Transforming lives on four continents

William Knibb

The fight against slavery

It was the death of his older brother Thomas that triggered William Knibb’s departure for Jamaica in November 1824. After just four months of mission work on the island Thomas Knibb had died and William persuaded BMS to let him take his brother’s place.

Plight of the slaves

As a young minister working in Jamaica in the 1800s, preaching weekly to a packed congregation of slaves, William Knibb was shocked at their plight. In 1831 he wrote:

“I have beheld them when suffering under the murderous cart whip; I have seen them when their backs have been a mass of blood; I have beheld them loaded with a chain in the streets…; and never have I heard one murmur – one reproach – against their guilty persecutors.”

Rebellion

As the cruelty – and also hopes of freedom – increased, the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt broke out in 1831-32, a ten-day rebellion led by slave and Baptist deacon Samuel Sharpe. Knibb and two missionary colleagues found themselves arrested, accused of inciting the slaves to rebel against the colonial plantation owners.

"The slaves are flocking in thousands to hear the Gospel. Last sabbath the chapel here was literally crammed to excess; many were outside…"

Campaign

Once released, Knibb returned to England to persuade BMS and the Baptist churches to take a stand against the evil of slavery, touring the country tirelessly. At one meeting in London in 1832, he held up iron slave chains [pictured] before the 3000 people there. Hurling them deafeningly to the floor, he proclaimed the downfall of slavery:

“All I ask is that my African brother may stand in the same family of man…that [he] shall be allowed to bow [his] knees in prayer to that God who has made of one blood all nations as one flesh.”

Abolition

And so it was with great joy that he welcomed the Slavery Abolition Act the following year – looking forward to the day when slavery would be defeated throughout the whole world.

Appenticeship

But the task was by no means finished. He felt compelled to continue speaking out against the harsh apprenticeship system that was still in place. He longed for the cruelty to end, for freedom to come, for people not to be measured by the colour of their skin.

“I here pledge myself never to rest satisfied, until I see my black brethren in the enjoyment of the same civil and religious liberties which I myself enjoy, and see them take a proper stand in society as men.”

"The monster is dead"

And in 1838, the last remains of slavery were finally abolished in the British Empire.

As the hour approached, Knibb pronounced before a packed congregation in Jamaica: “The hour is at hand; the monster is dying,” and then as midnight struck: “The monster is dead; the negro is free.” The following day, a coffin was buried containing a slave collar, chain and whip – slavery dead and defeated.

A right to speak

A few years before he died, Knibb summed up his outspoken campaigning: 

"Persons have sometimes said to me, ‘I wonder how you have the courage to speak so plainly.’ I always reply, ‘Have I not a right to speak? Who tied my tongue?’”

And speak on he did – until the day he died, constantly fighting against slavery in whatever form he saw it, wherever in the world he heard of it.

His life’s work was encapsulated in his prayer:

“Oh that this great and mighty work advance, and that it may soon be proclaimed from the mountain’s top that a slave exists not on earth, and that no part of the universe is cursed by bondage.” 

And it’s a prayer we still need to pray today.

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