Biography of Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker was a renowned 18th century mathematician, astronomer, and almanac author. This simple African-American farmer made a huge impact on the socio-political scenario prevalent then. His mythical feats are extolled even today.
Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731. He was the grandson of Molly Welsh, a European-American. Molly Welsh owned a farm in Baltimore, Maryland. She also owned a slave called Banneka, a member of the Dogon tribe, as a farm hand. The tribe that Banneka belonged to was reputed to be endowed with knowledge of astronomy for generations. As a farm hand, Banneka not only cleared the land, but also solved a number of irrigation and crop rotation issues for her. This region west of Maryland was part of the colonial South. It was known to be home to people who were more tolerant toward African-Americans. It wasn't long before Molly married Banneka. He enriched her life with his inherent knowledge of astronomy. They had a daughter called Mary, whose son was Benjamin Banneker. He showed signs of having inherited the Dogon tribe's knowledge of astronomy early in life. His grandmother, Molly, taught him how to read, interpret the celestial objects in the sky, and farm. Not much is known about Robert, Benjamin's father, except that he had fled slavery.

A Synonym for Genius

The biography of Benjamin Banneker is incomplete without the mention of Peter Heinrichs. He made a lifelong friend in Peter Heinrichs. Heinrichs had established a school not far from where Banneker lived. The duo shared quality time in Heinrichs' library. Research reveals that he had designed a clock that struck by the hour at the age of 21, in 1753. The clock worked consistently till his death on October 9, 1806. In 1788, he began a formal study of astronomy. He was able to submit a report on his research of the solar eclipse by the following year.

Major Andrew Ellicott hired Banneker as an assistant to survey of the boundaries that Virginia and Maryland would cede to the federal government, in accordance with the Residence Act of 1790. He used celestial navigation for astronomical observations. He calculated the starting point for the survey and used a clock to relate to locations and specific positions of stars. The most intriguing fact about him is that while conducting the survey, he correctly pointed out the exact location of the federal capital city and regenerated a misplaced plan through photographic memory. He is credited with having exacted the locations of the White House, Capitol and Treasury Building, much before they were even conceived on blueprint.

Banneker's predictions on the solar and lunar eclipses were part of his ephemeris, which he published in Philadelphia and Baltimore. He maintained journals comprising periodical astronomical observations and a number of mathematical deductions that backed his findings. The almanac, designed by Banneker, in 1792 included:
  • Rising and setting times of the sun and moon.
  • Daily weather forecasts.
  • Dates of important annual celebrations.
  • Tide table for Chesapeake Bay.
  • Home remedies for a number of illnesses that plagued Maryland.
Banneker's almanacs were commercially distributed and received very well even by prominent abolitionists and members of Great Britain's House of Commons. Banneker shared his views on religion, slavery and racial equality with Thomas Jefferson, poetess Phyllis Wheatley and poet William Cowper. He succumbed to health complications that set in due to alcohol addiction in his log cabin, in 1806, a month before his 75th birthday. Today, the obelisk erected by the Maryland Bicentennial Commission and Commission on Afro-American History and Culture stands by his unmarked grave in Oella, Maryland.
By Gaynor Borade
Bouquets and Brickbats