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Given the savagery of the white retaliation against the blacks, serious methodological

problems arise in assessing the evidence left from the plot, for all of

the surviving sources derive either from terrorized blacks or fearful whites. 

 
 

 

Terror in South Carolina 1822

An Introduction to Denmark Vesey

& the Slave Conspiracy in Charleston 

 By Robert S. Starobin

 
Vesey’s example must be regarded as one of the most courageous ever to threaten the racist foundation of America. In him the anguish of Negro people welled up in nearly perfect measure. He stands today, as he stood yesterday . . . as an awesome projection of the possibilities for militant action on the part of a people who have—for centuries—been made to bow down in fear. — Sterling Stuckey

When I began to compose this introduction, a white federal judge had just gagged and shackled a black man to prevent him from cross-examining witnesses in the trial of eight radicals accused of conspiring to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.  The judge then sentenced the black man to four years in prison for contempt of court.  Now as I conclude, Chicago police are alleged to have assassinated two more black organizers while they slept in bed—another demonstration of the depths of racial oppression in the United States.

Against such racism blacks have struggled throughout American history, and the most spectacular forms of black resistance are the conspiracies and rebellions which have surfaced from one generation to another.  Major slave unrest occurred in New York in 1712, in South Carolina in 1739 and 1740, in Virginia in 1800 and 1831, and in Louisiana in 1811 and 1812.  But one of the most extensive plots of all was uncovered in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822—the Denmark Vesey Conspiracy.  Vesey and his followers planned simply to seize the city of Charleston, kill most of the whites, and, if necessary, escape to the Caribbean or Africa.  Whites ruthlessly suppressed the rebels, but they are still revered today for their courage, daring, and determination.

South Carolina society seemed peaceful enough in the spring of 1822, yet beneath the serene surface it seethed with discontent.  The 260,000 slaves who worked in the cotton fields and malarial swamps, a majority of the population, had long protested their enslavement.  Major rebellions had occurred in 1739 and 1740, 25,000 slaves had escaped to the British lines during the American Revolution, and a conspiracy in Camden, S.C., had been broken up as recently  as 1816.  Many smaller plots and uprising had also taken place.  Exploitation had increased after the War of 1812, as prices of staples tended to decline and as new lands were opened up in the West.  Yet masters had neither entirely dehumanized their slaves nor completely crushed their innate longing for freedom.  For obvious reasons, slave dissatisfaction and discontent remained profound enough to inspire thoughts of rebellion.

For such a slave society, where 12,652 bondsmen outnumbered 10,653 whites in Charleston alone, the presence of an active free-black community was both paradoxical and dangerous.  Concentrated in Charleston County, the number of freedmen had rapidly increased from 1,161 in 1800 to 3,615 in 1820.  For blacks worked at a variety of occupations that ranged from artisanry to longshoring, from shopkeeping to houseservantry, with the vast bulk earning only very modest livings.  A handful had managed to accumulate considerable wealth and to organize fraternal groups, such as the Brown Fellowship Society, an elite educational and welfare organization begun in 1790.  However, whites despised the free blacks and regarded them as bad examples and potential leaders for those still in bondage.

Beginning in 1815, free blacks and slaves had joined together in an unprecedented act of religious self-determination.  When the white Methodist Church canceled certain privileges for blacks within its congregations, the black communicated with the newly organized African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.  They sent two representatives to be ordained as ministers, and finally established their own separate church.  Most of the “class leaders,” or deacons, resigned from the white-dominated Methodist Church; and almost 5,000 blacks, three-quarters of the black membership, transferred their allegiance to the new African Church.

This blow for independence outraged white officials, and they began to harass the black religious community.  In 1817, 469 black Methodists were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct.  The following year, 140 more were apprehended for violating laws against educating slaves without whites being present.  Thirteen of these were either fined or sentenced to imprisonment, banishment, and whipping.  

In 1820, a group of freedmen petitioned the state legislature for permission to conduct separate religious services.  Upon the recommendation of the white Charleston assemblymen, the plea was rejected.  The next year, the City Marshal again warned the black clergymen that instructing slaves was illegal; yet, despite such threats and intimidation, the African Church remained a seedbed of subversion.

To preserve the “domestic tranquility” of the state, whites moved against the black community again in 1820.  An act passed that year forbade any more free blacks from entering the state; if freedmen left the state, they were forbidden to return.  Considering the African Methodists’ journey to Pennsylvania, the new law was a direct attack on the religious integrity of all blacks.  

To discourage further entry of free blacks into the state, those not born in South Carolina or residents of less than five years were subject to a stiff, fifty-dollar-a-year tax.  Manumission of slaves was also severely proscribed, and licenses were now required of blacks for certain occupations to reduce competition with whites.  Altogether, Charleston blacks—both free and slave—found themselves under considerable pressure.

