Benjamin Banneker, sometimes written as Bannaker, rose during the 18th century from challenging beginnings to a position of great respect and eminence in the fields of astronomy, land surveying, mathematics and poetry. He was an outspoken opponent of slavery and he wrote many pamphlets and essays on the subject, and of civil rights in general. He is considered one of the first African-American intellectuals. He also turned his hand to farming, continuing the work started by his parents. His best known work as a surveyor would probably be with the group that conducted the original surveys of the District of Columbia, the area that included the federal capital of the United States.
Banneker was born on the 9th November 1731 in Baltimore County, Maryland. His father was of Guinea origin and had won his freedom from slavery; his mother was a free woman. There is some confusion though about his family’s history with some historians suggesting that his mother may have been the progeny of a white serving woman and a black slave. There seems to have been knowledge of astronomy there and it is possible that the young Benjamin probably picked up his love of the science from his mother Molly.
At the tender age of 6 Benjamin became a named beneficiary of the family farm which ran to some 100 acres and it seems that he spent most of his life living there. His opportunities for education were limited but he was certainly aided in this by his friendship with a Quaker school master who set up a school near the farm and allowed the boy to access books in his own library. There was no prospect of furthering his education though as he had to work on the family farm.
Despite this though he found the time to write a series of almanacs which were commercially successful, demonstrating an excellent astronomical knowledge. He became involved in writing about the abolition of slavery and corresponded with Thomas Jefferson on the subject. He was much praised for his efforts. He found many allies amongst the Quaker community who shared his views on slavery and made many friends as both a successful farmer and through his scientific work.
In 1791 he was engaged by one Major Andrew Ellicott to survey the land along the Potomac river that became the District of Columbia. He used astronomical observations to aid this work. Banneker carried out similar work into his late 50s, and was also passionately interested in the natural world. He studied the behaviour of honey bees amongst other creatures.
An example of the esteem in which he was held was the following short verse which was written about him by one of the signatories of the American Constitution, a man named James McHenry. He wrote, in 1791:
Despite his fame and status as a writer and scientist, Banneker struggled with alcoholism. Perhaps the fact that he never married was a contributory factor in his not taking care of his own health and it seems likely that his death in 1806 was linked with his excessive drinking. The family farm was gradually sold off to various buyers.
Not many of his poems survive but here is an amusing piece called The Puzzle of the Cooper and the Vintner:
Benjamin Banneker died on the 9th October 1806, aged 74.