- “My Laborers in Haiti Are Not Slaves”Proslavery Fictions and a Black Colonization Experiment on the Northern Coast, 1835–1846
In early August 1839 the brig America arrived at Puerto Plata on the northern coast of Haiti after two weeks at sea. On board the approximately “100 free colored” passengers, mostly ex-slaves from East Florida, cheered the end of their long journey from slavery to freedom. According to one observer the scene “[was] overwhelming to the feelings of humanity. It was an affecting sight to see so many young, lively, and decent looking people cordially welcomed with every manifestation of pleasure from a joyous community among whom they were to reside.”1 However, benevolent appearances can mislead, disguise, and distort actual circumstances. The arrivals simply exchanged one type of submission for another. They would become indentured laborers as part of a proslavery “colonization experiment” at Cabaret, a space carved out of the lush Haitian landscape through the efforts of Zephaniah Kingsley, a planter and slave owner in eastern Florida.2
Florida’s firm connections to the Greater Caribbean drew the region into the complex and often contradictory changes enveloping the Atlantic World. More stringent laws regarding race and property rights in the American South continued to erode the mastery of longtime Florida residents like the wealthy Kingsley, threatening the legacy of his own mixed-race family in the process. Using strict Haitian laws designed to maximize agricultural output, Kingsley responded by purposefully recreating an ambiguous plantation complex there, managed in his absence by his mixed-race son, and outfitted with “cultivators” drawn from the ranks of black emigrants hoping to improve their situations. Far from this, most black laborers instead encountered misery and disappointment. Most of the emigrants to Cabaret had been Kingsley’s own bondmen, manumitted on the express condition of removing to his Haitian plantation. Once in Haiti, most of the indentured protested working conditions and the terms of their contracts, which promised eventual freedom and, more important, land. From their first days on the island, a number of the emigrants chose [End Page 478] to escape these circumstances, fleeing Cabaret in small numbers from their first days on the island. In due time, they created a vibrant settlement of their own, subsequently (and incorrectly) dubbed “Kinsley’s colony.”3
Kingsley’s peculiar colonization scheme does not fit congruently within the historiography of proslavery ideology, colonization, or black emigration.4 The settlement appears on its face an act of benevolence. Zephaniah Kingsley bankrolled a fledging agricultural colony specifically for his newly freed slaves and to provide for his black mistresses and mixed-race children. And in an era when even the bare mention of Haiti conjured up thoughts of death, disorder, and the end of white mastery, the decision to locate the settlement within the Haitian Republic was nothing short of astonishing. Yet I argue that despite philanthropic pretenses, Kingsley’s colonization experiments were schemes designed to preserve his wealth and power against what he feared were overwhelming forces. They reveal that the world some antebellum slaveholders made was collapsing in the 1830s. In reimagining the geography of his slave empire, Kingsley’s efforts purposefully bound Florida and Haiti intimately while strengthening his mastery.
As Florida was situated between the limits of the United States of America and the Caribbean, its relationship with both regions proved problematic historically. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Spain’s precarious hold on its Florida colonies intensified amid international rivalries with Britain and France, mounting concerns over the French and Haitian Revolutions, and the militant policies of their “aggressive and unhappy northern neighbors” in the southeastern United States.5 On November 20, 1790, to bolster its sagging economic situation, the Spanish Crown issued a royal decree that encouraged immigration to La Florida in exchange for land grants. The policy brought a much needed boost in overall population numbers in the ensuing years, chiefly in the roughly five thousand slaves these immigrants introduced into the colony before 1810. Many settlers, including Zephaniah Kingsley, also brought with them extensive personal and economic ties to the Atlantic World and a cutthroat business style marked by an “aggressive and...