Long Overlooked, Benjamin Banneker Is Recognized for Work on Cicadas and against Slavery – Scientific American

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The Black naturalist’s research in the 1700s was respected but not accepted, just like his petition to Thomas Jefferson to end oppression
The emergence of 17-year cicadas in the summer of 2021 revived interest in a paper Janet Barber co-authored about the role of Benjamin Banneker—a free African-American in 18th-century Maryland—as one of the first naturalists to record scientific information and observations of the insects.
Now, like Banneker himself, those cicadas are gone. Their offspring, however, are nestled underground, sipping from tree roots as they’ll do until 2038, when they emerge to repeat their species’ astounding display.
November 9 marks the 290th anniversary of Benjamin Banneker’s birth. His story begins as one of a young child attracted to and inspired by nature, and concludes as one of an elder constantly amazed and intrigued by the functioning of the world around him. This story, too, re-emerges—not every 17 years, but every day and every time a child’s eyes grow wide as she watches an insect, or as the plants he has cultivated bear fruit. Nature inspires. Nature guides. Nature provides. And nature writes poems in the lives of her creatures, with lines that echo and rhyme through the generations.
Janet Barber’s telling of the life of Benjamin Banneker makes up some of those lines. Whose life, child or elder, will rhyme with them today?
In the summer of 2021, I visited the homestead in Oella, Maryland, that Benjamin Banneker’s father bought and built for his young son. During my visit, the area’s 17-year cicadas were visiting as well. The media attention around my research had me reminiscing about the man and his life, and it inspired me to again visit his home—not all that far from my own.
Benjamin Banneker was born in 1731. In 1737, his father, Robert Banneky, bought this property in his and his son’s names. Robert—a man born in Africa, enslaved in America, and now a free farmer—and his freeborn African-American herbalist wife, Mary, had worked diligently to ensure this security for themselves and their children.
Benjamin was born free and was born a gift to his parents and others in many ways.
Throughout a life of reading and self-teaching, he became an expert in farming, mathematics, land surveying, mechanical engineering, and astronomy.
So how and why did this brilliant scientist, naturalist, and writer of almanacs wind up dying in a little log cabin near the family house on land that was left to him but of which he was no longer the owner? In his final days, with emancipation, Juneteenth, 60 years away, how did Banneker feel about his life—free, but not?
Benjamin Banneker was born in the antebellum south. He loved the environment and greenery of the farmland around him. The injustice and discrimination of the times did not abate his curiosity. His fascination with life led to his intellectually observing the magic and mysteries of nature and science at a very young age—perhaps younger than one might think.
In May-June, 1732, there was an emergence of what we now call Brood X, the largest population of 17-year cicadas. Baby Benjamin was only five months old. There are numerous milestones for babies during this time. The infant can sit with support, hold up his head and chest, and roll over from front to back. Baby Benjamin was looking and listening.
Did he hear the cicadas? Likely, with their song at approximately 105 decibels.
Did he see them? Probably, though vision may not have been quite at 20/20 yet.
Did he naturally note the magic rhythms of Magicicada septemdecim? Maybe. Can we say that he did not? His mother’s father, Bannaka (whose name would become the surname of his daughter, her husband, and their children), was a prince—son of a chieftain—from West Africa. Where exactly? That isn’t known for sure. Inferences from the sounds in his name point some researchers to the Wolof of Senegal. Other writers and researchers, myself included, believe Bannaka to have been of the Dogon people of Mali, who practiced and preserved their own ancient traditions and learning.
Bannaka had been captured under enemy fire, sold to whites, and enslaved. This son of a chieftain continued to carry with him not only his dignity though, but his sophisticated agricultural knowledge, and likely an astute attention to the stars (such as Sirius, the Dog Star of summer), as well as the ingenious mathematical skill that gave the Dogon a unique reputation among neighboring communities in Africa. What of that knowledge and spirit might have been passed down to his infant grandson through nature or nurture?
At only five months old, this could have been Benjamin’s preparatory reason for his fascination with these pesky, loud, potentially delicious, and mysterious insects.
