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Zabette: An Opera in Three Acts
A story of a free woman of color in nineteenth century coastal Georgia. A story of love, trust, and betrayal.
A story of tragedy and triumph of the human spirit.
[see related chapter "Archaeology Goes to the Opera" in 2003 publication]
Click to enlarge
Laura English-Robinson in the opera 'Zabette' Laura English-Robinson examines 1999 archeological excavations at slave cabin sites.
Laura English-Robinson examines 1999 archeological excavations at slave cabin sites.
Archeology: Opera inspired in part by research carried out by Former SEAC Director John Ehrenhard and
Mary Bullard, 1981 SEAC report entitled:

Stafford Plantation Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia: Archeological Investigations of a Slave Cabin

Librettist - Mary R. Bullard
Composer - Curtis Bryant
Artistic Director - W. Dwight Coleman
Musical Director - Mark Street

The Rialto Theater
Atlanta, Georgia

April 29-30, 1999

Tacatacura, Missoe, Wissoo, Ile de la Seine, San Pedro, Isle of Whales, St. Andrew, The Highlands... all are names for a sliver of land formed sometime in the late Pleistocene in the Atlantic Coastal Plain physiographic province. Known as Cumberland Island, it is the largest and southernmost barrier island in the Georgia sea island chain. The past 20,000 years of terrestrial weathering and erosion have molded Cumberland Island's present landscape. Dense oak forests, rolling salt marshes, island sloughs and ponds are skirted by an unbroken fringe of Atlantic coastal beach and, of course, the endless surf. Today, Cumberland Island exists in a "semiwild" state, somewhat protected by its status as a National Seashore. But, human occupation over centuries has left the imprint of a checkered social history on the natural beauty of the island.

For over 3,500 years, Native Americans had uncontested dominion over all the barrier islands. Then, in 1562, French explorer Jean Ribault made the first European claim to Cumberland Island. French activity in the area immediately drew the attention of the Spanish, who successfully ousted the French by 1569. Spain's influence was not seriously questioned for the next 160 years, not until the arrival of the English in the Carolinas under the command of General James Oglethorpe. While little of note appears to have been happening during the English tenure of the sea islands, the tidewater areas were quietly being transformed by agricultural endeavors. Cumberland quickly stood at a new threshold. At the time, there was little realization of the horrible legacy that was beginning to unfold.

Renewed interest in Cumberland Island initially began with timber harvesting. Soon long staple cotton, indigo and rice were being cultivated. The introduction of these crops marked the beginning of what was to become the colonial tidewater plantation economy. Certainly by the 1780s, large-scale rice and cotton production was driving the southern economy, as though with a will of its own. But this success had sinister undertones, for the planting and harvesting of these island crops required the exploitation of another resource...African slaves.

The annals of Cumberland are filled with much adventure, misfortune, and sorrow. Against a backdrop of awe-inspiring natural beauty, the chronicle of human events seems so often to be shadowed in tragedy and suffering. Based on historical personages, actual accounts, and archival and archeological data, the opera Zabette, which you are about to experience, is but one page of thousands that make up this record. Zabette is the story of one woman's life endeavor in the world of strict social codes and laws in nineteenth century Georgia. It is a story of love, trust, and betrayal. It is the story of tragedy in an American family, but also of triumph of the human spirit.


Elizabeth Zabette) Bernardey was the illegitimate daughter of Pierre Bernardey, a French plantation owner, and Marie-Jeanne, a family servant of mixed African descent from Martinique. Under the Georgia code of laws governing black and white relationships at the time, Zabette would be considered a person of color. Her French grandmother Madame Marguerite Bernardey was determined to protect Zabette from the laws that would make her a slave by virtue of her mixed blood. She did this by declaring Zabette a white girl to the county census enumerator. Zabette was thus raised as a white girl and taught reading and medicinal skills. However, the ruse was uncovered. Marguerite had to declare Zabette her ward and a free person of color for as long as Marguerite remained alive.

