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Denmark Vesey

His Planned Slave Uprising in Charleston, South Carolina

By John T. Marck

About 1767, Denmark Vesey was born on the island of St. Thomas in the Danish West Indies, which today is the U.S. Virgin Islands. At a young age, Denmark assumed the surname of his owner, Joseph Vesey, who was the captain of a slave ship. Before they settled in Charleston, South Carolina in 1783, Denmark traveled along with his master on many slave-trading voyages.

While in Charleston, Denmark managed to educate himself as well as learned to read. In 1800, seventeen years after his arrival in Charleston, Denmark won $1,500.00 in a street lottery and used $600.00 of his winnings to buy his freedom. Now free, he stayed on in Charleston and worked as a carpenter. But Denmark was not satisfied, because although free, all blacks were looked upon as subservient, a status he was forced to adopt brought about by Charleston's white society.

With each passing day, Denmark witnessed the continued injustice tolerated by the slaves he saw in Charleston, which drove him to seek out and read abolitionist literature. With this knowledge, and the fact that he was aware of a successful slave revolt that occurred in Haiti in the 1790s, he began to organize and plot a similar slave uprising for Charleston.

Denmark's plan was to attack the arsenals in Charleston and seize the weapons. Upon accomplishing this, he would arm all the slaves who in turn were to burn the city and kill all the white people. Although not exact, this type of plan was similar to that which John Brown orchestrated at Harpers Ferry years later.

With his plan finalized, Denmark and nearly 9,000 slaves from the city of Charleston and nearby plantations were at the ready. However, fortunately, as it turned out for the city, the day before his plot was scheduled to begin in 1822, a loyal house servant, privileged to the plan, alerted the white authorities. They in turn made the necessary, and military preparations to ready the city, and consequently, Denmark, now unable to fulfill his plan, called it off.

Over a period covering the following two months, 130 blacks were arrested and brought to trail. Of these, sixty-seven were accused and convicted of taking part in this slave revolt. Thirty-five of the sixty-seven, including Denmark, were hanged; the remaining thirty-two were exiled.

Upon Denmark Vesey's appearance in court, the following disposition was written:

On Thursday, the 27th, (June) Denmark Vesey, a free black man, was brought before the court for trial; (assisted by his counsel, G.W. Cross, Esq.)

These facts of his guilt the journals of the court will disclose - that no man can be proved to have spoken of or urged the insurrection prior to himself.

All the channels of communication and intelligence are traced back to him. His house was the place appointed for the secret meetings of the conspirators, at which he was invariably a leading and influential member; animating and encouraging the timid, by the hopes and prospects of success; removing the scruples of the religious, by the grossest prostitution and perversion of the sacred oracles, and inflaming and confirming the resolute, by all the savage fascinations of blood and booty.

The peculiar circumstances of guilt, which confer a distinction on his case, will be found narrated in the confession of Rolla, Monday Gell, Frank, and Jesse, in the appendix. He was sentenced for execution on the 2nd of July.

Additionally, four white men were tried and convicted of having encouraged the revolt, and were fined and imprisoned for their part.

Copyright 1993-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.