BLACK HISTORY: BIOGRAPHIES
Denmark Vesey of Charleston!" was the battle cry of the first black
regiment formed to fight in the Civil War. The war achieved what Vesey had
so desperately striven for — the abolition of slavery. He had planned
his own war of liberation in 1822, but his plans were revealed before the
uprising could take place. For a number of reasons, Denmark Vesey has not
been one of the well-remembered heroes in the fight to end U.S. slavery,
up until recently. In the year 1999, three different books about Vesey were
released by major publishers, showing the renewed interest in this nearly
Vesey's actions were particularly courageous because by the time he planned
his rebellion, he had already gained his freedom and was making a good living.
But he had seen too much suffering — he hated slavery and slaveholders
— and he was determined to free his people from the terrible oppression
and cruelty. Like others who rose against the system, Vesey was condemned
to death and hanged. Yet his opponents could not kill his spirit. Vesey
became a symbol in the struggle for freedom and an inspiration for later
abolitionists, including John Brown.
Boyhood in the West Indies
The date of Denmark Vesey's birth remains uncertain (it was probably around
1767), as does his past before 1781. He was either born in Africa or as
a slave on St. Thomas, an island in the West Indies. The island became a
center for the slave trade and for the growing of sugar and cotton. Over
4,000 black people and under 400 whites lived there in the late 1700s.
In 1781, when he was about fourteen, Denmark was bought by a slaver called
Captain Joseph Vesey, who was struck by his good looks and intelligence.
Denmark, as he was called, was one of 390 slaves whom Captain Vesey brought
from St. Thomas to Haiti, then a French colony called Saint-Domingue. There
the boy was sold and put to work in a sugar plantation.
Cutting and pulping sugar cane is hard and exhausting work even for a grown
man, but Denmark did not remain at it for long. One day, he surprised his
fellow slaves and annoyed his new master by falling to the ground in an
epileptic fit. A slave who suffered from epilepsy was of little use on a
plantation, so Denmark's master returned him to Captain Vesey when the captain
next called at Saint-Domingue. The boy was unsound goods, he said.
Since Denmark was not suited to heavy labor, the captain made him his
personal servant, and during the next two years Denmark saw many of the
horrors of the slave trade as he sailed with the captain on his voyages
between Africa and the West Indies. When in 1783 the captain decided to
give up his slaving voyages and settle in Charleston, South Carolina, Denmark
went with him. He remained the captain's slave for the next seventeen years.
As a personal slave, Denmark Vesey lived a comparatively comfortable life
— far better than slaves working on plantations — and he had
a certain amount of freedom to come and go as he pleased. Nevertheless,
he was still a slave, subject to the whims of his master, and his first
thought when he won $1,500 in a lottery in 1800 was to buy his freedom.
He paid his master $600, and with the rest of his winnings he set up a carpentry
Planning the War of Liberation
Vesey proved to be a highly skilled carpenter, and his business did so
well that he grew quite wealthy. In 1816, he and other free blacks established
a separate black Methodist church in Charleston. By 1820, the church had
about 3,000 members. Vesey was a minister of the church and, with his growing
family of children and his comfortable house on Bull Street, he was viewed
as a respectable member of the community. And so he was. But he had other
things on his mind, too.
Since living in Saint-Domingue in his youth, Vesey had followed the events
there with interest, and he was thrilled when he heard about the great uprising
of slaves in 1791. He was even more thrilled when the slaveowners fled and
the black people of the former colony took control. In 1804, Saint-Domingue
became the independent nation of Haiti.
Here was a success story to fire the imagination. If the slaves of Saint-Domingue
could triumph over their masters, why not the slaves of South Carolina?
Why not those throughout the South? Vesey was aware that previous attempts
at rebellion had been put down mercilessly, but the events in Haiti gave
him new hope. As he thundered from the pulpit each Sunday, he began to sow
the seeds of rebellion. He urged his congregation to break free from slavery,
and he quoted verses from the Bible to give them encouragement. He spoke
to workers in the plantations and on street corners, reading aloud from
antislavery pamphlets written by whites. He even argued with whites who
supported slavery — an activity that always drew an admiring and awestruck
Seen as a Savior
Four years after it was opened, the black Methodist Church in Charleston
was closed down by the whites. Vesey and many others responded with anger
and an intensified desire to fight slavery. As Vesey traveled from place
to place spreading his message, the black people of the Charleston area
began to look upon him as a savior, and he had no difficulty gathering recruits
when he started to organize his war of liberation. By 1822, he had a carefully
arranged plan of battle and had chosen four dependable lieutenants: Ned
and Rolla Bennett, who were slaves of the governor: Peter Poyas, a ship's
carpenter; and Gullah Jack, who was widely believed to be bulletproof. Vesey
had also gathered a supply of weapons, which he obtained from supporters
Vesey chose Sunday, July 14, as the day of the uprising, because the plantation
hands could come to town on a Sunday without arousing suspicion. By the
end of May, he and his four lieutenants had recruited a secret army of slaves
and free blacks that was said to have numbered about nine thousand. They
planned to strike at midnight, when they would seize the guardhouse and
other key points, and block all the bridges. Meanwhile, a group of horsemen
would gallop through the town killing whites to prevent them giving the
alarm. Every detail was carefully worked out, and Vesey felt they stood
a good chance of taking over Charleston.
