Knibb, William (DNB01)

KNIBB, WILLIAM (1803–1845), missionary and abolitionist, third son of Thomas and Mary (born Dexter) Knibb, was born at Kettering on 7 Sept. 1803, one of twins. His father was a tradesman, his mother a member of the independent chapel whose Sunday school he joined at seven years old. After three years at the grammar school he entered some printing works in 1814, and in 1816 removed with his elder brother Thomas (b. 11 Oct. 1799) to Bristol on the transfer of the business. He was baptised by Dr. John Ryland [q. v.] and admitted member of the Broadmead Chapel on 7 March 1822.

Both brothers early conceived a desire for missionary enterprise. William's first impulse was felt while 'composing' missionary accounts and letters. Thomas was accepted in 1822 by the Baptist Missionary Society as master of the free school in Kingston, Jamaica, while William commenced preaching in a village near Bristol, and in a low part of the town called the 'Beggars' Opera,' colloquially the 'Beggars' Uproar.' The death of his brother after three days' illness, on 25 April 1823, led to William sailing on 5 Nov. 1824 for Jamaica to fill the post. He was just over twenty-one, and took with him his young wife, Mary Watkins of Bristol, to whom he was married a month earlier. After four years Knibb resigned his school to undertake the small mission of Savannah la Mar, and in 1830 he settled at Falmouth, near Montego Bay. Local feeling against the missionaries was strong, and their evangelical labours greatly restricted by the island laws. Knibb protested against the unjust action of the magistrates, and became the subject of much misrepresentation. The introduction of Fowell Buxton's motion relating to colonial slavery in April 1831 was the signal for violent agitation among the planters and excitement among the slaves, which culminated in insurrection. Knibb was arrested on a charge of aiding, and his chapel, like many others in the island, was destroyed. But the case against him fell through, and on his release he was despatched by the missionaries to plead their cause in England.

He arrived to find the reform bill passed, when his first exclamation was 'Now I'll have slavery down.' He threw himself vehemently into the struggle. At the Assembly Rooms at Bath, on 15 Dec. 1832, he defended the missionaries in a public discussion, and published with P. Borthwick a defence of the missionaries under the title of 'Colonial Slavery' (London, 2nd edit. 1833). He was examined before select committees of both houses of parliament, and in his spare moments addressed some meetings of the Anti-Slavery Society. A handsome sum of money was raised to recoup the heavily taxed missionaries and rebuild their schools and chapels. In October 1834 Knibb returned to Jamaica, where he became the object of malicious attacks in the pro-slavery Jamaican press. These were copied by 'John Bull,' an English paper, then edited by Thomas Hood. A Bristol solicitor and friend of Knibb (Mr. H. W. Hall) brought a libel action against the proprietor of the paper before Lord Denman in 1839 and obtained damages, amounting to 70l., for the missionary. The Baptist Missionary Society presented him with a testimonial to mark the vindication of his character.

In 1840 Knibb, with his two daughters, proceeded to England to exhibit in public addresses the results of emancipation, and to appeal for the enlargement of the mission. At the same time he pressed home the subject of African slavery. He was everywhere received with enthusiasm, as he was subsequently upon his third and fourth visits in 1842 and 1845.

To Knibb's efforts in England and at home the increase of missionary activity in Jamaica was largely due. Addressing a meeting in Norwich in June 1845 he related that thirty-five chapels, sixteen schoolrooms, and twenty-four mission-houses had been built at a cost of 157,000l. The conditions of life had already improved so much that, as he pointed out, the average limit of a missionary's life in the West Indies had increased from three to seven years. Knibb himself, a man of splendid constitution and immense energy, spent twenty-one years in Jamaica. He was stricken down with malignant fever in the thick of his work, and died after four days' illness on 15 Nov. 1845 at Kettering, one of his seven stations, where a house had been built and presented by his affectionate people to his wife and daughters. Mrs. Knibb survived until 1 April 1866. Five of their children predeceased him. Of the elder son, William, a remarkable boy of twelve, Dr. James Hoby wrote a 'Memoir.'

Knibb founded, in September 1839, the 'Baptist Herald and Friend of Africa,' a weekly paper for the instruction of the emancipated population of Jamaica. Some of his speeches in England are printed in pamphlet form. His correspondence with Joseph Sturge [q. v.], Joseph John Gurney [q. v.], Dr. Hoby, and many other abolitionists and missionaries, is included in Hinton's Life,' where also is a portrait. A medallion was placed at the base of a figure of justice, erected in his chapel at Falmouth to commemorate the birth of freedom on 1 Aug. 1838. Figures of Sturge, Granville Sharp, and Wilberforce appear in bas-relief.

[Life, by J. Howard Hinton, 1847; Memoir by Mrs. J. J. Smith, 1896; Dr. Cox's Hist. of ths Baptist Missionary Society, 1842, vol. ii. passim; Jamaica Missionary, 1849; funeral sermons by J. Howard Hinton, Samuel Oughton, T. F. Newman, J. Aldis, and other baptist ministers, 1846; Bevan Braithwaite's Memoir of J. J. Gurney; Gurney's Winter in the West Indies, p. 134; Sturge and Harvey's West Indies in 1837, pp. 199, 201, 204, 231; The Tourist, 1833, p. 1.]

C. F. S.