Sometime in the 1830s, when Zabette was probably in her early twenties, Robert Stafford, the owner of the largest plantation on the island and eventually one of the richest slave owners, employed Zabette as a nurse. Stafford, who never married, and Zabette had a relationship that lasted in some fashion for over fifty years and resulted in six children.

However, unanticipated events, social upheaval, and incredible despair punctuated the relationship. After Zabette had become Stafford's mistress, Bernard Goupy came to Cumberland Island from Jekyll Island with the intent of making Zabette his wife. Goupy knew Marguerite and Pierre Bernardey as well as Zabette's mother Marie-Jeanne. He was fully aware of Zabette's status as a free person of color, and asked Marguerite, her "guardian," to agree to the marriage. He was taken aback when Marguerite would only agree to a civil marriage accompanied by a property settlement. The proposal was not fulfilled.

The aging Marguerite realized that upon her death she would not be able to protect Zabette from Georgia's laws. As "guardian" she conveyed Zabette to Robert Stafford for the sum of one dollar, believing that Zabette would be safer as Stafford's "property" than as a light brown skinned female without a guardian. Stafford, understanding Marguerite's intentions, agrees to her plan. Legally, Stafford now owned Zabette and, as such, had the right to sell her and her children. Zabette's new status was a devastating blow to her.

In 1851, Stafford decided to move Zabette and their children out of Georgia and set about establishing a new home for them in Groton, Connecticut. In 1852, Zabette moved north and remained there until 1866. Meanwhile Stafford remained on Cumberland Island, making frequent trips to Groton until 1860, when the Civil War erupted and the Union coastal blockade prevented him from traveling north.

At the conclusion of the war, Zabette returned to Cumberland Island a freedwoman only to find that Stafford had taken another mistress. Humiliated and deceived, Zabette retreated into her sorrow. However, in testament to the indelible power of the human spirit and the will to survive, Zabette overcame this crushing despair and accepts the terms of her life. By recognizing who she was, she overcame the inequity dealt her. Free of the bondage of the past, Zabette moved on to a new life with new horizons.

[Circumstantial Evidence - this color]

Captain Poulain Dubignon
A member of the impoverished noblesse of France, Dubignon graduated from the French Naval Academy in 1760 and joined the French Merchant Marine instead of the Royal Navy. After a brilliant career as an officer, he and other Frenchmen purchased shares on Sapelo Island. Their venture broke up, but rather than return to France in the aftermath of the French Revolution and King Louis XVI's execution, Dubignon purchased Jekyll Island. His goal was to make a fortune from the live oak forests on the island, selling the timber to the French navy for masts and spars.

Dr. Bernardey and his wife Marguerite
Unable to find enough work in France, Dr. Bernardey shipped aboard several French Royal Navy warships. He was also associated with the French East India Company under the command of Captain Poulain Dubignon. When Dubignon purchased property on Sapelo Island, he invited Bernardey to become the plantation physician. Later, when the Sapelo Island Company failed, Dubignon invited Bernardey and his family to move with him to Jekyll Island. Neither Bernardey, who died on Jekyll, nor his widow Marguerite were ever naturalized as American citizens. Their only son, Pierre, who was born on Jekyll, grew up thoroughly accustomed to the Black Codes. However, American Black Codes did not sit well with Marguerite, and she did not particularly care for her southern neighbors. She rarely read local newspapers and had only a vague idea of Georgia's legislative tendency to penalize free persons of color.

Pierre Bernardey
This son of Dr. and Marguerite Bernardey, was a plantation overseer and probably tenant farmer for the Dubignons on Jekyll Island. In 1823, Pierre (known as Peter) moved out on his own, purchasing Plum Orchard Plantation on Cumberland Island. At his mother's urging, Peter married a white woman named Catherine Corbe of St. Marys, Georgia. Catherine was the daughter of a respectable small scale shopkeeper of French extraction, who gave his daughter a dowry. Immediately preceding the wedding, Peter signed a deed of conveyance giving his mother outright one-half equity in Plum Orchard and his wife-to-be one quarter equity.

