Resource

Life Story: Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley (1793–1870)

From African Princess to American Enslaver

The story of an African princess who was kidnapped and sold into slavery and became a prosperous plantation owner in Florida.

Content Warning: This life story addresses sexual exploitation.

“Ma’am Anna House” and the owner’s house at Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island

“Ma’am Anna House” and the owner’s house at Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island, Florida, August 2009.

Anta Madjiguène Peya Fall Ndiaye was born into the royal family of the Kingdom of Jolof in Senegal in 1793. Her father, Mba Buri Nyabu, was in line for the throne, and her mother, Madjiguène Ndiaye, was the niece of a former king. Anna lived a pampered and privileged childhood. Her mother made sure she received an excellent education that prepared her to be a future leader. All her life, Anna was admired for her confidence, leadership, and courage—a testament to her mother’s efforts.

Slavery was practiced in Jolof and its neighboring kingdoms. Competing kingdoms raided one another to capture slaves. In 1806, when Anna was 13 years old, she was captured in one of these raids. Anta was marched to the slave markets at Rufisque, Senegal. She was sold to a slave ship heading for the Americas. She never saw or spoke to her family again.

The ship that carried Anta across the Atlantic was managed by Zephaniah Kingsley, Jr. Zephaniah was a 41-year-old ship captain and merchant with lands in the Spanish colony called Florida. He forced Anta to have sexual relations with him during the journey. Anta was pregnant with his child when they arrived in Havana, Cuba. Zephaniah purchased Anta and brought her to Laurel Grove, his plantation on the banks of St. John’s River.

Anta was one of many enslaved women that Zephaniah called his “wives.” She had been raised in a polygamous family in Jolof, so she was familiar with the lifestyle. She started using the name Anna Madgigne Jai Kingsley as a way of accepting her new reality while still honoring her Senegal roots. Zephaniah realized that Anna was highly educated and capable for her age. He put her in charge of managing his household. She did so well that he made her the supervisor of 100 enslaved people who lived at Laurel Grove. A few years later, he put her in charge of a store that served all the other plantations in the community. During this time, Anna gave birth to three more children: George, Martha, and Mary.

The laws governing slavery in the Spanish colonies were not as rigid as the laws in the United States. Under Spanish law, enslaved people were allowed to spend their free time earning money. They had the right to use this money to purchase their freedom from their enslavers. Enslavers like Zephaniah encouraged this as a way of keeping their enslaved people content. Enslavers could also choose to free enslaved people in recognition of their service. Throughout his life, Zephaniah allowed all of his enslaved people to purchase their freedom for half of their market value. He also freed all the women he took as wives and their children. On March 4, 1811, Zephaniah asked the Spanish government to free Anna and their three children. At the age of 18, after being enslaved for five years, Anna became a free Black citizen of the colony of Florida.

When the fighting reached her home in 1813, Anna set fire to all the buildings on her farm so that the invaders could not use them.

Anna decided to leave Laurel Grove to set up her own home and farm across the St. John’s River. Zephaniah gave her 12 enslaved people and built her a home and store where she could continue to sell trade goods he imported. She remained one of Zephaniah’s wives, but the new home and business gave her a small measure of independence. Unfortunately, Anna’s independence did not last. U.S. settlers invaded Spanish Florida, hoping to take the territory from Spain. When the fighting reached her home in 1813, Anna set fire to all the buildings on her farm so that the invaders could not use them. For her loyalty, the colonial government awarded her 350 acres of land.

When the fighting ended, Zephaniah moved his entire family and all of his enslaved people to Fort George Island. He built a new and more magnificent plantation home. It is possible that Anna helped him design the layout of the plantation because it resembles communities in Jolof. Zephaniah built Anna a separate home just behind the main house. They lived on Fort George Island for the next 25 years. Anna gave birth to their fourth child, John, in 1824.

When the United States took control of Florida in 1821, U.S. laws about slavery and free Black people were imposed on the residents living there. In the United States, free Black people were seen as dangerous. Their very existence proved that slavery was not the natural condition of Black people. Over the next four decades, the government passed more and more restrictive laws against free Black people. Zephaniah tried to convince the local government to follow the more lenient Spanish traditions, but he was ignored. In 1835, Zephaniah decided Florida was no longer safe for his Black wives and children. He started a colony for free Black people in Haiti. Anna and her youngest child moved there in 1839.

Zephaniah died in 1843. His relationship with Anna started under violent circumstances, but over the decades, they forged a strong relationship. Zephaniah knew that U.S. laws would make it difficult for his Black wives and children to inherit his estate. In the decades before he died, he divided up most of his lands among his children. He also drafted a will that made his intentions clear. Even so, Zephaniah’s sister tried to invalidate his will. When Anna’s eldest son, George, died in a shipwreck on his way to court, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She returned to the United States in 1846 and won the court battle over Zephaniah’s will. She used her inheritance to buy a small plantation in Duval County close to her daughters.

The racial oppression and violence in Florida had increased during her time away. Many free Black people had already fled the state and many more would follow before the American Civil War. Anna and her daughters were protected by John Sammis, Anna’s white son-in-law. He had to sponsor the whole family because no free Black person could live in the state without a white sponsor. Anna and her daughters continued Zephaniah’s practice of allowing their enslaved people to buy their freedom at half their market price. Many of the people who secured their freedom this way chose to live nearby. John did everything he could to ensure the safety and success of the growing community. As a result, Duval County became the only thriving community of free Black people in Florida before the outbreak of the Civil War.

In 1860, John realized that the practice of slavery in the United States would soon come to an end. He urged the whole family to sell their enslaved people before they were emancipated. Anna’s four remaining enslaved people were shipped to New Orleans and sold without consideration for their family ties. This final sale reveals that while Anna and her family were more sympathetic than most enslavers, they could still act with great cruelty.

Anna and her family fled Florida during the Civil War, and some of her grandsons enlisted in the Union army. They all returned to Florida as soon as the war ended. Like so many former enslavers, Anna and her family never regained the wealth they possessed before the war. But they built comfortable lives for themselves. Anna lived with her daughters until her death in 1870.

Vocabulary

  • acre: An area of land equal to 4,840 square yards.
  • Civil War: The war fought between the Northern and Southern U.S. states over the practice of slavery, from 1861–1865.
  • Haiti: A Caribbean nation founded when the enslaved people of the St. Domingue colony overthrew their enslavers and established their own government.
  • polygamous: The practice of having more than one wife or husband at the same time.
  • Rufisque: A port town on the coast of Senegal. Today, Rufisque is a suburb of Dakar, the capital of Senegal.
  • Senegal: A country in West Africa.

Discussion Questions

  • What does Anna’s life teach us about slavery in the Americas in the early 19th century?
  • How did Anna’s life change after the United States took control of Florida in 1821?
  • Why was Anna comfortable enslaving people after having been enslaved herself?

Suggested Activities

Themes

POWER AND POLITICS

Source Notes