Cotton and Treasure: The Kingsley Plantation

When we arrived in Florida in July we started a historical fiction novel with Five of Hearts about a plantation owner and his family living in Florida in the early 1800’s. The Treasure of Amelia Island by M.C. Finotti fit nicely into our exploration of Route 1 as we had already read about the American Revolution and slavery in the original colonies. Now in Florida we were seeing more and more signs that the area was long under Spanish rule. The Treasure of Amelia Island begins in 1813 when Florida (or La Florida) is still goverened by Spain but Patriots are pushing to make it part of the United States.

The book recounts the life of Ana Jai Kingsley, a remarkable woman who after gaining her freedom goes on to own and run her own plantation and slaves. Although, unlike most slave owners in the United States she believes in freeing her slaves once they have worked for her for a time. As increased pressure is put on the family to renounce their loyalty to the king and join the Patriots, Ana Jai actually burns down her plantation so it won’t be used by the Patriots. As a freed black woman she would be sent back into slavery if La Florida were to become a state. Therefore, the family flees closer to the coast to a new plantation on Fort George Island where they remain for 23 years before eventually relocating to Haiti. The patriarch of the family, Zephaniah Kingsley, spends those years trying to convince the lawmakers of the new state of Florida to allow free people of color to remain free.

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While the book covers the history of the family it does so through a much more exciting fictional tale of a treasure hunt and alligator attack all told from the perspective of the Kingsley’s youngest daughter. Five of Hearts thought that the information about life on the plantation was interesting but she really loved the fictional treasure hunt the most. We knew that the Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island was still standing and is now opperated by the National Park Sevice. While camping on the coast by Jacksonville we were only 15 minutes away by ferry making it a great time to visit and bring closure to the book.

After taking the very short car ferry over the St. John River we drove through a thick spanish moss covered forest which at one time was fields of sea island cotton. Entering the plantation from the road we came to the partially remaining slave quarters first. The National Park service has done a fabulous job preserving and explaining what plantation life was like for a slave. After viewing the back breaking work and conditions that the slaves faced we were all flabbergasted at how Ana Jai who was once a slave herself could go on to become a slave owner.

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While the entire house wasn’t open for touring, we enjoyed walking around the grounds and especially the garden where we saw sea island cotton and indigo growing. Walking by the water at the front of the house it was hard not to find it a beautiful sight. However, after viewing the manacles that were found on site as tools of punishment for the slaves it was hard to view the plantation in a positive light. Visiting the plantation put a funny twist on the book. While reading it we had all hoped for the safety of Ana Jai and her family against the Patriots. However, after seeing how she forced her slaves to work and live it was hard to think of her with much favor. The definite take home message of the book and the plantation tour was that slavery was a truly horrible affair.

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