Marie-Jeanne was born a free woman of color to parents who were free persons of color. Her father, a logger from Martinique, was hired by Captain Dubignon to help run his live oak operation on Jekyll Island. His woman, Marie-Jeanne's mother, accompanying him to Georgia. Neither parent took much stock in the laws of Georgia. After their death, Marie-Jeanne, now an adolescent, was given a home and employment by Marguerite Bernardey. At some point, Mane-Jeanne became Peter's mistress. She moved with the family to Cumberland Island when Peter purchased the rundown plantation Plum Orchard. Marie-Jeanne's discomfort was severely heightened with the move to Plum Orchard as she lived in the same house as Peter, his new bride and soon-to-follow daughter. One can only imagine the betrayal she felt.

Charles-Henri Dubignon
A son of Poulain Dubignon, he eventually became the owner of the Dubignon plantation.

Elizabeth Bernardey
Zabette (a common French diminutive for Elizabeth) was probably born on Jekyll around 1820, the illegitimate daughter of Peter Bernardey and Marie-Jeanne. By her eleventh birthday, Zabette begins to understand why she feels as though her father has abandoned her. It is not her color per se, it is that she is a bastard in a day and age when the term had significance.

Robert Stafford
Son of a British carpenter who once worked for an East Florida (British) planter, Robert Stafford was born on Cumberland Island in 1798. Far from being well educated, Stafford apparently had no schooling except for the year or so he studied at a New London academy in Connecticut. He was not a particularly elusive character, but records concerning his life are scarce. The county civil records show him to be a slave buyer, rarely a slave seller. He tended to buy slaves already working on Cumberland along with their masters' property. Utilizing the land on Cumberland Island was important to him, and he felt this could only be accomplished through slave labor. Eventually he became one of the richest slave owners on the Georgia coast, owning 348 indentured workers. Judging by today's standards, Stafford might be considered a benevolent despot compared to many other slave owners.

Bernard Goupy
Goupy, born and brought up in southern France, shipped out to sea as a young boy. He served at least once on the same ship as Poulain Dubignon, then a Lieutenant. Goupy later became a carpenter's mate and finally a petty officer on a privateer captained by the same Poulain Dubignon. When Captain Dubignon decided to leave the sea and take up a career in agriculture on Sapelo Island, he sent word to Goupy, then between voyages in the Caribbean, that he needed the services of a master carpenter to supervise live oak cutting in Georgia.

Belton Allyn Copp
Belton Copp was born in May 1796 to Daniel Copp and Sarah Allyn of Groton, Connecticut. The Copp family was successfully engaged in farming and coastal shipping. Frequently chosen by persons of color to represent them, Belton fully sympathized with their plight during a period when the Georgia legislature was making it tougher for non-Caucasians to reside in the state.

Captain Thomas Miller
A soldier in the Georgia Militia, Miller was the census enumerator for Camden County, Georgia. Well versed in the Black Codes, he was expected to report violations to state authorities.

The Black Codes governed all black and white relationships in Georgia. They were commonly understood to consist of three rather separate formulations. The first derived from governmental constitution, whether federal or state. From the constitution came the belief that free men might own property, and, as property holders, were entitled to defend this right. Consequently, state legislatures gave slave holders the right to punish or execute their slave property. The slave holder was left free to define insubordinate behavior. Slave masters included men and women sadists. The second was based on municipal ordinances. For example, black codes on the Georgia coast prevented a black seaman from stepping ashore without a set of Georgia registrations for "free persons of color.

