Broadmead Baptist Church, Bristol UK
                                                           "The Church Above the Shops"

William Knibb

Next time we are outraged by a case of cruelty, of violence towards the old or the young, to the defenceless, remember William Knibb. He lived the first half of last century (1803-45) and his chief claim to fame is that he helped bring about the end of slavery in Jamaica. Any violence that shocks us now could happen then without redress - if its object were a slave, a non-person.

William Knibb was sent to Jamaica in 1823 by the Baptist Missionary and started work as a teacher in a free school in Kingston in 1824. Baptist churches already existed in Jamaica. Two Negro leaders, Moses Baker and George Liele, had come over from the U S A. The BMS had been sending missionaries in a steady stream from 1814: not all had survived: 4 had died and 4 others left for health and domestic reasons.

There was a tension between these leaders and the Jamaican plantation owners and authorities, who saw the education of Negroes and respect for their humanity as the thin end of the wedge towards the abolition of slavery. In Acts of 1807 and 1811, the British Parliament had abolished the trade in slaves within British Dominions. Hopes that this might make slaves more valuable and therefore better treated were not fulfilled.

Knibb's time in Jamaica was far from easy. Being unable to prevent his fellow believers being mistreated, flogged, working treadmills or being in chains must have been heart breaking. Added to this, he and his wife lost three babies in their early years and two older sons later on. There was a slave rebellion in 1831, swiftly and brutally suppressed, and the Baptist leaders (like Knibb) were regarded by the Jamaican authorities as being partly responsible for raising the slaves' expectations. They were in contact with the Anti-Slavery campaign which was hotting-up in Britain.

In 1833 Knibb returned with his family to England, and went, with others, on an Anti-Slavery tour of the British Baptists. They also gave evidence to Parliamentary Committees. The result of his and others' work was an Act in 1833 under which slavery was to be abolished in the British Dominions over a transitional period expiring in 1838.

Knibb and his family returned to Jamaica in 1834. The point of the transitional period had been to give the slaves and the Jamaican economy time to adjust. In practice, many of the slave or 'apprentice' owners (though not all) responded by getting as much out of the slaves as possible, charging high rents for their meagre huts and paying as low wages as they could. They still mistreated their 'apprentices' with impunity. It was not until 1st August 1838 that the by then discredited apprenticeship system was abolished and all 300,000 Negroes were declared free.

"As congregations gathered in every chapel across the island, the Negroes arriving for worship at Falmouth at 11p.m. on 31 st July found a huge banner bearing the word Freedom across the entrance to the chapel. Knibb counted every last second till midnight and, as the final stroke died away, cried with all the fervour and relief of the bitter struggle finally won: "The monster is dead! The Negro is free!" " (Gwenda Bond)

William Knibb lived to be involved in the purchase of land for free townships, where the ex-slaves could have modest homes and raise families without being at the mercy of their employers. He also saw the start of a new venture. Some of the erstwhile slaves exercised their new freedom to go back to their homeland to take their much prized Gospel to their African kin.

Ros Houseago 1998