Denmark Vesey originally Telemaque, (1767? – July 2, 1822) was an African-Caribbean most famous for leading a slave rebellion in the United States. He was enslaved in the Caribbean before being brought to the United States and was of Caribbean of Coromantee background. 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 at Charleston, South Carolina, authorities arrested the plot’s leaders before the uprising could begin. Vesey and others were tried, convicted and executed. Although it was almost certainly not his home, the Denmark Vesey House at Charleston was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976.
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.
No records existed on Denmark’s origins, although scholars have speculated that he may have been born in St. Thomas or in Africa. One writer, David Robertson, suggested that Denmark may have been of Mande origin, but evidence suggesting his Mande’s heritage were generally not accepted by most African-American scholars. Historian Douglas Egerton suggested that Vesey could be of Coromantee (an Akan-speaking people) origin, based on a remembrance by a free black carpenter who knew Vesey toward the end of his life.
Denmark 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 a Presbyterian as late as April 1816, Vesey co-founded a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1817. 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 execute their enslavers and temporarily liberate 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 immigrated to Liberia. Another son, Robert Vesey, survived to rebuild Charleston’s African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865.
In response to white panic, 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.
Recent scholarship in 2001 by 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 view. In 1822, white Carolinians uniformly believed in 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. Specialists, however, observe that a number of blacks familiar with Vesey or the Reverend Morris Brown, especially free black carpenter Thomas Brown, spoke or wrote about the plot in later years.
In 2004, historian Robert Tinkler, a biographer of Mayor Hamilton, reported that he uncovered no documentation to support Johnson’s theory. James Hamilton, he concluded, “believed there was indeed a Vesey plot.”
In the April 2011 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly, historian James O’Neil Spady showed that under Johnson’s own criteria, the statements of some of the earliest witnesses, George Wilson and Joe LaRoache, ought to be considered credible. Neither man was coerced nor imprisoned. Both volunteered their testimony, and LaRoache even risked statements that the court could have construed as self-incriminating. Spady concluded that a real, but perhaps smaller, conspiracy had been about to launch when the plans were revealed.
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. Vesey is also mentioned in the 1974 novel “Roots” by Alex Haley.
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 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 40 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 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.
Joe McPhee‘s composition Message from Denmark, featured on the 1971 album Joe McPhee & Survival Unit II at WBAI’s Free Music Store, is dedicated to Denmark Vesey.