It’s a given that slavery is a horror, that it’s repugnant. But for most of us, our depth of understanding of the experience of slavery is shallow: slave ships and runaway slave laws; chains and brutality; 12 Years a Slave and Gone With the Wind.
It takes an open mind to absorb a story of slavery that doesn’t exactly fit that narrative.
When you visit the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island near Jacksonville, Florida (part of the National Park Service), they give you an iPhone with a recorded, geotagged walking tour. Someone told me it’s narrated by descendants of slaves who lived here—in any case the story is very well told.
Zephaniah Kingsley, born and educated in Britain, was a well-traveled slave trader and shipping magnate. He became a citizen of Spanish Florida in 1803, perhaps because it allowed him to continue in the international slave trade at a time when Britain and the United States were moving to outlaw it (which they did in 1807). Kingsley owned several plantations in the region, acquired when Florida was under Spanish rule.
Spanish slavery laws were different than those in British North America. The Spanish government didn’t consider slavery a lifelong condition—it provided for a separate class of free people of color, and encouraged slaves to purchase their freedom. Free blacks contributed to the economic development of the region, and marriage was common between white plantation owners and African women in Florida.
Zephaniah Kingsley married a slave named Anna Madgigine Jai (born Anta Majigueen Ndiaye) in 1806 when she was 13 years old, shortly after she arrived in Cuba from present day Senegal in West Africa (he was about 43). It’s believed that she was captured from a ruling royal family. A park ranger told me that in Anna’s African home, women had responsibility for managing the farms; and slavery in African societies was a custom with which Anna was probably familiar. Kingsley freed her in 1811, when she had already borne three children (she later had a fourth). Much later, Kingsley described Anna as “a fine, tall figure, black as jet, but very handsome. She was very capable, and could carry on all the affairs of the plantation in my absence as well as I could myself. She was affectionate and faithful, and I could trust her.”
Here’s where Kingsley’s story defies easy categorization. He was proud of his success as a slaveholder, and equally proud of his multiracial family. He was proud of Anna, who managed his plantations and accumulated property, including slaves, in her own right. He published a defense of slavery in 1828, rationalizing it as a necessary condition for society and the economy, benefitting both owners and slaves. But he didn’t think race should determine someone’s status, writing, “Few, I think will deny that color and condition, if properly considered, are two very separate qualities… Our legislators have… confounded together two very different things; thereby substantiating by law a dangerous and inconvenient antipathy, which can have no better foundation than prejudice.”
Kingsley favored Spain’s three-tier system of white landowners, freed blacks, and black slaves, believing it promoted peace and cemented relations between the races. He instituted the task system of work on the plantations, assigning each slave a quota and allowing them to use any free time for other tasks. Some had personal gardens, others focused on crafts, and they could to sell their products to earn money. He encouraged a sense of community on his farms, and mutual trust and respect between himself and his slaves. Slaves could have guns for hunting and defense, and those in responsible positions could travel relatively freely. Several slaves had some limited powers to represent Kingsley when he was away. It was paternalistic—but as Kingsley was later quoted, “The best we can do in this world is to balance evils judiciously”
After Spain ceded control of Florida to the US in 1822, the new state government began passing laws separating the races, as was common among other southern US states. In 1823 President James Monroe appointed Kingsley to Florida’s governing body, the Territorial Council, where he defended the rights of slaves and free people of color. When the council passed laws that increasingly restricted the rights free blacks had enjoyed under Spanish control, Kingsley resigned.
New laws forbid interracial marriage and the right of free blacks or mixed race descendants to inherit property. Calling this a “spirit of intolerant prejudice”, Kingsley transferred their holdings to the three older children and moved to the now-independent black republic of Haiti in 1835. Their two older daughters were by then married to white planters in Florida and remained there. In all, 60 slaves, family members, and freed employees moved with Kingsley to Haiti to start a new plantation. Because slavery was outlawed in Haiti, he converted his slaves to indentured servants, who could earn their freedom with another nine years of labor.
After Kingsley died in 1843, his sister Martha and her children contested his will as “defective and invalid” based on the law forbidding black people from owning property. So Anna returned to Florida in 1846, despite an increasingly tense racial climate, to participate in defending her family’s ownership of the Kingsley estate. The court upheld the treaty signed between the US and Spain, stipulating that all free blacks born in Florida before 1822 enjoyed the same legal rights they had when Spain controlled the region. In addition to keeping her inheritance, Anna also was granted the transfer of ownership of slaves who had been sent to another plantation when the family moved to Haiti.
The year before he died, Kingsley gave an interview to the abolitionist Lydia Child, expressing how his views of slavery had changed. When she asked him if he knew his role as a slave trader might be perceived as being akin to piracy, he said “Yes; and I am glad of it. They will look upon a slaveholder just so, by and by. Slave trading was a very respectable business when I was young. The first merchants in England and America were engaged in it. Some people hide things which they think other people don’t like. I never conceal anything.”
He went on to talk with pride about the Haitian plantation he built together with his sons. “I wish you would go there. [Anna] would give you the best in the house. You ought to go, to see how happy the human race can be. It is a fine, rich valley… heavily timbered with mahogany all round; well watered; flowers so beautiful; fruits in abundance, so delicious that you could not refrain from stopping to eat, till you could eat no more. My sons have laid out good roads, and built bridges and mills; the people are improving, and everything is prosperous.”
Slavery in all its forms is wrong, but we can’t judge previous generations only by our present day beliefs. Seemingly, Zephaniah Kingsley’s decisions, perhaps more than many of his time, were a blend of expediency and an honest effort to be morally righteous.
And when you dig around to understand the apparent contradictions in someone’s story, you’re reminded that you can’t make moral judgments in black and white; there are in reality many shades in between.