Now that the Brood X cicadas have emerged, many are talking about this curious creature’s 17-year life cycle. The earliest recorded observations of this Brood occurred in the 1700s with documentation of emergences starting in 1715 and ending in 1800, and with notes on each 17-year emergence throughout that century. Benjamin Banneker first met this Brood in 1749 on his family’s tobacco farm, initially mistaking them as a plague of locusts. Years later he wrote:
The first great locust year that I can remember was 1749. I was then about seventeen years of age when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes, I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the earth, and would occasion a famine in the land. I therefore began to kill and destroy them, but soon saw that my labor was in vain, therefore gave over my pretension.
He observed them again in 1766 and 1783, correctly recognizing their 17 year cycle and predicting their return in 1800. The amateur naturalist Banneker also made note of the insects’ behavior and morphology writing:
[T]heir periodical return is seventeen years, but they, like the comets, make but a short stay with us. The female has a sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the branches of the trees, and in them holes lays eggs. The branch soon dies and fall, then the egg by some occult cause immerges a great depth into the earth and there continues for the space of seventeen years as aforesaid.
I like to forgot to inform, that if their lives are short they are merry, they begin to sing or make a noise from the first they come out of earth till they die, the hindermost part rots off, and it does not appear to be any pain to them for they still continue on singing till they die.
Benjamin Banneker was much more than an amateur naturalist, though. He was a farmer, a self-taught astronomer, an engineer, a scientist, an almanac writer, surveyor, and an early civil rights pioneer who spoke truth to power long before the Emancipation Proclamation. He was also a land-owning Black man and accomplished all of this with the equivalent of a second-grade education due to his requirements on the family farm.
At 21, Banneker famously made a working clock out of wood, modeled after a borrowed pocket watch that he disassembled and repaired. While much of his life was dedicated to farming, he had a remarkable second act starting in his late 50s when a Quaker family purchased land nearby and gave him access to their library. He learned astronomy and calculated the position of celestial objects for the purpose of publishing an almanac. He, of course, had difficulty getting a publisher to print his almanac due to the color of his skin, so he took advantage of his connections with his Quaker neighbors, one of which helped him learn astronomy and published his own almanacs. This approach proved fruitful, and the first of 5 years of ephemerides was published for the year 1792. Banneker, though, lamented how much of the acceptance of his work was tied to the novelty of it coming from a Black man. He wrote, “I am annoyed to find that the subject of my race is so much stressed. The work is either correct or it is not. In this case, I believe it to be perfect.”
Banneker’s new understanding of astronomy also led to his work as an assistant surveyor on a project to lay out the boundaries of the new nation’s capital, Washington D.C. in 1791. In that same eventful year, Banneker would send a letter, including a copy of his yet to be published almanac, to then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, shaming him on his contradictory position of promoting freedom and equality while simultaneously owning human beings. Banneker wrote:
Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that altho you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges which he had conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, 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, with respect to your Selves.
Jefferson’s somewhat condescending reply praised Banneker’s almanac and counted it among the evidence “that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America,” but ignored Banneker’s accusations of hypocrisy. The letter and response were subsequently printed and distributed in multiple publications, including a Baltimore edition of Banneker’s almanac.
Benjamin Banneker died in 1806, aged 74 years. Unfortunately, or perhaps criminally, his log cabin burned down on the day of his funeral, destroying his furniture, books, and, perhaps, a well-used wooden clock.
Featured Image By Pmjacoby – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25556567