Denmark Vesey

Denmark Vesey

Vesey, Denmark, 1767?-1822, African-American leader. After many years as a slave he won (1800) $1,500 in a lottery and purchased his freedom. Intelligent and energetic, he acquired considerable wealth and influence in South Carolina. Using church meetings as a cover, he supposedly planned (1822) a slave insurrection with the intention of taking over Charleston, killing whites, and, if necessary, fleeing to Haiti. Accused by informers, Vesey was hanged along with 34 slaves. Some historians now doubt that Vesey's conspiracy ever occurred.

See H. Aptheker, American Slave Revolts (1943); J. Lofton, Insurrection in South Carolina (1964); R. S. Starobin, ed., Denmark Vesey (1970); D. R. Egerton, He Shall Go Out Free (1999); D. Robertson, Denmark Vesey (1999).

Denmark Vesey (originally Telemaque,1767? – July 2, 1822) was a West Indian slave brought to the United States. After purchasing his freedom, he planned what would have been one of the largest slave rebellions in the United States. Word of the plans was leaked, and Charleston, South Carolina authorities arrested the plot's leaders before the uprising could begin. Vesey and others were tried, convicted and executed.

Many antislavery activists came to regard Vesey as a hero. During the American Civil War, abolitionist Frederick Douglass used Vesey's name as a battle cry to rally African-American regiments, especially the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry.

Early life

In 1781, Vesey was purchased by Captain Joseph Vesey from the then-Danish Caribbean island of St. Thomas. He labored briefly in French Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), and then was settled in Charleston, South Carolina as a youth, where Joseph Vesey kept him as a domestic slave. On November 9, 1799, Denmark Vesey won $1500 in a city lottery. He bought his own freedom and began working as a carpenter. Although briefly a Presbyterian, Vesey co-founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1816. The church was temporarily shut down by white authorities in 1818 and again in 1820.

The Vesey conspiracy

Inspired by the revolutionary spirit and actions of slaves during the 1791 Haitian Revolution, and furious at the closing of the African Church, Vesey began to plan a slave rebellion. His insurrection, which was to take place on Bastille Day, July 14, 1822, became known to thousands of blacks throughout Charleston and along the Carolina coast. The plot called for Vesey and his group of slaves and free blacks to slay their owners and temporarily seize the city of Charleston. Vesey and his followers planned to sail to Haiti to escape retaliation. Two slaves opposed to Vesey's scheme leaked the plot. Charleston authorities charged 131 men with conspiracy. In total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey.

Sandy Vesey, one of Denmark's sons, was transported, probably to Cuba. Vesey's last wife Susan later emigrated to Liberia. Another son, Robert Vesey, survived to rebuild Charleston's African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865.

In response to white fears, a municipal guard of 150 men was established in Charleston in 1822. Half the men were stationed in an arsenal called the Citadel. In 1842, the South Carolina legislature replaced the expensive guardsmen with less expensive cadets. The arsenal was turned over to the newly established South Carolina Military Academy, which later became known as The Citadel.

White hysteria?

Recent scholarship in 2001 by the historian Michael Johnson gave a new twist to historian Richard Wade's 1964 theory that the Vesey Conspiracy was nothing more than "angry talk." According to Johnson, Mayor James Hamilton Jr. concocted a false conspiracy to use as a "political wedge issue" against Governor Thomas Bennett Jr., who owned four of the accused slaves. Somewhat in reaction to the Missouri Compromise, which restricted slavery in the western territories, Mayor Hamilton came to support a militant approach to protecting slavery. He called for draconian measures, while the governor clung to a paternalistic, almost benign view. In 1822, Carolinians were ready to believe the existence of a conspiracy. Governor Bennett, while believing that the plot was not as widespread as Hamilton thought, nonetheless called Vesey's plan "a ferocious, diabolical design."

Johnson also asserted that aside from questionable court records, no other material evidence existed of Vesey's plans to lead the revolt. Most specialists, however, observe that a number of blacks familiar with Vesey or the Reverend Morris Brown, especially free black carpenter Thomas Brown, spoke about the plot in later years.

In 2004, historian Robert Tinkler, a biographer of Mayor Hamilton, reported that he uncovered no documentation to support any view besides the one that "James Hamilton believed there was indeed a Vesey plot."

In art

Martin Delany's 19th-century novel Blake referred to Vesey, as did Dorothy Heyward's drama Set My People Free. Vesey was the subject of a 1939 opera named after him by novelist and composer Paul Bowles.

Several PBS documentaries have included material on Denmark Vesey, particularly Africans in America and This Far By Faith.

Vesey was the subject of the 1980s made-for-television drama, Denmark Vesey's Revolt, in which his character was played by the Cameroon-born actor Yaphet Kotto. Vesey's character also appeared in the 1991 TV movie Brother Future, in which he was played by the then-too young Carl Lumbly, who was forty-years-old at the time.

Denmark Vesey is the name and basis for a character created by Orson Scott Card in The Tales of Alvin Maker, a series of books which detail an alternate history of America. The character Denmark emerges in Book Five, Heartfire, in which his slave rebellion comes under threat by mistakes made by Alvin’s brother, Calvin Miller/Maker. Vesey's conspiracy also formed the basis of John Oliver Killens' brief novella, Great Gittin' Up Morning. He appears briefly in John Jakes' Charleston, where he is mischaracterized as a mulatto.

After Denmark, a play by David Robson, is a contemporary take on the the historical Denmark Vesey. In it, a young editor--who may be related to Vesey--travels to the Deep South to confront questions of racism and identity. The play first appeared at the 2008 Great Plains Theatre Conference. A workshop production by Yellow Taxi Productions is planned for the fall of 2008.



  • Egerton, Douglas R. He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey, 2nd ed. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. online review
  • Lofton, John. Insurrection in South Carolina. Antioch Press: Yellow Springs, 1964.
  • Rodriguez, Junius P., ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2006. ISBN 0313332711.
  • Tinkler, Robert. James Hamilton of South Carolina. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004. ISBN 0807129364.
  • Executions in the U.S. 1608-1987: The Espy File (by state) (PDF)

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