Denmark Vesey allegedly planned and almost executed the largest slave revolt in history. However, the story is shrouded in uncertainty.
In 1767, an unnamed black infant was born into slavery in St. Thomas, a colony of Denmark. This infant would later be purchased by Captain Joseph Vesey, a Bermudian sea captain, and slave merchant, at the age of 14, but by 32 would win a local lottery and purchase his freedom. Then named Telemaque by his master, the newly free man chose his name, so-called because of his place of birth and the man he served for 17 years – and so Denmark Vesey was born.
Always an eager learner with natural intelligence, Denmark Vesey worked well with his master, serving as his personal assistant and interpreter in slave trading. This afforded him to travel to Bermuda and the opportunity to learn French and Spanish. When the captain retired, he moved himself and Vesey to Charleston, South Carolina.
When Vesey purchased his freedom, he began to work independently as a carpenter. However, while he was free, the woman he chose as his wife was an enslaved woman whose master refused to sell her. Though Vesey worked hard to buy his wife because she was still a slave at the time of giving birth to their children, the ruling principle of offspring assuming the mother's status meant that his children belonged to his wife's master as well. Meanwhile, Vesey formed part of the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and began working to rid the congregation of its restrictions on black members. However, tensions began to rise as city officials worried about the church becoming a breeding ground for slaves to become educated and form rebel groups, and they shut them down for a time.
Vesey's heart for freeing his fellow slaves didn't falter. He socialised with many slaves, not all of the fans of Vesey's dream of equality and freedom for all. Those that were fiercely loyal to their masters reported to authorities that Vesey was planning a slave revolt. This launched a city-wide search for those involved with and supportive of Vesey's plot.
The question is: was there ever a plot to begin with?
The investigation into Vesey's plot was launched following the reports of two fellow slaves, George Wilson and Joe LaRoche, both fiercely loyal to their masters. Some suggest these statements to be credible because, by volunteering their testimonies without coercion, they still risked being incriminated themselves by having been involved in the early planning of the revolt. On the other hand, there continues to be a lack of material evidence that relates to the rebellion. What is immediately apparent, though, is that the court did not seem to follow the correct trial procedures as historians have found manuscripts surrounding the court case to be unaligned.
What we do know is that the alleged slave revolt was curtailed before its so-called doom date, and Vesey and other prime suspects were executed by hanging before much else could be done or said about it. In addition, because of public pressure for proof of a conspiracy, the court continued to arrest suspects. Because of the political status of the time, it is unlikely that Vesey's alleged co-conspirators were given much chance to defend themselves and prove their innocence. Finally, because of the unreliability of court manuscripts, it's doubted that we would ever know if he was genuinely planning a revolt or if Denmark Vesey's story was nothing more than another grievous display of racial prejudice.
We'll end with an excerpt from a letter from Anna Hayes Johnson, a Charleston woman who wrote to her cousin in North Carolina on 18 July 1822, which proves the power of spreading the rumour of the alleged rebellion:
‘I suppose that by this time you are anxious to hear more about the unhappy business which has filled with consternation all our city and nothing but the merciful interposition of our God has saved us from horror equal if not superior to the scenes acted in St. Domingo . . . .
. . . the state's witness gave information of such a nature as to induce the city council to recall the court, and since that period the alarm has spread most widely, and there are now between 50 & 60 of the leaders in our jail—It is said that twenty of them have been convicted & sentenced, and in all probability the execution will not end under 100, but I was told yesterday that the prisoners had been heard to say that even should there be 500 executed there would be still enough to carry the work into execution. Denmark Vesey one of those already executed and who was the instigator of the whole plot acknowledged that he had been nine years endeavoring to effect the diabolical scheme, how far the mischief has extended heaven only knows—I never heard in my life more deep-laid plots or plots more likely to succeed, indeed "t'was a good plot—an excellent plot."