Saturday, October 17, 2015

Zephaniah Kingsley Jr.--Former Quaker, Slave Trader, and Emanicpator

The Review of Zephaniah Kingsley Jr. and the Atlantic World: Slave Trader, Plantation Owner, Emancipator
by Daniel L. Schafer
University Press of Florida,2013

Though the scholarly volume is fact-detailed heavy and therefore on the dry side in writing, it is one amazing historical study!

Zephaniah Kingsley Jr. greatly changed my view of the nature of slavery and slave ownership in the South. Also, it shows the dark side of the Society of Friends.

The book explains how incredibly diverse and contradictory the institution of slavery was. For Kingsley, unlike the Southern fire-eaters and other racists in the South and the North, wasn’t really racist in the usual sense, but acted more like his British forebears in that he emphasized class hierarchy.

Aerial view of Kingsley Plantation and Fort George Island.

According to Zephaniah Kingsley, slavery wasn’t about race but about commerce. Slavery was more like indentured servanthood.

It appears that despite his long engagement in the slave trade, Kingsley always held open the opportunity for his slaves to earn their freedom by saving and then buying themselves from him at half their net worth. Plus, he used a task system of work, so that his slaves had daily time when they finished a specific task to work on their own crops and earn money.

Furthermore, Kingsley was appalled by the racist rules and policies of the United States after it confiscated Florida from the Spanish after Americans invaded Northeast Florida in the infamous "Patriot War" beginning in 1810.

Originally, the American invaders had come south from Georgia to kidnap humans and take them back to Georgia to sell. But in the process they also caused all manner of havoc including burning plantations, killing, etc. Then they tried to lead a revolt against the Spanish Government. It took many years for Northeast Florida to recover.

As an American literature/history teacher for many years, I have read many volumes on and about slavery. In fact, I have an in depth background in the historical subject, know how complex and contradictory the institution was in relationship to various societies.

Yet Schafer's book surprised me in that it gives still another, different angle to the whole subject. In Zephaniah Kingsley we have a man of Thomas Jefferson's generation--the generation which took a dim view of the institution itself but however felt slavery was needed for the success of plantations. It would be many years before, gradually, Americans would dispense with the peculiar institution's benefits.

But Kingsley, despite his more humane form of slavery never condemned slavery itself, and was a slave owner all of his life until his death in 1843. On the other hand, Kingsley intermarried with African women, appeared to be proud of his life-long African common wife, Anna, and his bi-racial offspring.

He always publicly acknowledged Anna and their sons and daughters, freed them publicly, and provided for their future, willing them most of his estate.

It was an irony of history that Kingsley's youngest sister, a devout Christian, who after Kingsley death tried to break his will and confiscate all of the money from black Anna and the biracial children!

In contrast, during Kingsley's life, he encouraged the ecoomic advancement of his slaves and helped many of them, (before they earned their freedom), became highly skilled artisans and managers of plantations including his own.

Furthermore, in the 1830's Kingsley became very upset and worried when the U.S. Southern States passed racist legislation against intermarriage, etc. At that time, Kingsley bought a plantation in Haiti to provide a safe haven for Anna and their children, and other freed slaves. Haiti was the only place in the Western hemisphere where slavery was against the law.

Amazingly, Kingsley also worked with Northern abolitionists to provide Haiti as a destination for former slaves. The man was a complex mix of contradictions, but those contradictions were all about economic security for himself and his family. It appears he was seldom ideological, and almost always goal driven. What ever worked.

Below is the only known picture of a grandchild (the young woman in the red cape) of Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley. No portraits of the couple or their children exist. Probably, the portraits were destroyed in the wars and forced movements of the family.

Maria Perez Kingsley, great-granddaughter of Zephaniah and Anna Kingsley

Kingsley in his openness toward Africans and methods of gradual freeing of slaves is in stark contrast to the racist hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson who while condemning slavery in the Declaration of Independence and in other writings, hid his own sexual relations with one of his slaves and never admitted fathering slave children.

Also, Jefferson not only profited from slave labor on his plantations and from the institution all of his life, he never officially freed almost any of his slaves, not even at his death. Most historians think Jefferson did free several biracial children fathered by him when they grew up.

Very differently, Zephaniah Kingsley began freeing some of his slaves as early as 1811. However, this good actions is contrasted by his active life as a slave trader and the fact, he still owned slaves at his death.

Despite his having grown up Quaker, a religion which began to oppose slavery by 1688, Kingsley became an active slave trader during the late 1780's shortly after all Quaker meetings totally banned slavery!

Even though the Society of Friends was originally founded on equality in about 1650, tragically, by 1681 to 1705, 70% of Quakers owned slaves! How that came about would make a powerful historical study.

A few Quakers began to speak out against slavery beginning in 1688. The Quaker business man, John Woolman, in the 1700's spent his entire life, even to the detriment of his clothing business opposing slavery among Friends. Finally, by 1756 only 10% of Quakers owned slaves.
Fischer, David Hackett Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America Oxford University Press (1989) p601

Quakers officially banned slavery in 1776. After that date no one could be a member of the Society of Friends and still own slaves. Yet it appears that, sometimes, Kingsley did attend Quaker worship meeting because he mentioned that he considered worship meeting as a good time to work on his business accounts in his mind!

As usual, even now, human leaders display so many moral contradictions and fall far short of what they ought to achieve and ought to do and ought to be.

As mentioned earlier, Kingsley looked on slavery as a economic necessity as did Anna, his African common wife, who herself became a slave owner. In this she and he carried on the practices of East Africa, where her people, the Wolof enslaved, were enslaved, and where they sold other Africans to European ships and to Arab slave traders.

For to Kingsley's slavery wasn’t a permanent social condition related to color like for most people of the United States, nor was it like the British who wouldn’t let the lower classes move up the economic/social scale.

This doesn't excuse him from the abhorrent practice, especially his engaging in the Middle Passage for many years, but it does show a very different outlook toward the institution.

Finally, Kingsley so opposed the racist views, laws, and behavior of the South in the 1830’s that he moved his family and children to Haiti to protect them from racism, intolerance, and re-enslavement.

Some good amidst the bad.

A good man, Kingsley wasn’t.

How can anyone be good and enslave humans from half way round the world on slave ships?

But he demonstrated a different attitude and different, less severe form of slavery.

Evidently his Quaker parents’ ethics had influenced him, or despite his obsession with obtaining wealth as a form of temporary security in this life, he still had a side of him that was somewhat sensitive and concerned with fairness.

It’s all so complicated.

What a book!
Evaluation: A

A book well worth reading not only for history, but to understand why ethics are so difficult for brilliant humans. Nothing is ever easy, certainly not seeking ethical truth.

If in doubt, just look at the ethical horror and political mess, that leaders of the U.S. Government, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, the Gulf States, Iran, etc. have gotten the human race into in the last 30 years.

Trillions of dollars wasted on slaughtering, destroying, political and religious maneuvering>

Zephaniah's immoral life, yet sometimes contradictory good sense, may help us see where we still make wrong choices about the Good, the True, and the Just.

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

No comments: