Benjamin Banneker, the African-American Mathematician Who May Have Saved Washington, D.C.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 

Many people who have a passing familiarity with Washington, D.C. know it was originally styled after famous European locales by architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, then completed by Andrew Ellicott after L’Enfant was given the boot in 1792. Too few tourists and history fans, however, know that the U.S. capital might have been a very different place if not for the surveying work of Benjamin Banneker—a highly accomplished mathematician, astronomer, and scholar who challenged Thomas Jefferson and his peers to recognize African-American achievement when it was right under their noses (and feet).

Benjamin Banneker was born November 9, 1731, in Baltimore County, Maryland, to Robert and Mary Banneker. While scholars still debate almost all the specifics of his background and early life, according to the most popular story, both sides of his family suffered under enslavement in the soon-to-be United States. Although records are scarce, it's said that Benjamin’s maternal grandmother, a woman named Molly Welsh, was falsely convicted of theft in England and sentenced to indentured servitude in Maryland (not an uncommon practice at the time). After earning her freedom, she rented land in Baltimore County and purchased two slaves to help farm it. Several years later, after the farming operation was established, she freed both men.

One of them, who is said to have been abducted from a royal family in Africa earlier in his life, displayed a keen interest in astronomy and other scientific subjects. He was called Bannake or Bankka, and Molly Welsh married him, violating state law that forbid marriage to slaves. Later, their daughter Mary and her husband—a Guinean man who’d been abducted, enslaved, and then baptized as Robert and freed—chose to adopt the surname Banneker at the time of their own marriage. Just a few years after regaining his freedom, records show that Robert was able to purchase a 100-acre farm (possibly the same one his mother-in-law rented), where his family would live out much of their lives and where his son’s scholarship would bloom.

Benjamin Banneker grew up as one of only 200 free African-Americans among 13,000 whites and 4000 slaves in Baltimore County. His experience with formal instruction was limited to a brief stretch in a one-room, mixed-race Quaker schoolhouse, but he was a keen study from his earliest years. Perhaps with his doting grandmother Molly’s help, he learned to read and soon became especially interested in mathematics and mechanics, often performing calculations and experiments on his own.

Once he was old enough to work on the family farm, Banneker settled into a lifestyle that combined this work with scholarly achievement. After his father’s death when Banneker was 27, he continued running the farm with his mother and sisters. The horses, cows, garden, and multiple beehives he kept enabled a simple, comfortable life for the family, according to one 19th-century account presented to the Maryland Historical Society. Using crop rotation and irrigation techniques that wouldn’t catch on in the U.S. for many decades, he also raised profitable tobacco crops that were sold alongside his produce in the Ellicott family’s store. Taking heed of food shortages during the Revolutionary War, Banneker also swapped tobacco out for wheat to help feed American soldiers.

Throughout his life, Elizabeth Ross Haynes writes, Banneker “found time to study all the books which he could borrow.” He became well-versed in topics throughout the sciences and humanities. The 19th-century account presented to the Maryland Historical Society remembered Banneker as “an acute observer, whose active mind was constantly receiving impulses from what was taking place around him.”

For example, one rather illustrative 1797 journal entry reads:

Standing at my door I heard the discharge of a gun, and in four or five seconds of time, after the discharge, the small shot came rattling about me, one or two of which struck the house; which plainly demonstrates that the velocity of sound is greater than that of a cannon bullet.

Some historians have speculated that Banneker’s many childhood lessons with his grandmother Molly, who may have gained a sophisticated understanding of astronomy from Bannake, could have fostered his particular expertise with the subject. However, it was his prowess with mathematics for which he first became renowned throughout Baltimore County, according to a 1912 article. As word spread of his exceptional skills, far-away scholars began sending Banneker complex mathematical problems, and they continued to do so throughout his life. Banneker reportedly always solved them, often responding in verse and with a fresh problem.

As a young man, Banneker also gained fame and admiration for miles around due to one of his earliest known mechanical feats: building a working clock almost entirely out of wood from scratch. It may have been the first clock ever assembled completely from American parts, according to Haynes (although other historians have since disputed this). Banneker reportedly only had a borrowed pocket watch to use for reference on clockwork mechanisms, while his wooden version contained functioning, carved-to-scale components. The clock continued working until a few days after Banneker’s death, when a fire destroyed his cabin home and many of its contents—clock included.

