Big History Project
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- READ: Benjamin Banneker — Science in Adversity
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READ: Benjamin Banneker — Science in Adversity
Benjamin Banneker: Science in Adversity
By David Baker, adapted by Newsela
Benjamin Banneker was a mathematician, astronomer, and polymath, widely regarded as one of the first African-American scientists and a gifted figure during the Age of Enlightenment.
The human thirst for knowledge, even in the face of tough circumstances, is reflected in the life of Benjamin Banneker and the life of his family. His grandmother was named Molly Welsh. She was a lower-class Englishwoman from Devon, England. Like many in the agrarian era, Molly was very poor and had to work as a laborer to keep herself fed and sheltered from day to day. She worked as a milkmaid. In 1683, she accidentally spilled a bucket of milk. Molly’s employer did not believe her and accused her of stealing the milk so she could sell it herself. Molly was arrested, found guilty, and sentenced to death. In those days, even petty theft carried a death sentence, under what later would become known as “the Bloody Code.” However, regardless of what the law said officially, in many cases the death sentence was reduced to lesser punishments. In the seventeenth century, the English were still struggling to find people to work in the colonies. So the judge ruled that if Molly could prove she was literate, she would be sentenced to seven years of indentured servitude in the colonies instead. Molly, rare for the lower classes at that time, and even rarer for women, was able to read. She promptly read several passages from the Bible and was packed off to the colonies.
Indentured Servitude and Slavery
An indentured servant is someone who is compelled by law to work for an employer for a fixed term. They cannot leave their job without being punished. Many English people found themselves arriving in the Americas in such a way in the seventeenth century. Molly arrived in Maryland and spent the next seven years working on a tobacco farm. Part of a contract for an indentured servant is, when they have finished their years of service, they are given land and supplies to start a farm of their own. This was because the English wanted to colonize the vast lands of America as quickly as possible, but not enough people wanted to go over there. Molly was given 50 acres to start life as a farmer. However, managing a huge tobacco farm is difficult for one person to do on their own. She could have hired workers, but there was a labor shortage in seventeenth-century America. The other source of labor was the odious practice of slavery. Molly went to the docks and bought two slaves to help her on her farm.
One of the slaves was named Banneka. He had a proud and dignified bearing. He disliked working with his hands. It turned out that Banneka was a prince of the Dogon people of West Africa. But he was captured in an enemy raid and sold to European slavers. He was also very intelligent and brought with him the astounding agricultural knowledge that made the Dogon the envy of the neighboring peoples in West Africa. Molly and Banneka gradually learned each other’s language, and the tobacco farm flourished. Molly and Banneka also fell in love, and Molly freed Banneka and promptly married him. Molly was taking a big risk. One interpretation of the law meant that by marrying a slave, Molly would be assuming slave status herself, rather than freeing her husband. In later life, Molly was walking in town with her children, when a crowd formed around her asking “who they belong to.” Molly did not want to risk her or her children’s freedom and lied, “they are my slave’s children.” Throughout her life, and the lives of her children and grandchildren, the reinterpretation of her marriage to Banneka remained a threat to the freedom and land of the entire family.
Molly and Banneka were both extremely intelligent people, who turned their farm into a success. But due to the inequalities of the time, they were limited in how they could share their knowledge with the wider world. The human exchange of learning has been crucial to our advancement throughout human history, from stone tools to skyscrapers. They are just two examples of how inequalities and prejudice can slow down the collective learning of humanity. Molly was a former servant and victim of a harsh justice system, and Banneka was a prince of a proud people in West Africa with great agricultural skills, ripped from his home and sold into slavery. And unlike many with more tragic stories, Molly managed to escape death at the hands of a corrupt justice system and Banneka managed to win back his freedom. Many other potential innovators in human history were not so lucky, and we shall never know what they might have contributed to our collective pool of knowledge.
Molly and Banneka had four daughters. The eldest, Mary, was born in 1700. She grew into a tall, beautiful, and very sensible woman. She did not marry for a long time. She could not marry a slave, because that would likely make her a slave as well. Eventually, she married Robert, an African abducted from Guinea, whose story is a bit foggy in the sources. In one version, Robert was bought by Molly and Banneka and freed once they noticed he loved their daughter. In another version, Robert was taken from Guinea and escaped slavery several times, before being sold to a planter who freed him, and then making his way to Baltimore County. At any rate, Mary and Robert married as free people, and took the last name Bannaky.
A Truly Gifted Child
Robert and Mary also proved themselves to be knowledgeable and successful farmers, who made enough money to continue buying more land. In 1731, they had a son, Benjamin.