Years from adulthood
Down deep in old Maryland woods
A feathered bed as his crib
Little Baby Benjamin
Heard Magic for real
His brain already bright
for a 17-year flight
The Dogon star smiled down,
Dually anointing his head and vision alike
Baby Ben saw the magic, wings twirling around
Into the May night
The 1732-year cicada singing loudly
With delight
© Janet Barber
After surviving the horrors of attack, capture, and the Atlantic passage, Benjamin’s grandfather, Bannaka, had been bought, then freed, by a white woman.
She was named Molly Welsh, and she had experienced her own problems. Coming from a destitute family in Devon, England, she had to work as a milkmaid to help make ends meet. In this job, there was no room for mistakes. Unfortunately, she became the indirect culprit of a mistake in 1683, when the cow she was milking kicked the milk bucket over. Of course, Molly was blamed.
Her punishment was her life unless she could read.
Fortunately for her, she could read, and so was bound instead for seven years of forced labor as an indentured servant on a tobacco farm in America.
Molly was lucky. The English had a plan. They wanted land and they planned to colonize America fast. After paying her dues, she was not only given 50 acres of land and supplies to build a farm business, but also the authority to purchase humans and enslave them. She “purchased” two people. She eventually married one.
As recorded in stories passed down among friends of the family, Bannaka had refused to work as an enslaved person, was averse to getting his hands dirty; he was elegant and determined; he was royalty.
From their marriage, four daughters were born. The eldest daughter, Mary, born in 1700, would become Benjamin Banneker’s mother. Molly would sometimes have to claim that the children she was with were really one of her “slave’s” children.
By the time Benjamin Banneker was born, his grandfather had already passed away, sometime in the 1720s, tragically never seeing his African chieftain father again. What does a life like this do to one’s soul, heart, mind? What does trauma like this do to our gene expression, and to what extent can it carry on, epigenetically, from generation to generation? Did Bannaka’s daughter, Mary, carry his hurt and trauma in every cell of her body? Did she pass it on to her son?
Molly took an immediate interest in her grandson’s welfare and education. As he grew older and intellectually wiser, she knew she could teach him to read, and she did, using the Bible. He also was given a few years of education at a Quaker school. These experiences, along with his own innate and genius intellect, would take Benjamin Banneker on a long journey and many adventures in life, though he would barely leave the area in which he was born.
In addition to the local staple crop of tobacco, Benjamin’s parents kept a kitchen garden and beehives, and likely grew fruit trees such as pears, apples, and plums. They demonstrated to their children how to work with the living things all around to sustain them for life, through cultivation, harvest, and use or sale at market.
Banneker enjoyed studying, playing with, and observing all types of insects and bugs, particularly the bees and locusts. One “locust” type was not truly a locust at all, but the mysterious and magic cicada. Banneker witnessed their marvelous onslaught in earnest for the first time at age 17. His curiosity piqued, he began to observe and study the cicada scientifically.
In 1751, Benjamin borrowed a watch from a friend. He dismantled it and used it as the model for a scaled-up version of his own design in wood. For almost 50 years, people visited from long distances to see the remarkable device, as well as this remarkable man.
In 1759, his father, Robert, died. Benjamin was left to run the farm and take care of his mother, his sisters, and himself, having never married. It was at this time that he constructed the cabin he would live in for the rest of his life, right next to the one in which he had spent his youth. In his spare time, he continued to study. He read a lot. Self-taught, he played the flute and violin to ease his weary mind of everyday worries and injustices. He could also be found reading letters for his illiterate white neighbors as he awaited the next brood of cicada.
By this appearance, Banneker’s impression of the cicadas had changed from fear of their agricultural impact to a dawning inquisitiveness into their nature. This was another expression of that balance of pure science and practical application that drove Banneker and eventually attracted supporters to him.
In 1771, three Quaker brothers, John, Andrew, and Joseph Ellicott, relocated from Pennsylvania to the Oella, Maryland, area. Their plan was to build a gristmill to grind wheat into flour, giving the tobacco industry a run for its money. These efforts brought jobs for many and wealth for others. One of Banneker’s brothers-in-law eventually became an employee of the Ellicotts and the brothers became lifetime friends of sorts with Benjamin.
