Knibb’s impact still felt in Jamaica two centuries on

Bust of William Knibb on display in the Manor House museum, Kettering
Bust of William Knibb on display in the Manor House museum, Kettering

The name of William Knibb is today barely known outside Jamaica and his home town Kettering, nearly 5,000 miles away.

Knibb, an abolitionist born 210 years ago, is one of an exclusive group of people to have received the Jamaican Order of Merit, alongside awardees as varied as reggae star Bob Marley and former Cuban president Fidel Castro.

He also retains his place as one of that nation’s most important historical figures, with his name today adorning the William Knibb Memorial Baptist Church and the William Knibb Memorial High School – attended by six-time Olympic champion and triple world record holder Usain Bolt.

In his hometown – he was born in Market Street, Kettering, on September 7, 1803 – his name lives on through a community centre, a youth club and a borough council ward.

His legacy is also remembered on the borough’s coat of arms, which features a former slave with a broken chain around his wrist, symbolising Knibb’s ultimately successful efforts to end slavery in Jamaica.

A bust of Knibb is on display at Kettering’s Manor House Museum, sculpted by H H Newman and commissioned by the free churchmen of the town to mark the centenary of his birth in 1903.

But he was a divisive figure because, although he was revered in Jamaica by slaves and those who had been freed from servitude, he was known as Knibb the Notorious by plantation owners who were angered by his determination to put an end to an established practice which was worth millions of pounds to them.

An upbringing within the Baptist Church and a posting to Jamaica helped turn Knibb into a vociferous opponent of slavery.

He and his Welsh wife Mary Watkins moved to the Caribbean in 1824 to replace his brother Thomas, who had died of a fever, as a teacher of slaves. A year later he had established the East Queen Street Baptist Church.

But his primary focus was on emancipating slaves. In 1832, he said: “I look upon the question of slavery only as one of religion and morality.”

On another occasion, he said: “Lord, open the eyes of Christians in England to see the evil of slavery and banish it from the earth.”

By 1834, 10 years after Knibb had first set sail for the Caribbean, slavery was outlawed in the majority of the British Empire, although it was another four years – on August 1, 1838 – before those who had been in servitude were finally freed from all obligations to their previous masters.

And a century and a half later, in 1988, the Jamaican Order of Merit was bestowed upon Knibb, recognising his key role in ending nearly three centuries of slavery in the British Empire.

One Jamaican writer who has delved into his country’s background believes the award was absolutely justified.

Kevin O’Brien Chang, a Jamaican businessman and newspaper columnist, said: “There is no doubt that William Knibb is an absolutely crucial figure in Jamaican history, both for his seminal role in the abolition of slavery and his equally seminal role in helping to educate and integrate the freed slaves into normal society.”

He has also written Jamaica Fi Real: Beauty, Vibes and History, a study exploring the history, culture and religion of the country of nearly three million people.

He added: “Jamaica is a pretty ahistorical society that doesn’t dwell much on the past and most common folk probably know his name primarily through William Knibb High School – Usain Bolt’s alma mater. But those who know even a bit about our history cannot but realise how crucial a role he played in shaping Jamaica as we know it today.”

Knibb continued to work for emancipated slaves until his death of a fever in Kettering, Jamaica – a free village he had founded to offer ex-slaves a haven away from the high rents charged and low wages paid by plantation owners – in 1845. About 8,000 mourners attended his funeral.

He had also set up a newspaper, the Baptist Herald and Friend of Africa, which gave a voice to emancipated slaves.

And although Knibb may not be as well known as fellow abolitionists such as the MP William Wilberforce, Mr O’Brien Chang believes his legacy lives on.

And, he says, it could even have had a major influence on the 20th century’s most famous campaigner against racial injustice.

He said: “I have often wondered if Martin Luther King’s famous ‘character and not complexion of skin’ quote was perhaps subconsciously derived from a similar sentiment espoused by Knibb in 1839.

“King was a Baptist like Knibb, and may have come across it in Baptist histories.”

The writer also said the fruit of Knibb’s campaigning for racial tolerance was still evident, nearly 200 years later, in the social harmony which exists in Jamaica.

He added: “One of the reasons Jamaica enjoys relatively good race relations is the long tradition of many upper-class minorities making common cause with and fighting for the rights of the mostly black working majority.

“This tradition is in all probability an offshoot of the non-conformist ministers who came here in the early 19th century, and Knibb was the most prominent and important of these.”

It is a sentiment which was echoed by former Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga in a speech in 2004. He said Knibb had sacrificed his health in trying to accomplish his aims, adding: “He was a tireless worker for freedom and the upliftment of those who had been in bondage.”

From Kingston to Kettering

The links between Kettering and Jamaica are not as obvious today as at the time of Knibb’s death.

The village he founded, also named Kettering, was assimilated into a larger village and, as Kevin O’Brien Chang has noted, most Jamaicans are familiar with Knibb because of the school which immortalised his name.

But last year the headteacher of a school in the Jamaican capital Kingston visited Hall Meadow Primary School, Kettering, as part of a project ahead of the Olympic Games.

The visit was later reciprocated.