Banneka had died in the 1720s. Molly took a close interest in educating the young Benjamin. She taught him to read and passed on the African farming techniques of Benjamin’s grandfather. Benjamin grew up to be quiet, intelligent, and well-spoken. He could quote long passages from literature, to the astonishment of the locals who met him. By the age of 6, Benjamin could even do basic accounting for the farm and for some of the nearby neighbors. As smart as his parents and grandparents were, Benjamin was a truly gifted child.
Robert continued to be successful and, in 1737, he bought an additional 100 acres and put his name and the 6-year-old Benjamin’s name on the deed. This was to make sure Benjamin would inherit the farm without anyone giving him any trouble. The farm was higher up in the hills, far away from too many neighbors, and it gave the family a quiet life with a great deal of privacy.
Benjamin continued to progress as a gifted child. He impressed a Quaker farmer, named Peter Heinrich, who was starting up a school in the area. Benjamin soon surpassed his teacher’s skills, and was allowed to plan his own lessons. Benjamin attended school for a year or two at most. Then, he started full-time work on the tobacco farm. Heinrich still took a keen interest in his education, however, and the school loaned many books to Benjamin. From this point forward till the end of his life, Benjamin was largely self-taught.
Benjamin studied classical history and developed an eloquent writing style. But his real passion was for the sciences and mathematics. Benjamin would create complex math problems for himself and then puzzle over them until he solved them. With only a few books, Benjamin taught himself mechanical engineering, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry.
As his father, Robert, got older, Benjamin (now adopting the last name Banneker) began to take over more and more work on the farm. By this time, Benjamin had already become a mathematician, scientist, and polymath. When Benjamin was 22, a man named Josef Levi visited the farm from England. Josef had a watch, which was a rare sight in those days. Most people told time by the position of the Sun in the sky. Benjamin was fascinated by it. Josef lent it to him, intending to collect it when he returned from England. But he unfortunately died at sea and never returned. Benjamin took the watch apart, sketched it, and figured out exactly how it worked. He then took some hardwood and began carving out copies of the watch’s parts. Benjamin assembled a clock. So rare were clocks in the 1700s, it was the first clock in U.S. history to be made entirely from parts made in America. It worked perfectly for 50 years. Thereafter, Benjamin often repaired all types of clocks and watches for his neighbors.
In 1759, Benjamin’s father, Robert, died. Benjamin ran the farm himself. In his spare time, he continued to read, played flute and violin, and read letters for his illiterate white neighbors. He never married.
Had Benjamin been born even a century later, he might have had an opportunity to attend school, even a university, and contribute to mathematics and scientific advances. As it was, at a time when the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution was in full swing in Europe and America, Benjamin’s circumstances made it difficult for him to contribute to the pool of human knowledge.
From the age of 28 to the time he was 59, Benjamin lived the life of a farmer and private scholar in Baltimore County. He lived through the American Revolution and was very moved by the calls for liberty, equality, and freedom from tyranny. He also shared the thirst for knowledge of the workings of nature during the Age of Enlightenment.
Watching the Stars
Meanwhile, in 1772, the Ellicott brothers moved onto the land next to Benjamin’s. They were of European descent from Pennsylvania. Benjamin and the Ellicotts struck a long-lasting friendship. In 1788, the Ellicotts supplied Benjamin with a couple of books on astronomy, along with some equipment. So began Benjamin’s most profound journey into the realm of science.
Benjamin continued to teach himself and worked busily on his astronomical calculations. In 1789, he accurately predicted an eclipse would occur on April 14, beating the predictions of many of his contemporaries.
In 1790, Benjamin retired from farming. He sold his land to the Ellicotts in exchange for some money and an agreement that he could spent the rest of his life living in his log cabin. Benjamin was finally able to give over all his time to his studies. He began sleeping during the day so he could watch the stars at night. He built a shed and carved out a skylight, turning the shed into a makeshift observatory. Benjamin constructed accurate tables and calculations. His work used an advanced kind of trigonometry.
Meanwhile, George Washington was making plans to move the capital of the young United States to what would be named Washington, D.C. Andrew Ellicott hired Benjamin to work on a survey team that would lay down the original borders for the new capital. From February to April 1791, Benjamin’s job was to note star movements and pass the information on to the survey team, so they could very accurately figure out where the borders were by comparison with the position of the stars in the sky. Benjamin also contributed his photographic memory to the drawing of detailed maps and blueprints.
Despite his position in the world, Benjamin’s greatest contribution to the pool of knowledge was far-reaching. He calculated the timing of the tides, the time of sunrise and sunset throughout the year, the phases of the Moon, the occurrence of eclipses, predictions for bad winters and seasonal changes, and when pests would be likely to return. He published his calculations in an almanac, along with tips on how to plant crops, ideas for medicine, and some inspiring quotations from literature.