Banneker’s free status placed him in a position to benefit from his more privileged white acquaintances. Andrew’s son, George Ellicott, appreciated Banneker’s intellectual capabilities. Though George was only 18 and Benjamin nearing 50, they had like interests and spent time discussing astronomy, other sciences, and the classics. George was impressed with his neighbor’s legendary clock as well.
But as a new world of communities and farm cities was being built up, the old world was passing away. The summer of 1775 saw not only the Battle of Bunker Hill and the start of the American Revolutionary War, but the death of Benjamin’s mother. Mrs. Mary Banneky was a fiercely determined and intellectual woman and had played an important role in her son’s life and welfare. They were close and had supported each other immensely since his father’s passing. Now in his early 40s, Benjamin faced this new world in a new way.
This time was referred to as the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and the Americas, but Banneker’s rural lifestyle and circumstances of racism and discrimination made it difficult to be respected for his knowledge and to contribute in a widespread and more meaningful way to the sciences and society. So he learned, listened, and suffered through the American Revolution. He was disturbed by the racism that kept African people living lives of servitude, being abused and disrespected. He was compelled to do something for people’s rights to liberty, equality, and freedom from tyranny, but the time was not yet right for him.
In 1788 and 1789, the Ellicotts loaned and gifted Benjamin with supplies, including a few books on astronomy, a drop-leaf table, a telescope, and other equipment. They also eventually became the largest buyers of Banneker’s land, which he had begun selling after decades of tobacco farming. Freedom from the toll of physical work likely promoted his freedom of thought. So began Benjamin’s deeper journey into the realm of science, living in a small log cabin with a skylight. His father’s gift gave again. It had ensured Benjamin’s free status, provided for him throughout his youth and middle age, and now, converted from land to money, aided him in the pursuit of his passion.
Banneker was afforded the opportunity to reflect by day and then work, watch the stars, and think about placing science into action by night. In 1789 he had correctly predicted the timing of a solar eclipse that most of his contemporaries got wrong. Though Banneker did correspond upon occasion about some of his work, he was not invited to conferences, meetings, or seminars during this “Age of Enlightenment” in the sciences. That is, his many accomplishments as a naturalist and scientist were not always professionally and equally recognized. So was Banneker really free? Mental bondage and color exclusion are neither freeing nor freedom.
It was around this time that plans got under way to change the location of the capital of the not yet fully developed United States. George Washington appointed Andrew Ellicott to survey the chosen site, fifteen miles north of the president’s own home, Mount Vernon. Ellicott hired Banneker to work on a survey team that would lay down the original borders for the new city. So from February to April 1791, Banneker put to use his knowledge of math, measurement, and the movement of the stars to aid in marking the city’s borders and layout. Based on this work and legends that grew around it, many African-Americans in future years would refer to the capital as Banneker City.
Banneker was also making plans of his own. In 18th-century America, there were two important books for a house to have: the Bible and an almanac. Banneker’s enthusiasm for the astronomical texts he was reading led him to calculate his own tables of the rising and setting of the heavenly bodies, and to begin to assemble a complete almanac based upon them. The first edition was published for 1792, printed by Goddard and Angell in Baltimore, Maryland. It was an immediate success, and won him great admiration. He published his almanac every year until 1797, and continued making personal calculations for several more years. His handwritten astronomical journal covering 1792-1802 survives, and is the source for the cicada observations quoted here.
Banneker had witnessed racial atrocities all of his life. His forefathers and foremothers had experienced and carried the burden of being enslaved themselves. Had he sometimes seen the distance in his own father’s eyes as he wondered about the fates of his African father and mother? Now becoming an elder of wisdom and confidence, perhaps to secure his place in history for the next generations as a civil rights advocate, he finally placed pen to paper to demand changes for enslaved people.
On August 19, 1791, Benjamin Banneker attached a handwritten copy of his soon-to-be-published almanac to an eloquent letter to then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. In it, he challenged Jefferson’s sincerity in claiming equality and human rights for all while duly holding African-Americans in bondage, captivity, and servitude himself. Banneker’s intolerance about the issue of slavery had taken hold. Certainly, to him, it was time to address this issue head on. Banneker 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.
He continued:
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.
