January 29, 2022
Before the Ribault Club on Fort George Island became a rich man’s paradise, the Kingsley Plantation was a slave’s hell.
The two sites may only be a few miles apart, but were worlds apart in what life was like.
The Ribault Club was built by a group of investors in 1928 as an exclusive playground for the rich and famous. They purchased the island, built a clubhouse, golf course, and yacht basin hoping to attract affluent northerners. The entry fee was $1,000. (That works out to about $17,000 in today’s dollars.) Yearly dues were $1,000. And room and board was extra. The club provided lawn bowling, tennis, golf, badminton, biking, hiking, and croquet.
But the club’s heyday was short lived. The 1929 stock market crash started the slide and World War II finished it. By the late 1940s the club was a shadow of its former self and fell into disrepair.
The state of Florida bought the property in 1989, began the club’s renovation in 1998, and completed it in 2003.
If you visit the club, plan to spend some time in their small, but impressive museum that traces Fort George Island’s history back to the island’s formation some 12,000 years ago.
The first human inhabitants appeared 4,000 years ago. Clams and oysters were abundant and the inhabitants discarded the shells in huge mounds, so they were known as the People of the Shell Mounds. Archaeologists have found evidence that these people also made pottery using plant fibers and clay.
In the early 1500s, the island’s native inhabitants, the Timucuan, would have seen Spanish ships on their way back to Europe being carried along by the Gulf Stream. The first physical contact between the Timucuans and the French occurred in 1562. The Timucuan traded dyed feathers, painted hides, and baskets for tools, mirrors, and knives.
Great Britain, France, and Spain vied for dominance in the New World. France’s hold on the island ended in 1565 when Spain evicted the French and renamed the island to San Juan Island. In 1587 the Spanish built a mission and, over the next 115 years, dominated Timucuan economic, spiritual, and political life. Worse yet, European diseases decimated the population; within a hundred years a half million Timucuans had been reduced to less than 50,000.
When the Georgia colony was established in 1736, Gen. James Oglethorpe occupied the island and built a fort that he named Fort Saint George.
At the end of the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War) in 1763, Spain ceded Florida to Britain. It didn’t take long for settlers to acquire land and establish plantations worked by slaves. The 1783 treaty that ended the Revolutionary War also returned Florida to Spain. Under Spanish rule free people, including freed slaves, could own property or a business.
When the Civil War ended in 1865 so did the plantation system on Fort George Island. Over time the island slowly transformed from farming to recreation.
In the 1920s, the former Kingsley Plantation house became the Army and Navy Club. A short distance away, an exclusive private club was built and named the Ribault Club.
Zephaniah Kingsley was a slave trader who sailed between Africa and the Caribbean, buying and selling slaves. Kingsley had a Senegalese wife, Anna. She was born a princess in the Wolof Kingdom in what is now Senegal. When she was 13 she was captured and sold as a slave. Kingsley purchased her in Cuba and subsequently freed her. So she was both a slave and free, a land owner and a slave owner, a planter’s wife and a plantation manager.
Kingsley bought Fort George Island in 1817. While he supported slavery he opposed racial prejudice. After Florida became a United States territory in 1821 Spain’s more liberal laws regarding the rights of both free and enslaved blacks were replaced with much more restrictive ones. To escape the increased prejudice, Kingsley moved his family to Haiti, a free black colony, in 1837.
The 60 to 80 slaves that toiled here lived in 25 cabins built with tabby, cement made from sand, water, and burned oyster shells. At soon as possible, slaves’ children were trained to do their parents’ jobs. Children witnessed the punishments inflicted on their parents and quickly learned that, in order to survive, they had to obey their masters.
Plantations generally focused on a single crop, such as cotton, indigo, rice, or sugar cane. These crops required intense labor to plant, grow, harvest, and process. But not all slaves worked the fields. Slaves were also trained and worked as carpenters, coopers, blacksmiths, cooks, and servants.
Kingsley’s slaves grew indigo and Sea Island cotton. He used the task system in which each slave was assigned a specific task for the day. For cotton this might mean planting ¼ acre, hoeing ½ acre, picking 90-100 pounds, or ginning 20-30 pounds. Once the slave completed their task, they were “free” to address their personal needs, such as tending their own garden. Despite the harsh conditions, slaves maintained strong family bonds and blended their African culture with those of the southern United States.