Denmark Vesey Research Paper

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The man later known as Denmark Vesey was born around 1767, probably on the Caribbean island of Saint Thomas. Joseph Vesey, a Carolina-based slaver, purchased the boy in 1781 as part of a cargo of 390 bond people. During the passage to the French colony of Saint-Domingue (Haiti), Vesey noticed the child’s “beauty, alertness, and intelligence” and employed him as a cabin boy. But when the ship reached Cap Francois, the captain “had no use for the boy” and turned him over to his colonial agents. Either traumatized by his new life in Saint-Domingue or feigning illness, the child began to display “epileptic fits.” Returned to the docks, a physician “certified that the lad” was unwell, which cancelled the sale. When Joseph Vesey returned to Cap Francois on April 23, 1782, with a new cargo of Gold Coast slaves, he was forced to take the child back. The fits promptly ceased, and Vesey decided to keep him as a servant.

Charleston authorities later described the child as a person of “superior power of mind & the more dangerous for it.” The captain saw only the value of a tall, muscular boy already conversant in two languages. Vesey gave the boy a new name, Telemaque, after the son of Homer’s Odysseus; over time, Carolina bondmen either punned or corrupted the name into Denmak, and then finally Denmark.

In the spring of 1783, following the British evacuation of South Carolina, Joseph Vesey settled into Charleston as a ship chandler. At some point during this period, Denmark married an enslaved woman named Beck. Beck had several masters over the course of her life, but she remained married to Denmark long enough to give birth to at least three of his children. Two of his sons were named Polydore and Robert; a third, Sandy, would be the only child to be implicated in his 1822 plot. Toward the end of his life, Denmark Vesey married again. His last wife, Susan, was born a slave around 1795. She was the only woman to carry his surname. Some historians have speculated that Vesey practiced polygamy, although no evidence exists to support the theory.

On September 30, 1799, Denmark happened upon a handbill announcing the “East-Bay Lottery,” and bought a ticket. In November, Charleston newspapers declared his ticket the winner. The prize was $1,500, a princely sum that slaves who hired their time would take ten years to acquire. Joseph Vesey agreed to sell Denmark his freedom for $600; the contract was signed on December 31, 1799. After seventeen years as a Charleston slave, the thirty-three-year-old Denmark was free.

Chained to the South by family ties, Denmark remained in the city and apprenticed himself to a carpenter, an easy trade to learn and a lucrative business as Charleston expanded up the peninsula. At the same time, he adopted Vesey as a surname, probably as a linguistic tie to an established businessman whose name could help to secure clients. Vesey threw his enormous energies into his business, and according to one former slave, Denmark labored “every day at de trade of carpenter” and “soon became much respected” and “esteem[ed] by de white folks.” But because of competition from white carpenters, free mulattoes (whose fathers provided business contacts), and enslaved craftsmen (who lived with their masters and paid no rent), Vesey barely maintained a modest income. Despite published claims made in 1822 that he died a rich man worth nearly $8,000, there is no evidence that Vesey ever owned a single piece of property.

Around 1818 Vesey joined the city’s new African Methodist Episcopal congregation, the center of Charleston’s enslaved community. Sandy Vesey also joined, as did four of Vesey’s closest friends: Peter Poyas, a literate ship carpenter; Monday Gell, an African-born Ibo who labored as a harness maker; Rolla Bennett, the manservant of Governor Thomas Bennett; and “Gullah” Jack Pritchard, an East African priest and woodworker purchased in Zinguebar in 1806. The temporary closure of the church by city authorities in June 1818 and the arrest of 140 congregants, one of them presumably Vesey, reinforced the determination of black Carolinians to maintain a place of independent worship and established the motivation for Vesey’s conspiracy. In 1820 several “Negroes was taken up” for holding a late-night service at the church, and city authorities warned that they would not tolerate class leaders conducting instructional “schools for slaves,” as “the education of such persons was forbidden by law.” The “African Church was the people,” Gell replied. He and Pritchard had considered insurrection in 1818, “and now they had begun again to try it.”

At the age of fifty-one, Vesey briefly thought about emigrating to the English colony of Sierra Leone. But as Beck’s children remained slaves, Vesey resolved instead to orchestrate a rebellion, followed by a mass exodus from Charleston to Haiti. President Jean-Pierre Boyer had recently encouraged black Americans to bring their skills and capital to his beleaguered republic. Vesey did not intend to tarry in Charleston long enough for white military power to present an effective counterassault. “As soon as they could get the money from the Banks, and the goods from the stores,” Rolla insisted, “they should hoist sail” for Saint-Domingue and live as free men.

Vesey planned the escape for nearly four years. His chief lieutenants included Poyas, Gell, Rolla Bennett, and “Gullah” Jack Pritchard. Although there are no reliable figures for the number of recruits, Charleston alone was home to 12,652 slaves. Pritchard, probably with some exaggeration, boasted that he had 6,600 recruits on the plantations across the Cooper and Ashley rivers. The plan called for Vesey’s followers to rise at midnight on Sunday, July 14—Bastille Day—slay their masters, and sail for Haiti and freedom. As one southern editor later conceded: “The plot seems to have been well devised, and its operation was extensive.”

The plot unraveled in June 1822 when two slaves revealed the plan to their owners. Mayor James Hamilton called up the city militia and convened a special court to try the captured insurgents. Vesey was captured at Beck’s home on June 21 and hanged on July 2, together with Rolla, Poyas, and three other rebels. In all, thirty-five slaves were executed. Forty-two others, including Sandy Vesey, were sold outside the United States; some, if not all, became slaves in Spanish Cuba. Robert Vesey lived to rebuild the African Church in the fall of 1865.


  1. Egerton, Douglas R. 1999. He Shall Go Out Free: The Lives of Denmark Vesey. Madison, WI: Madison House.
  2. Freehling, William W. 1994. The Reintegration of American History: Slavery and the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Lofton, John. 1964. Insurrection in South Carolina: The Turbulent World of Denmark Vesey. Yellow Springs, OH: Antioch.
  4. Paquette, Robert L. 2002. Jacobins of the Lowcountry: The Vesey Plot on Trial. William and Mary Quarterly 59: 185–192.

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