However, Banneker’s accomplished scholarship remained mostly unknown outside the region until he encountered the Ellicott family. In 1772, the Quaker Ellicotts purchased the land next door to Banneker’s and began building new gristmill facilities there. Banneker’s fascination with the mill’s mechanics made him a frequent visitor to the site. In keeping with Quaker tradition, the similarly scholarly Ellicotts were adamant proponents of racial equality, and they collaborated with Banneker as well as encouraged wider application of—and recognition for—his unique skills.

George Ellicott, a close friend of Banneker’s for decades, was himself a student of astronomy and eagerly shared both his resources and queries with his neighbor. Banneker took great advantage of the borrowed tools and books in performing exquisite astronomical calculations, such as predicting a solar eclipse near-exactly in 1789. He also began building the foundations for several atlases and technical treatises he’d release in the decades before his death. In 1791, George’s cousin, Major Andrew Ellicott, gave Banneker a national stage, after Andrew had gone to George requesting help with a new job. George, being otherwise busy, suggested Banneker's assistance. The job was surveying land along the Potomac River for what would soon be the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

Ellicott's plan for Washington, D.C. Image credit: Leeann Cafferata, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The plans for the large city were laid out by French architect and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who volunteered for service in the American Revolution’s Continental Army and was hired for the project by George Washington in 1791. Before long, however, tensions mounted over its direction and progress of the project, and when L’Enfant was fired in 1792, he took off with the plans in tow.

But according to legend, the plans weren’t actually lost: Banneker and the Ellicotts had worked closely with L’Enfant and his plans while surveying the city’s site. As the University of Massachusetts explains, Banneker had actually committed the plans to memory “[and] was able to reproduce the complete layout—streets, parks, major buildings.” However, the University of Massachusetts also points out that other historians doubt Banneker had any involvement in this part of the survey at all, instead saying that Andrew and his brother were the ones who recreated L’Enfant’s plan. It's an intriguing myth, but it may only be that.

Yet Banneker’s valuable contributions to the project drew attention, and set the stage for later correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. During the project, the Georgetown Weekly Ledger made public note of Banneker as “an Ethiopian, whose abilities, as a surveyor, and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson's concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation."

Gelman Library, George Washington University // Public Domain

In 1791, Banneker had finished his “painstakingly calculated ephemeris,” or table of the position of celestial bodies, which he would publish alongside charts, literature, and humanitarian and political essays in six almanacs with 28 editions in the following six years. Upon its initial completion, he first sent a copy of the ephemeris to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, along with a famously direct, yet perfectly polite, letter challenging Jefferson’s opinion that African-Americans suffered an innate intellectual disadvantage [PDF]. Among other things, the letter observed:

Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for yourselves and for those inestimable laws, which preserved to you the rights of human nature, was founded on sincerity, you could not but be solicitous that every individual ... might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof, neither could you rest satisfied [short of] their promotion from any state of degradation, to which the unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism of men may have reduced them.

Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge that I am of the African race ... and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the supreme ruler of the Universe, that I now confess to you, that I am not under the state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity to which many of my brethren are doomed, but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those blessings, which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty, with which you are favored, and which, I hope you will willingly allow, you have received from the immediate hand of that being ... [and] that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy, you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar blessing of heaven.

Jefferson’s letter of response the same year was significantly shorter than Banneker’s, and not without traces of the mindset Banneker sought to defeat. But it also documented the scholar’s triumph in gaining some respect for his accomplishments, and in helping to dislodge certain prejudices from the minds of the era’s most learned men.

On August 30, 1791, Jefferson wrote:

SIR,

I THANK you, sincerely, for your letter of the 19th instant, and for the Almanac it contained. No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men ; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit.

I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, 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 color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.

I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedient Humble Servant,

THOMAS JEFFERSON.

The discrimination African-Americans suffered from Jefferson and other bigwigs is well-documented, and Banneker’s brave, considered opposition to it stands forever among his many admirable achievements. The 1854 document A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker reflected:

He appears to have been the pioneer in the movement in this part of the world, toward the improvement of his race; at a period of our history when the negro occupied almost the lowest possible grade in the scale of human beings, Banneker had struck out for himself a course, hitherto untravelled by men of his class, and had already earned a respectable position amongst men of science.

Records suggest that Banneker also suffered discrimination by lower-profile white Americans, and had his achievements belittled and questioned. Despite the many pushbacks he withstood, however, Banneker remained joyfully curious and generous of spirit throughout his life. According to A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker, he was able to slough off the bitterness of others in part thanks to his prevailing interest in study. “His equilibrium was seldom disturbed by the petty jealousies and inequalities of temper of the ignorant people,” the book notes, “with whom his situation obliged him frequently to come in contact.”