The End of a Dream
Knowing how loyal household slaves could be to their masters, Vesey had
ordered that none should be included in the plot. But the planned attack
involved so many people that some house slaves did hear about it. One of
them told his master. The authorities immediately were on the alert. Vesey
responded by pushing the date of the rising forward to mid-June, but no
sooner had he informed his followers than this date was betrayed too. Suddenly,
Charleston was bristling with soldiers, with patrols roaming the streets
and guards at every bridge.
When Vesey realized that nothing could be done, he burned all lists of
names and sent his followers home, but too many people knew who the leaders
were. During the next few weeks, hundreds were rounded up, including Vesey,
who was captured after a two-day search.
During lengthy trials after the insurrection had been thwarted, the intricate
plans of a massive uprising emerged in the testimony. Vesey and the other
leaders, according to the testimony, had instructed their forces to kill
all white people instantly, as had been done in Saint-Domingue. One fact
stunned the white citizens of South Carolina and did not surprise the blacks
at all: every black person, slave or not, who was approached about the uprising
gave it their blessing and cooperation, even though it generally meant killing
the families they had been working for. The number of people included in
the plan was said to number anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 by witnesses. The
court, however, proclaimed that all who had been involved had been brought
to trial, limiting the conspiracy to a couple hundred people and significantly
changing the nature of what actually happened for public record.
When questioned about why he, as a free man, would take such risks for
a slave uprising, Vesey answered both that it was because of the general
outrage to blacks imposed by slavery, and also that he hoped to free his
own children from the bonds of slavery.
Denmark Vesey was condemned to death. Although some of his followers were
released, forty-three were deported and thirty-five were hanged. Five slaves
were hanged along with Vesey in Charleston early in the morning on July
2. Federal troops were called out that day because of a large demonstration
by black supporters. Despite beatings and arrests, the black crowds openly
mourned for the leaders of the conspiracy.
The immediate effect of Vesey's insurrection was that life became far worse
for the black population of South Carolina. In a panic, the state assembly
passed strict new laws limiting the movements of slaves and preventing free
blacks from entering the ports.
Remembering Vesey and the Uprisings
Vesey was well enough remembered at the time of the Civil War to be invoked
in the battle cry, but his story has, for the most part, been weakly told
or has gone unspoken. This silence was not accidental. It began with southern
slaveowners who argued in public that blacks were very happy to be slaves,
living and working under their masters' kindhearted supervision. Slave insurrections
simply flew in the face of their argument. Moreover, the information that
came out at Vesey's trial threatened the southerners' manner of existence.
In the threat of a slave insurrection, they privately lived in terror. They
therefore reacted to Vesey's uprising with harsh laws restricting the movement
and communications of slaves and free blacks. The story of the planned revolt
was there to be told, but there was no one willing or able to tell it.
The slave uprisings that occurred in the South before the Civil War were
led by a different kind of hero than has been typically honored in U.S.
textbooks. Not one of the uprisings was successful — if ending slavery
was their goal. Almost all of the heroes of the uprisings were killed. All
of them faced such harsh consequences that their acts evidenced extraordinary
desperation and defiance.
In 1999 three authors came out with full-length books about Denmark Vesey
and his planned uprising: He Shall Go Out Free, by Douglas R. Egerton;
Designs Against Charleston: The Trial Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave
Conspiracy of 1822, edited by Edward A. Pearson, and Denmark Vesey
by David Robertson. Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery,
a four-part documentary series that debuted in October 1998 on PBS, also
drew attention to the actions of Vesey. More television and film projects
are planned on this subject in 2000.
Atlantic Monthly magazine recently revived a long article about
Denmark Vesey written in 1861 by an abolitionist named Thomas Wentworth
Higginson. Higginson notes that in antibellum South Carolina it was nearly
impossible to find written record of Denmark Vesey's trial. A friend of
his who was visiting South Carolina asked her hostess if she could see the
reports of the trials. "She was cautiously told that the only copy
in the house, after being carefully kept for years under lock and key, had
been burnt at last, lest it should reach the dangerous eyes of the slaves.
The same thing had happened, it was added, in many other families."
A large part of the history behind the conspiracy will never be known, as
the conspirators managed skillfully not to tell, even after the trials were
over. But, as Higginson points out, the fact that it happened as it happened
tells us a great deal in itself:
That a conspiracy on so large a scale should have existed in embryo
during four years, and in an active form for several months, and yet have
been so well managed, that, after actual betrayal, the authorities were
again thrown off their guard and the plot nearly brought to a head again,
— this certainly shows extraordinary ability in the leaders, and a
talent for concerted action on the part of slaves generally with which they
have hardly been credited.
- Egerton, Douglas R., He Shall Go Out Free, Madison House,
- Lofton, John, Denmark Vesey's Revolt, Kent State University
- Pearson, Edward A., editor, Designs Against Charleston: The Trial
Record of the Denmark Vesey Slave Conspiracy of 1822, University
of North Carolina Press, 1999.
- Robertson, David, Denmark Vesey, Knopf, 1999.
- Starobin, Robert S., ed., Denmark Vesey: The Slave Conspiracy of
1822, Prentice-Hall, 1970.
Source: "Denmark Vesey." U·X·L Biographies, U·X·L,
1999. Reproduced in Junior Reference Collection. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.
Reprinted by permission of The
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