The Unlikely Legacy of Zephaniah Kingsley

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Anna Jai's house kitchen at the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island

// by Sue Bjorkman

During a violent uprising in Senegal in 1806, the Ruler of the Kingdom of Jolof’s daughter was separated from her royal family. Captured and shackled, the 13-year old Anta Madjiguene Ndiaye was boarded onto a slave ship bound for Havana, Cuba. Zephaniah Kingsley, a wealthy plantation owner in Jacksonville, purchased the African princess. This began a lifelong relationship and a major influence leading this slave-owner to eventually become an emancipator.

Kingsley’s legacy lives on in Haiti, where he established a refuge for freed-slaves, and in Jacksonville, home of Kingsley Plantation. A national historic site, it is Florida’s oldest surviving plantation and has one of the nation’s most complete slave cabin complexes.

The National Park Service maintains this property to “keep alive the tales of people” living through the challenging times of slavery. International merchant, ship captain and slave trader/owner, Kingsley’s tale illustrates how complex these times really were.

“Kingsley owned hundreds of slaves in his time and traded in countless others. He believed in slavery and yet he also freed hundreds of slaves and became a voice for emancipation,” says Dr. Daniel L. Schafer, author of the award-winning book, Zephaniah Kingsley Jr. and the Atlantic World: Slave Trader, Plantation Owner, Emancipator.

Born in Bristol, England in December of 1765, Kingsley moved to the British Colony of Charleston, South Carolina when he was five. He lived just blocks from the port where slaves were traded.

“His father was a prosperous merchant and he owned slaves. It was part of his normal life routine,” says Schafer. After the American Revolution, this family of Loyalists immigrated to Canada. By the 1790s, Kingsley became a ship captain and sailed internationally, trading coffee and slaves.

In 1803, Kingsley came to St. Augustine and took the Oath of Allegiance to Spain so he could acquire a land grant. His first plantation was at Laurel Grove (present-day Orange Park). In 1806, Kingsley made his life-changing purchase of Anna. During the voyage back, Anna became pregnant with Kingsley’s first son, George. Kingsley freed Anna when she was 18 and made her his “principal wife,” although they were never officially wed. She was given property at Mandarin Point and had her own slaves.

In addition to four children with Anna, he fathered 10 more children with three of his other former slaves. Schafer says their lifestyle was similar to African tradition where the man has several wives, living in separate homes.

Despite this unconventional lifestyle, Kingsley was appointed to the Territorial Legislative Council, evidence he was respected in society. He was also a generous man who took good care of his siblings and parents. His sister’s children lived with him and nephew Kingsley Beatty Gibbs (who later purchased Kingsley Plantation in 1839) learned plantation management through him.

The Emancipator
After Seminoles slew 41 of Kingsley’s slaves during the 1812 Patriots’ Rebellion, Kingsley left Laurel Grove and purchased what is now known as Kingsley Plantation. He went on to own more than 32,000 acres and four major plantations that produced Sea Island cotton, citrus, sugar cane and corn.

Things changed when the U.S. took ownership of Florida from Spain in 1821. The Spanish allowed freed slaves certain rights, but the Americans were not so enlightened. This outraged Kingsley.

“Kingsley knew these people were necessary for the lifestyle, but he also saw them as human beings with rights and skills,” says Schafer. He developed an incentive-based system allowing slaves to work their way toward freedom by being paid to do extra work.

“They could save their money until they amassed half their value. If they were worth $500 on the slave market, they bought their freedom for $250. It was a very powerful incentive. He freed 100-150 people this way,” says Schafer.

The Haiti Colony
The aging Kingsley grew afraid his wife and children would be mistreated or re-enslaved when he died, so in 1837 he established a 35,000-acre colony in Haiti. Because white men couldn’t own land there, it was titled in George’s name. He brought his family and 55 freed slaves initially, and then continued bringing more than 100 other former slaves to this safe zone.

“The colony is still there and his descendants are all over the island, as well as the Dominican Republic and Spain. They are proud, distinguished people,” says Schafer.

When Kingsley died in 1843, his relatives contested his will, fighting to disinherit his freed-slave heirs. It must’ve been controversial in those pre-Civil-War days when the judge upheld the will, allowing Anna and his children their inheritance. Kingsley’s will also stipulated that his incentive system be honored and that freed slaves be allowed to go to Haiti if they couldn’t remain free in Florida.