the committee of the Baptist Missionary Society. When the secretary of the committee, John Dyer, urged Knibb to be prudent and to pursue a temperate policy, Knibb refused to remain silent and threatened to resign from the society. Knibb subsequently toured all over Britain speaking against slavery to much acclaim. In August 1833 parliament passed the bill to abolish slavery; it became effective a year later, on 1 August 1834. When Knibb returned to Jamaica that October, slavery had ended.
The period after the formal abolition of slavery was to see significant growth in the Baptist church in Jamaica. In the ten years after 1831 membership in the church grew from 11,000 to 30,000, and the number of ministers grew from sixteen to twenty-seven. Knibb had an important role in this increase; within a year of his return to Jamaica he received 400 new members into his church at Falmouth. By 1837 he had established three new country stations, each with a chapel and school. Knibb's own family grew as well; he and his wife had four sons and five daughters. Four of the children died in infancy and the only boy to survive, William, died in 1837 at the age of twelve. There were suggestions that Knibb lived well; his congregation built him and his family a substantial house in Kettering, near Falmouth, worth 1000 pounds. But Knibb's comfortable lifestyle did not affect his concern for black people in Jamaica.
Knibb opposed the apprenticeship system, the period between the abolition of slavery and full freedom. But full freedom in 1838 brought a new dimension to Knibb's work: he actively sought to negotiate fair wages for the ex-slaves. He published a weekly newspaper for the freedmen, the Baptist Herald and Friend of Africa, and he was also involved in buying land for the freedmen and establishing free villages for them. He frequently proclaimed his identity with black people and attended the Anti-Slavery Convention in England in 1840, speaking again on behalf of the freedmen. He returned to England in 1842 and 1845, to raise money for the mission in Jamaica and to highlight the plight of the former slaves. Knibb not only sought to protect the freedmen from exploitation by the planters; he also hoped to influence the elections to the Jamaican house of assembly and return candidates committed to disestablishment. Although Knibb founded the Anti-State Church Convention for this purpose, the governor, Lord Elgin, managed to outmanoeuvre Knibb and called an election in 1844 before the new voters, most of whom were freedmen, were eligible to take part in it.
Late in 1845 Knibb was stricken with yellow fever, and he died at Kettering on 15 November. Nearly 8000 people joined the funeral procession in Falmouth, where he was buried. The funeral orations did not omit to point out some of Knibb's flaws: among them his egotism and love of power. But they also highlighted his enormous contribution to ending slavery and his commitment to freedom for the mass of Jamaicans.
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