On the first day of March 1811, in the Spanish province of East Florida, white plantation owner Zephaniah Kingsley put his signature on a document that forever changed the life of a young African woman. The document was a manumission paper which ensured her legal freedom. The young woman, a native of Senegal whom Kingsley had purchased in a slave market in Havana, Cuba, was his eighteen-year-old wife and the mother of his three children. That paper not only marked the beginning of the young woman's freedom in North America, it was also the beginning of the written record of a remarkable life. Her name was Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley.
A free woman, Anna Kingsley petitioned the Spanish government for land, and land grant records show that in 1813 she was granted title to five acres on the St. Johns River. The property was located across the river from her husband's plantation, Laurel Grove, south of today's Jacksonville. Anna purchased goods and livestock to begin a business--and she purchased slaves. She became one of a significant number of free people of African descent in East Florida. They included farmers, craftsmen, and members of a black militia. Some of these people, like Anna, owned slaves. Although slavery was supported, Spanish race policies encouraged manumission and self-purchase and slavery was not necessarily a permanent condition. The free black population held certain rights and privileges and they had opportunities to take an active part in the economic development of the colony. Anna Kingsley was determined to be an independent businesswoman, selling goods and poultry to neighboring settlers.
Her blossoming business lasted only months. During an effort to wrest East Florida from the Spanish, armed American forces entered the province. Together with a number of rebellious Floridians, they looted and occupied the homesteads of planters and settlers to obtain supplies and set up bases. If these insurgents succeeded and an American system replaced the comparatively liberal Spanish policies, what would become of the freed people and their rights? When the Americans approached, Anna herself lit the fire that consumed her house and property. Then she escaped with her children and slaves on a Spanish gunboat. The insurrection later ended in failure and, as it turned out, Anna's loss was not total. Although a Spanish commandant reported of Anna's property "the flames devoured grain and other things to the value $1,500," the governor rewarded her loyalty with a land grant of 350 acres.
Laurel Grove was also destroyed as a result of the conflict. In 1814 Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley, along with their children and slaves, moved to Fort George Island, a sea island near the mouth of the St. Johns River. On this thousand-acre island with palm-fringed beaches, birds of every description, and ancient Indian mounds of oyster shell, they restored an abandoned plantation. In a fine, comfortable house with views of the tidal marsh and ocean beyond, Anna spent the next twenty-three years of her life.
During the years at Fort George, Zephaniah Kingsley's Florida landholdings increased to include extensive timberland and orange groves, and four major plantations producing sea island cotton, rice, and provisions. He also owned ships that he captained on trading voyages. Kingsley had managers at his various properties to whom he entrusted his business operations when he was away. At the Fort George plantation, Anna took this responsibility and, Kingsley later declared, "could carry on all the affairs of the plantation in my absence as well as I could myself." These "affairs" included overseeing the lives of about sixty men, women, and children who lived on Fort George Island in slavery. The labor of the Kingsley slaves provided the wealth of the Kingsley family.
Conditions for all of Florida's people of color, free and enslaved, changed drastically when Florida became a territory of the United States in 1821. An influential planter, Zephaniah Kingsley was appointed to the 1823 territorial legislative council. He tried to persuade lawmakers to adopt policies similar to those of the Spanish, providing for liberal manumission and rights for the free black population. He published his opinions in A Treatise on the Patriarchal, or Co-operative System of Society As It Exists in Some Governments, and Colonies in America, and in the United States, Under the Name of Slavery, with Its Necessity and Advantages in 1828. But Kingsley's arguments did not convince Florida legislators. Legislative councils used fear of slave rebellion to justify policies that were increasingly oppressive. Legislation of the 1820s and 1830s reflects racial discrimination that blurred the distinction between freeman and slave until there was virtually no difference.
The cession agreement between the U.S. and Spain was supposed to protect the status of free people of color living in Florida in 1821, but the Kingsleys had reason to be concerned. Parish records reveal that a fourth child was born to Zephaniah and Anna in 1824. Their new son was subject to the harsh enactments that Zephaniah Kingsley called "a system of terror." Even Anna and her older son and two daughters were not necessarily secure as racism increased. Anna decided to leave Florida and go to Haiti. Slave revolution had made Haiti the first independent black republic of the New World, the "Island of Liberty" as Kingsley called it. Anna and her sons intended to start a plantation on the northern coast of the island. Their work force would consist of more than fifty of their former Florida slaves, freed to work as indentured servants to comply with Haitian law which prohibited slavery. In 1837 Anna Kingsley left Florida and sailed to "Mayorasgo De Koka," her new home in Haiti.
Zephaniah Kingsley described Mayorasgo De Koka as "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..." Roads and bridges were built and the Kingsleys planned a school for the community, but they did not live happily ever after in their tropical colony. In 1843, in his seventy-eighth year, Zephaniah Kingsley died.
With an estate worth a fortune at stake, some of Zephaniah Kingsley's white relatives contested his will and sought to deny Anna and his children their inheritance. After much dispute, courts upheld the rights of the black heirs, but the family suffered another loss. Anna's older son, George, was returning to Florida in 1846 to defend land interests, when the ship in which he was traveling was lost at sea. Her younger son, John Maxwell Kingsley, took over management of Mayorasgo De Koka and Anna Kingsley, for unknown reasons, returned to Florida. She could not return to Fort George Island--that plantation had been sold years before. She settled near her daughters who had married and stayed in Florida. Once more Anna lived on the St. Johns River, this time in a young town called Jacksonville.
When the Civil War divided the country, Anna and her daughters' families supported the Union. With Florida's secession and hostility from Confederates intensifying, Anna had to leave her home again. In 1862, she traveled with relatives to New York. They returned to Florida later that year, but lived in Union-occupied Fernandina until the end of the conflict. In 1865 Anna Kingsley returned to the St. Johns River for the final time.
Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley died in 1870. No intimate letters, diaries, or other personal reflections on her life are known to exist. No portrait or photograph of any kind remains of her. Even her grave is unmarked. Her story, however, endures. In the legal petitions and official correspondence, probate and property records, the details of her life emerge. And on Fort George Island, near the mouth of the St. Johns River, the house where she lived for twenty-three years still stands.
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Last updated: March 2, 2023