An account is given of Paul Cuffee from New Bedford, Massachusetts. In the 1830s, this black captain and owner of three schooners would not even attempt to go ashore at southern ports. Remaining aboard his own ship, he would send his first mate, a white man, to deal with Savannah's business community. To complicate the situation, municipal ordinances varied greatly depending on local conditions; what may have been acceptable in Augusta, Georgia, would not necessarily be so in Brunswick or St. Mary's or on Cumberland Island. The third group of codes governed personal etiquette. Much more intimate, these covered such issues as personal distance to be maintained, head covering, speech patterns, location of bedroom space, curtseying, bowing, eating habits, eye contact, and so on. Personal etiquette codes were not legal statutes and few were enforceable. Twentieth century Americans practiced a form of social degradation toward black persons, now known as "Jim Crow." White paranoia over social violations of black-white etiquette, derived from plantation days.

The Black Codes were routinely violated by blacks and whites alike. White transgressors were punished by citations, fines, imprisonment, whipping, branding, and occasionally death. Black transgressors, who were easier to catch, were punished by imprisonment, whipping, or death. In these times evidence by blacks was inadmissible in a court of law. Within the confines of the Black Codes, both Robert Stafford and Marguerite Bernardey were liable to severe penalties if their "wards" turned out to be slaves.

One fleeting condition of the new nation's post Revolutionary War enthusiasm was a more lenient attitude toward manumission. Free Negroes came to be a considerable class numerically. By 1790, there were 32,357 in the territory then defined as the South, most of whom were living in Virginia and Maryland. An influx of "light skinned refugees" from the Caribbean insurrections of 1798-1801 expanded the free Negro population in South Carolina and Georgia well beyond the bounds of natural increase. In 1810, Georgia invited free Negroes to take white guardians to supervise their affairs.

However, in most southern states free Negroes had to register before a county court and applicants were generally required to furnish bonds for good behavior. Georgia's first statewide Registration Act was passed in 1818. One author wrote that with the rising numbers of free Negroes came a growing sentiment from the white establishment that free persons of color constituted a class of people both "dangerous to the safety of the free [white] citizens and destructive to the comfort and happiness of the slave people" (Prince, 1822). Changing attitude toward free Negroes resulted in various acts providing for their expulsion from the state of their residence. Obviously these laws were designed to restrict persons of color from competing economically with whites. As time went by, it became increasingly important to widen the definition of color.

In the 1820s, Georgia's laws became more restrictive. Despite a ban on freeing slaves, illegal manumission by southern slave owners was continuing. Would-be protectors often resorted to a guardianship by "sympathetic friends." Southern legislatures, including Georgia's, attempted to close these loopholes, and unregistered persons of color were required to prove their status as free Negroes. While both free Negroes and poor whites were outcasts of southern society, the former were still subject to many legal restrictions not imposed upon the latter. Contrary to common-law principles, the rule came to be recognized in the South that in the case of a Negro there was a presumption of slavery, the burden of proof resting on the Negro. Nearly everywhere the same presumption applied to mulattos and others with even more fractional black heritage. Even if his or her papers were in order, an unemployed free Negro could be jailed or enslaved and his/her children bound out.

Zabette's life was bound by certain political realities, and the timing of her birth, around 1822, greatly influenced her life. It is easy to understand why neither Peter Bernardey nor his mother would bother to register the infant Zabette. However, this decision was eventually to have complex ramifications for her. As Marguerite Bernardey approached old age, she foresaw Zabette's need for a protector. The only way to prevent Georgia law from closing in upon her granddaughter was to sell her to a sympathetic friend. When Stafford became Zabette's owner in 1842, he knowingly assumed the responsibilities implicit in becoming the guardian of a free person of color. He also must have recognized the potential for severe penalties.

Photos taken during Laura English-Robinson's visit to SEAC's Cumberland Island Project

Oliver H. Prince, ed., Digest of the Laws of the State of Georgia (Milledgeville, 1822), Act 512.

*Text prepared by John E. Ehrenhard and Mary R. Bullard

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