Nonetheless, trying to abolish slavery in America at that time would prove just as fruitless as Banneker trying to get rid of the cicadas in 1749. Nothing happened, though Jefferson did appease Banneker with a letter a week later claiming to respect Banneker’s concern as well as his admonishment, as Banneker had also complained of Jefferson’s contention that African-Americans were inferior in intellect. Jefferson said:
“I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th and for the Almanac it contained.” Jefferson went on to say that he saw proof from Banneker’s own intelligence “that nature has given to our Black brethren, talents equal to those of other colours of men, and that appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa and America.” He added that he had “taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them.”
Some years later though, after his two terms as third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson expressed quite a different opinion of Banneker in a letter to diplomat and poet Joel Barlow. Jefferson unfortunately wrote:
“we know [Banneker] had spherical trigonometry enough to make almanacs, but not without the suspicion of aid from Ellicot, who was his neighbor & friend, & never missed an opportunity of puffing him. I have a long letter from Banneker which shews him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.”
Such is the world in which African-Americans continue to live some 250 years later.
Nine years after his correspondence with Jefferson, Banneker could ease his mind just a little by looking forward to seeing his magic-creature-friends’ descendants, visiting him above after their long stay underground feeding off tree roots.
They emerged in 1800 as he predicted. Benjamin Banneker was 68 years old. It was at this point that he summarized what he had learned through his years of cicada observations:
In 2021, thirteen generations of Brood X later, we know considerably more. Scientists understand the “Occult cause” to be gravity. Cicadas don’t spend 17 years as eggs, they hatch in the trees after about six weeks. Then the tiny, legged-but-wingless, pale-colored young drop to the ground and burrow to find roots from which to feed.
These are miraculous creature-bugs. Perhaps this is why their scientific genus name is Magicicada. The 13- and 17-year periods of different species seem almost magical to mathematicians and population theorists, who hypothesize that emerging after prime numbers of years keeps them out of sync with the life cycles of parasites and each other.
Their wings are also magical, having a sort of invisibility and the ability to kill bacteria—offering humans a possible way to defend against deadly germs. The pages featured below give details on this and several other of their remarkable traits.
Cicadas seem to become more interesting every seventeen years. The study of the magicicada invites intriguing questions about human and insect behavior, biology, and mathematics. Research scientists are still gathering more information about how cicadas might benefit the environment as well as people. Banneker was steady and tenacious in his observations, studies, and data collection of the cicadas, and would appreciate how much has been learned about Brood X in the following two centuries. These are the types of puzzles and calculations he would have enjoyed tackling as a contemporary and an equal.
Much of Benjamin Banneker’s written work is gone, but his story, his service to humanity, his life are still with us. They, too, billow out far from this small homestead in Oella, Maryland, and beyond. They fill the air. We inhale his intellect daily, whether we realize it or not. His work and his ideals are part of the atmosphere of thought in which we all can learn, grow, and create.
Exactly one month before the end of his 75th year, after a stroll with a friend through the woods and the environment that he loved, Banneker died quietly in his Maryland cabin on October 9, 1806. As he was being buried on October 11th, family and friends were astonished and saddened to see his cabin burning. Someone had set it afire.
It burned to the ground with valuable documents and artifacts inside. Only a small number of papers were saved. Friends had secured a few of them in their home. The rest, including his famous wooden clock, went up in smoke. But this hateful act only summoned a spiritual message to future scientists and humanitarians, encouraging them to research, write, think, and invent as he had done. The cabin smoke billowed over farmlands near and far, witnessed by the enslaved as well as others. The message swirled up to the heavens, to the Dog Star Sirius and the spirit of Benjamin Banneker.
Banneker was a genius, a polymath, a naturalist.
He is recognized as the first African-American scientist.
Happy Birthday, my friend. Happy Solar Return.
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published by Ask Nature on November 9, 2021.
Janet Barber is a writer, researcher, and behavioral scientist whose research has been recognized in various media. She is a leader in higher education, active in the humanities as well as the social and mathematical sciences. In 2014, she published, with Asamoah Nkwanta, the first full reproduction of Benjamin Banneker’s handwritten notes on the 17-year magicicada in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics.

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