Kettering Civic Society

William Knibb 1803 - 1847

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by Tony Smith

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William Knibb arrived in the land of "sin disease and death" and was outraged at the ill-treatment and moral degradation of the slaves imported from Africa.
He soon became a thorn in  the side of the plantation basses who were exploiting the situation.

A new book Civilising Subjects (Polity Press 19.99) takes up the story

Local Hero who freed the slaves - a tribute to 'King' Knibb - from an article by Tony Smith in the Evening Telegraph 6/6/02

You don't need to he a student of local history to be aware of legendary missionary William Knibb, after whom a youth and education centre in Montagu Street, Kettering, is named. His crucial role in the education and emancipation of, slaves In the British colonies in the 19th century is recognised in his home town's coat of arms, which features a black man with broken manacles.

Now a new book paying tribute to the work of Knibb and his fellow campaigners in the West Indies has been published by a Kettering-born university professor, whose father was a minister at Fuller Baptist Church, which helped found the world-wide Baptist Missionary Society In 1792. Civilising Subjects (Polity Press, 19.99) is written by Catherine Hall, Professor of Modem British Social and Cultural History at University College, London.

She was three when her family left Kettering in 1949 for Leeds, where her father, the Rev John Barrett, was appointed area superintendent of the Baptist Union. But it wasn't until 1988, when she and husband Stuart had gone to live In his native Jamaica, that she stumbled across a small village called Kettering and her curiosity about its origins led to intensive research which eventually resulted in the book.

The village was founded by Knibb as the base for his Christian mission and his stirring public addresses against the evil slave trade were instrumental in -Its abolition in the colonies in 1833. It was at his Island home that the golden jubilee of the Baptist Missionary Society was celebrated and where he died, aged 44, of yellow fever.

"King Knibb", as he was known by those he helped free, was born in Market Street and educated at Kettering Grammar School.

In 1823 he was Rent to Jamaica as a missionary to replace his brother Thomas, who died teaching in Kingston, and after arriving with new wife Mary, he wrote to a friend: "I have now reached the land of sin, disease and death." Outraged by the ill-treatment and moral degradation of mostly negro slaves imported from Africa, he soon became an outspoken thorn in the side of plantation bosses. When a revolt by slaves broke out in 1831, he was arrested by the Jamaican government, which blamed missionaries for stirring up unrest.

On visits home, Knibb lectured passionately throughout Britain to rally support for abolition. He envisioned a world where freed black men and white missionaries could build a new society and dreamed of an independent Jamaica, governed by black freeholders. "Such a dream was built, however, on the refusal to recognise An existing black culture," writes Prof Hall in her diligently researched book, "For, once established, the free villages could not be maintained In the missionary image."

After abolition, plantation owners felt Knibb - by then recognised leader of the missionaries in Jamaica - still posed a threat to their interests, some suspecting he had ambitions of becoming ruler of the colony. He had houses in both the villages of Kettering and nearby Falmouth with horses and servants, among them two African girls he rescued from a captured slave ship.

When Knibb died, his wife Mary stayed in Jamaica until her death in 1867. Today their graves are in the churchyard of the present William Knibb Memorial Chapel, in Falmouth, erected after the old chapel he founded was destroyed in a hurricane in 1944, Prof Hall argues that the missionary dream relied on willing lieu- tenants who would extend the work of the white pastors, but there were many tensions and clashes between the missionaries.

The author concludes.' "While the early 1840s represented the high point of missionary hopes, fractures were already evident within the Baptist family. The death of Knibb marked the ending of the high watermark of post-emancipation missionary dreams."


A Champion of Freedom - from an article by Tony Smith in the Evening Telegraph 1/12/00

The crucial role played by Kettering in the education and emancipation of slaves in the British colonies is symbolised in the borough's coat of arms. The circles at the top of the shield represent the founding of the worldwide Baptist Missionary Society in the town's Lower Street in 1792. The black slave on the right with broken manacles a tribute to one of its most famous members, the freedom champion William Knibb. Slavery was rife in the British Empire during the late 18th century and was,outlawed in 1807 after opposition led by the likes of the philanthropist William Wilberforce. Although this made it illegal for British ships or for British colonies to import them, in was 1803 before it was abolished in the colonies themselves following a campaign by Knibb

The former Kettering Grammar School pupil, born in Market Street in 1806 was sent to Jamaica as a missionary to replace his eldest brother Thomas, who had died, suddenly in Kingston in 1824. Full of zeal William became pastor of a church at Falmouth on the island but was horrified by the ill-treatment of sugar plantation workers, mostly negro imported on slave ships from Africa. Unlike fellow missionaries, Knibb,dared to speak out against such cruelty and injustice. When a revolt by slaves broke out in 1831, he was arrested by the Jamaican government, which blamed the, missionaries for stirring up unrest. On returning to England the following year, Knibb tirelessly lobbied the church, Parliament and the House of Lords, vowing: "I will not rest day or night till this accursed thing is swept from the face of the earth". In a landmark speech to the Baptist Missionary Society, he spoke passionately of the horrors of slaughtered negroes and their families, imprisoned missionaries and demolished chapels. "I plead on behalf of the widows and orphans whose innocent blood has been shed," he said, "I call upon children by the cries of the Want slave whom I saw flogged on the Macciesfield estate. I call upon parents by the blood streaming from the back of Catherine Williams, who, with a heroism England has seldom known, preferred the dungeon to the surrender of her honour. "I call upon Christians by the bleeding wounds of William Black, whose back a month after flogging was not healed

The excitement of the meeting was indescribable. After similar emotive meetings, throughout England, a Reform Bill abolishing slavery was eventually passed.

As the clock struck midnight on July 31, l838, 800,000 negro workers in the West Indies were finally declared free (and their former owners handsomely compensated) Although William arrived back in Jamaica too late for Emancipation Day, he was mobbed at the bay by hundreds of jubilant people from ever corner of the island. Amid much weeping, laughing and singing the crowds hailed him as "King" Knibb". In subsequent years, thousands flocked to the churches in the colonies. Numbers of Christians rose from 4,000 in 1825 to 27,607 in 1840, Knibb himself baptising 6,000 converts. Largely through his efforts, 35 chapels, 16 schools and 24 mission house, were erected at a cost of 157,000, of which the people raised 139,000. Knibb returned here in 1842 to celebrate the golden jubilee of the BMS at the Mission House in Kettering. Following a final fundraising mission to England in 1845, he returned to his island home of Kettering, the village he founded near Falmouth in Jamaica and named after his beloved birthplace. He died there of yellow fever in 1847. Today Kettering Baptist Church founded by Knibb in 1544 survives on the island along with the William Knibb Memorial High School. In Kettering, England, a bronze bust of the missionary is display, in the Manor House Museum and a youth education centre in Montagu Street bears his name.