Benjamin Ellicott, who prepared extensive notes on Banneker’s life for the Maryland Historical Society, remembered him as such in a letter:

Although his mode of life was regular and extremely retired, living alone, having never married,--cooking his own victuals and washing his own clothes, and scarcely ever being absent from home, yet there was nothing misanthropic in his character … [He was known as] kind, generous, hospitable, humane, dignified and pleasant, abounding in information on all the various subjects and incidents of the day; very modest and unassuming, and delighting in society at his own home.

Given Banneker’s wide-ranging interests and enthusiasm, then, it is perhaps fitting that a variety of parks, schools, awards, streets, businesses, and other public and private institutions and facilities all bear his name today. Admirers can learn about the accomplished scholar at Benjamin Banneker Park and Memorial in Washington, D.C., for example, or at Baltimore, Maryland’s Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum. Others can choose to follow in his footsteps by exploring their passions and hobbies at community centers named for Banneker in Washington, D.C., Bloomington, Indiana, and Catonsville, Maryland. It seems possible, however, that the man himself might have been most fond of—or, at least, a very frequent visitor to—Maryland’s own Banneker Planetarium.

Header images via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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Ibn Battuta, One of the Greatest Travelers of All Time

iStock.com/abzee
iStock.com/abzee

We all know about Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, and Lewis and Clark, but many people haven’t heard of Ibn Battuta, a medieval Muslim scholar who traveled more than 75,000 miles across the world. Born in 1304 in Tangier, Morocco, Ibn Battuta claimed to have journeyed through what we now call North Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, and China, visiting areas that today make up 44 countries. Because he dictated his experiences to a scribe, we can read about his globe-trotting in the Rihla (Travels).

Born into a family of Islamic judges, Ibn Battuta wanted to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1325, at 21 years old (22 by the lunar calendar), he left his birthplace in Tangier, admitting in the Rihla that he felt sad to leave his parents: "I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveler in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose party I might join ... So I braced my resolution to quit all my dear ones, female and male, and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests."

On the way to Mecca, he passed through Egypt and Syria, making friends and marrying a young woman. He stopped in Alexandria, which he called a beautiful, well-built city—he would later say it was one of the five most magnificent places he ever visited. He also detailed his visits to the Christian holy places in Jerusalem: Bethlehem, Mary’s grave, and Jesus’s burial place. He was awed by Damascus, which he said "surpasses all other cities in beauty," and told of the magnificent Umayyad Mosque there, which he said was "the finest in construction and noblest in beauty, grace and perfection; it is matchless and unequalled."

Umayyad Mosque Courtyard in Damascus, Syria
Umayyad Mosque Courtyard in Damascus, Syria
american_rugbier, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

He visited Cairo and spent Ramadan in Damascus, then went to Medina, a sacred Islamic spot housing Muhammad’s tomb. He finally arrived in Mecca in 1326, and participated in the hajj. He could have ended his journeys then, but further adventures beckoned. He claimed to have had a dream in which he was soaring on the wings of a large bird, which flew in several directions before "landing in a dark and green country, where it left me." A holy man interpreted the dream to mean that Battuta would continue his travels throughout the Middle East and India—and indeed he did.

Traveling was dangerous thanks to bandits and pirates, and during his decades on the road, Ibn Battuta was robbed, attacked, and shipwrecked. He survived fevers, diarrhea, and loneliness, traveling on camels, in wagons, on foot, by ship, and with other pilgrims in caravans for safety. In the cities he visited, Ibn Battuta met local rulers who gave him silver coins, gold, wool, robes, food, candles, slaves, and places to sleep. Because he was a Muslim scholar and judge, Muslim rulers he encountered treated him as an esteemed guest. He visited mosques and bazaars, observing the locals’ rituals, clothing, and food. He also prayed, studied with theologians, and worked as a judge to settle disputes.

He sailed on the Red Sea, seeing Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and Somalia in 1331. He made another pilgrimage to Mecca before going to Palestine. In Constantinople, he was impressed by the Hagia Sophia (but decided, as a non-Christian, not to go inside) and met the Byzantine emperor. He then went through Afghanistan, reaching India via the Hindu Kush, a snow-covered mountain range.

Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (The Mosque of the Prophet) in Medina
Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (The Mosque of the Prophet) in Medina

Starting in 1333, he worked as a judge for several years in Delhi for the sultan. During a period of great unrest in India, the sultan sent Ibn Battuta to be the ambassador to the Mongols in China. During the journey, the ship carrying all his luggage sank, and he found himself penniless back in India. Instead of returning to Delhi (where he was sure the sultan would execute him for the failed mission), Ibn Battuta again left for China, stopping at the Maldive Islands, where he served as chief judge and married a daughter of the sultan (in all, he married 10 women during his travels). He continued on to Sri Lanka and Vietnam, arriving in China in 1345. He described the Great Wall of China, praised the wooden ships he saw in Hangzhou, visited the Yuan imperial court in Beijing, and spent time with Muslim merchants who lived in a segregated part of China.

After China, Ibn Battuta went to Sardinia and Fez, arriving back home in Tangier in 1349 just as the Black Death was wreaking havoc in Europe and North Africa. Not content to stay home, he then sailed toward Spain, seeing Gibraltar, Marbella, Valencia, and the orchards, vineyards, and gardens of Granada around 1350. He headed back through Morocco, describing the magnificent mosques in Marrakesh, and visited Mali and Timbuktu, making an arduous trip across the Sahara desert.

Sankore Madrasah in Mali
Sankore Madrasah in Mali
Baz Lecocq, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.5 NL

In 1354, he again returned home to Morocco. The sultan hired a poet, Ibn Juzayy, to work with Ibn Battuta while the great explorer described, from memory, the experiences he’d accumulated over almost 30 years. Together they created the Rihla, the lone account of Ibn Battuta’s travels. Ibn Battuta went on to work as a judge in Morocco until his death in the late 1360s.

Because the Rihla was in Arabic, it was known mostly to Muslims until a German scholar got his hands on a manuscript in the early 1800s, and a translation was published in 1818. Scholars believe that Ibn Battuta probably didn’t personally visit all the cities he claimed to, pointing to the relative vagueness of his descriptions of China, for example. He may have embellished some descriptions with anecdotes he had heard from people he met or with passages from previous travel texts, and he made a few geographical mistakes. For example, he thought the Niger River was a tributary of the Nile. However, these errors may have been a result of a hazy memory as Ibn Battuta recalled journeys undertaken decades before.

Ibn Battuta’s travel writing is important because it provides historians with descriptions of huge swaths of the 14th-century non-Western world. It also offers valuable accounts of Muslim attitudes to marriage, slavery, and other social practices. Today, Ibn Battuta has both a crater on the moon and the Tangier airport named after him—both fitting homages for one of history's greatest-ever travelers.

Eliza Leslie: The Most Influential Cookbook Writer of the 19th Century

American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
American cookbook author Eliza Leslie
Wikimedia // Public Domain

If it wasn't for Eliza Leslie, American recipes might look very different. Leslie wrote the most popular cookbook of the 19th century, published a recipe widely credited as being the first for chocolate cake in the United States, and authored fiction for both adults and children. Her nine cookbooks—as well as her domestic management and etiquette guides—made a significant mark in American history and society, despite the fact that she never ran a kitchen of her own.

Early Dreams

Born in Philadelphia on November 15, 1787, to Robert and Lydia Leslie, Eliza was an intelligent child and a voracious reader. Her dream of becoming a writer was nurtured by her father, a prosperous watchmaker, inventor, and intellectual who was friends with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. She once wrote that "the dream of my childhood [was] one day seeing my name in print."

Sadly, her father’s business failed around the turn of the 19th century and he died in 1803. The family took in boarders to make ends meet, and as the oldest of five, Leslie helped her mother in the kitchen. To gain culinary experience, she attended Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School in Philadelphia, the first school of its kind in the United States. Urged by her brother Thomas—and after fielding numerous requests for recipes from friends and family—she compiled her first book, Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats, in 1828. Notably, the book included the term cup cake, referring to Leslie's employment of a teacup as a measuring tool ("two large tea-cups full of molasses")—possibly the first-ever mention of a cup cake in print.

Seventy-Five Receipts was a hit, and was reprinted numerous times. Encouraged by this success—and by her publisher, Munroe & Francis—Leslie moved on to her true desire: writing fiction. She penned short stories and storybooks for young readers as well as adult fiction and won several awards for her efforts. One of her prize-winning short stories, the humorous "Mrs. Washington Potts," appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, the popular 19th century magazine for which she also served as assistant editor. Leslie also contributed to Graham’s Magazine, the Saturday Gazette, and The Saturday Evening Post. At least one critic called her tales "perfect daguerreotypes of real life."