An almanac was very important to farmers and sailors in this age. Knowledge of the weather, the tides, and the cycles of the Sun (in a world still largely without clocks) was vital to many people’s livelihoods. Many people in the eighteenth century owned just two books: a Bible and an almanac. Benjamin first published his in 1792 and continued to publish them annually until 1797. They were an immediate success, and won him a lot of admiration. His almanacs were sold widely in the U.S., and a few copies even made it as far as Europe. His most popular bit of knowledge was the tide table for the Chesapeake Bay region. Many of his competitors did not include one, and Benjamin’s other calculations were also often judged to be more accurate.
One of the most striking points of Benjamin’s life was to send a copy of his first almanac to Thomas Jefferson, along with a letter. Benjamin found it troubling that a man who advocated for liberty should hold slaves. He wrote:
We are a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world; we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt. However diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family.
The modern scientific story of humanity bears him out.
He sent along his almanac to prove that people of African descent had just as capable minds as any other. In this diplomatic but passionate letter, Benjamin argued:
Sir, pitiable it is to reflect that...in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others.
Benjamin considered himself lucky but he was all too aware of the suffering of others. At the time, it is estimated there were “islands” of 8,000 free African-Americans in Maryland, with about 100,000 slaves in the same area. And it would be more than 50 years before Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Benjamin’s letter was one of the first in an exchange of letters with Thomas Jefferson, making Benjamin one of the first African-Americans to correspond with a government official. Jefferson responded sympathetically to Benjamin, in the careful way of a politician, and promised to send Benjamin’s almanac to the National Academy of Sciences in Paris. The head of the academy, Condorcet, was a leading figure in the Enlightenment. However, this received no reply.
Nevertheless, Benjamin Banneker became famous in his time for his high intelligence and talents. He lived in the world during an important era for science and rational thought. If not for the monstrous prejudices of the time, he arguably would have been even more famous. His talent was profound and his journals reached astronomical conclusions well in advance of his time. In terms of talent, he was undoubtedly one of the greatest scientific minds of the eighteenth century.
If awarded a proper position suited to his talents, Benjamin could have contributed greatly to astronomy and the study of many other areas of the natural world. Instead, he lived the majority of his life as a tobacco farmer and private scholar, his legacy go-ing largely unrecognized until about 50 years after his death, and only being fully recognized as late as the 1970s.
On October 9, 1806, while taking a walk with a friend, Benjamin said he felt ill and went home to sleep, where he died peacefully. It is a mystery why his cabin burned down on the day of his funeral, along with many of his journals and notes. This was a great loss, not only to our history of the man, but also to the knowledge that could have been useful to his contemporaries.
Benjamin’s obituary in the Federal Gazette, three weeks after his death, said:
Mr. Banneker is a prominent instance to prove that a descendant of Africa is susceptible of as great mental improvement and deep knowledge into the mysteries of nature as that of any other nation.
Benjamin Banneker leaves several legacies. He is widely recognized as one of the first African-American scientists. He serves as an inspiration for the many African-Americans who followed him, working at the forefront of the natural sciences and contributing significantly not only to American history but to that ever growing pool of human knowledge. Finally, Benjamin, his parents, and grandparents, are proof that the collective learning of humanity is robbed of the contribution of many gifted people when society succumbs to corruption, prejudice, and intolerance. When those restrictions are lifted and people are provided with an opportunity to contribute, humanity can progress by leaps and bounds. Every human being is a potential innovator. Living in a world now with 7 billion potential innovators, many of them still suffering inequalities and hardships, the story of Benjamin Banneker is an important one to bear in mind.
Benjamin Banneker, Benjamin Banneker’s Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanack & Emphemeris, Baltimore: Goddard and Angell, 1792.
Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Jefferson, Copy of a Letter from Benjamin Banneker to the Secretary of State, with His Answer, Philadelphia: Daniel Lawrence, 1792.
Silvio Bedini, The Life of Benjamin Banneker, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1999.
Charles Cerami, Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
Myra Weatherly, Benjamin Banneker: American Scientific Pioneer, Minneapolis: Compass Point Books, 2006.
Cover image: Benjamin Banneker - with biographical paragraphs. By Charles Henry Alston, 1907-1977, Artist (NARA record: 3569253) - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Public domain.
Image of slaves sale during the 19th century. © adoc-photos/Corbis
Image of Andrew Ellicott’s plan for Washington, D.C., 1792. Public domain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ellicott_plan.jpg
Image of title page of an edition of Banneker’s 1792 almanac. Public domain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:BannekerAlmanac.jpg
Image of 15-cent commemorative stamp honoring Benjamin Banneker issued 2/15 in Annapolis, Maryland, during the nationwide observance of Black History month, by the U.S. Postal Service. © Bettmann/Corbis.