As much as Leslie loved writing fiction, however, it didn't always pay the bills. She wrote a second cookbook, Domestic French Cookery, in 1832, and achieved the pinnacle of her success in 1837 with Directions for Cookery. That work became the most beloved cookbook of the 1800s; it sold at least 150,000 copies and was republished 60 times by 1870. She offered pointers on procuring the best ingredients ("catfish that have been caught near the middle of the river are much nicer than those that are taken near the shore where they have access to impure food") and infused the book with wit. In a section discouraging the use of cold meat in soups, she wrote, "It is not true that French cooks have the art of producing excellent soups from cold scraps. There is much bad soup to be found in France, at inferior houses; but good French cooks are not, as is generally supposed, really in the practice of concocting any dishes out of the refuse of the table."

In The Taste of America, noted modern food historians John and Karen Hess called Directions for Cookery “one of the two best American cookbooks ever written," citing the book's precise directions, engaging tips, straightforward commentary, and diverse recipes—such as catfish soup and election cake—as the keys to its excellence.

Leslie is also credited with publishing America’s first printed recipe for chocolate cake, in her 1846 Lady’s Receipt Book. While chocolate had been used in baking in Europe as far back as the 1600s, Leslie’s recipe was probably obtained from a professional chef or pastry cook in Philadelphia. The recipe, which featured grated chocolate and a whole grated nutmeg, is quite different from most of today's chocolate cakes, with its strong overtones of spice and earthy, rather than sweet, flavors. (You can find the full recipe below.)

Later in life, while continuing to write cookbooks, Leslie edited The Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present, which included early publications by Edgar Allan Poe. She also edited her own magazine of literature and fashion, Miss Leslie’s Magazine. She wrote only one novel, 1848's Amelia; Or a Young Lady’s Vicissitudes, but once said that if she was to start her literary career over, she would have only written novels.

A Uniquely American Voice

Historians have argued that Leslie was successful because she crafted recipes to appeal to the young country’s desire for upward mobility as well as a uniquely American identity. At the time she began writing, women primarily used British cookbooks; Leslie appealed to them with a distinctly American work. (She noted in the preface to Seventy-Five Receipts, "There is frequently much difficulty in following directions in English and French Cookery Books, not only from their want of explicitness, but from the difference in the fuel, fire-places, and cooking utensils. ... The receipts in this little book are, in every sense of the word, American.")

Leslie included regional American dishes in her books, promoted the use of quality ingredients, and was the first to (sometimes) organize recipes by including ingredients at the beginning of each recipe instead of using a narrative form, setting the tone for modern recipe writing. Her books were considered a treasure trove of knowledge for young pioneer women who, frequently separated from their families for the first time, often relied on Leslie's works for guidance.

Unmarried herself, Leslie never managed her own kitchen, and often had others testing recipes for her. She maintained strong ties with her erudite, sophisticated family, and lived for a time with her brother Thomas while he was attending West Point. Another brother, Charles Leslie, was a well-regarded painter in England; her sister Anna was also an artist, and sister Patty was married to a publisher who produced some of Leslie’s work. As she got older, Leslie lived for years in the United States Hotel in Philadelphia, where she was something of a celebrity for her wit and strong opinions.

Leslie died on January 1, 1858. Many of her recipes are still used today, but it's likely she’d be most pleased to know that many of her short stories are available online. Modern readers can appreciate the totality of her work: the fiction writing that was her passion, though for which she was lesser known, and her culinary writing, which guided generations.

Eliza Leslie's Recipe for Chocolate Cake

From The Lady's Receipt Book:

CHOCOLATE CAKE.—Scrape down three ounces of the best and purest chocolate, or prepared cocoa. Cut up, into a deep pan, three-quarters of a pound of fresh butter; add to it a pound of powdered loaf-sugar; and stir the butter and sugar together till very light and white. Have ready 14 ounces (two ounces less than a pound) of sifted flour; a powdered nutmeg; and a tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon—mixed together. Beat the whites of ten eggs till they stand alone; then the yolks till they are very thick and smooth. Then mix the yolks and whites gradually together, beating very hard when they are all mixed. Add the eggs, by degrees, to the beaten butter and sugar, in turn with the flour and the scraped chocolate,—a little at a time of each; also the spice. Stir the whole very hard. Put the mixture into a buttered tin pan with straight sides, and bake it at least four hours. If nothing is to be baked afterwards, let it remain in till the oven becomes cool. When cold, ice it.

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