The black population was inspired by other events as well.  They undoubtedly had heard of the successful slave revolt in Saint-Domingue, since South Carolinians had long traded with the Caribbean islanders and since some Haitian émigrés had settled in the state with their slaves.  Blacks also seemed aware of the significance of the debates in Congress during 1819–21 over the admission of Missouri as a slave state.  Perhaps they also knew of the Gabriel Conspiracy near Richmond in 1800, and of the plans devised in Washington in 1816–17 to colonize blacks in Africa.  

Certainly, they were conscious of the suppression of the Camden Revolt in 1816.  In short, black Charlestonians had many grievances, sufficient knowledge of the tradition of insurrection, and adequate understanding of antislavery thinking to begin to plan a revolt of their own.  

Only leadership seemed to be lacking; Denmark Vesey changed that.

Studying the Vesey Conspiracy raises interesting questions about its participants, leadership, and ideology; answering these questions sheds new light on the history of black protest.  First, it is clear that rebel recruits came mostly from the slave workers of Charleston and its environs.  The conspirators were, according to the Official Report of the Trials, “Negroes hired or working out, such as Carters, Draymen, Sawyers, Porters, Laborers, Stevedores, Mechanics, [and] those employed in lumber yards.”  Others joined from waterfront rice mills, while slaves from rice and cotton plantations surrounding the city were involved.

The recruits came mainly from the urban, industrial slaves of Charleston casts great doubt on the assertion by some historians (like Richard Wade, whose findings are criticized more fully in the Afterword) that urban bondsmen and slave hirelings were more content and less rebellious than rural, plantation bondsmen.  Indeed, the evidence suggests that urban slaves were, despite their supposedly greater privileges and higher standard of living, at least as discontented as rural slaves. No wonder whites were mystified and horrified when even their most trusted servants and apparently contented bondsmen were implicated in the plot.

In contrast to the manual-laborer participants stood the rebel leadership, which consisted mainly of skilled slave artisans and religious leaders.  Vesey himself was a free black carpenter, and his lieutenants were all slave craftsmen and preachers.  Peter Poyas was a “first-rate” ship carpenter, Mingo Harth was a “mechanic,” Tom Russell was a blacksmith, and Monday Gell was a harnessmaker who hired out of his own labor and kept a workshop in the center of the city.  

Gullah Jack was a “conjurer” who kept alive African religious traditions, while other leaders were deacons in the black church.  Undoubtedly these slaves had through their work gained a great sense of independence and more education than most common laborers.  And artisans and preachers could articulate shared grievances more easily than most workers whose rage at oppression revealed itself mainly through action.

The African background of many of the participants and leaders forms another significant feature of the Vesey Plot.  Since the overseas slave trade remained legal until 1808 and there was a great deal of illicit importing thereafter, many South Carolina slaves had been born in Africa or could easily trace their heritage to their former homeland.  It is thus probable that many of the participants were either native-born Africans or only first-generation Americans.  

Moreover, several of the leaders, including Monday Gell, and Ebo, Gullah Jack, an Angolan, and Mingo Harth, a Mandingo, hailed from Africa, while Vesey himself had allegedly been born there.  Certainly, these men had not been as acculturated to South Carolina society as those born in the state.  The memory of their previous cultural identity and national independence was still strong, and they could appeal to other blacks partly on this basis.

The extent of white involvement forms another interesting aspect of the Vesey Plot, for whites were—as in other revolts—suspected of collaboration with blacks. The authorities never proved that whites actually engaged in the planning of the insurrection; but once rumors about the revolt began to spread, some whites apparently encouraged blacks to rebel.  

Eventually, four white men were tried for the misdemeanor of “inciting slaves to insurrection,” a noncapital offense.  Three of these four whites were poor, European immigrants—which suggests the extent of South Carolina’s xenophobia—while the fourth man was not a native of the state.  However, though the blacks were condemned to death or deportation, the whites received only prison terms and fines, revealing further the racist foundations of southern “justice.”  

Thus, William Allen, a Scottish sailor, was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment, a $1,000 fine, and had to give security for his good behavior for five years after his release.  John Igneshias, a Spanish seaman, and Jacob Danders, a German peddler, each received three months in jail, $100 fines, and requirement of security.  Andrew Rhodes, a one-time shopkeeper, was sentenced to six months in prison and a $500 fine.  

The court noted that in Allen’s case the punishment might amount to life imprisonment, since he was too poor to pay the fine or the security; the same was probably true for Rhodes.  Allen was perhaps the most interesting of the four whites, for when he conspired with the blacks, according to the court, they “objected . . . that he [Allen] being a white man, could not be safely trusted by them.”  To this charge, Allen replied that “though he had a white face, he was a negro in heart.”

The surviving evidence also reveals some surprising information about those blacks who informed against conspiracies.  Popular mythology holds that the so-called “house nigger” group usually betrayed revolts; but in this case the informers came from various backgrounds.  True, Peter Devany, the fifty-five-year-old slave of John C. Prioleau, and William, slave of J. and D. Paul, seemed to be trusted domestic servants.  But William Pencil, another informer, was a skilled, free black tinplate worker, and George, belonging to the Wilson family, was a blacksmith and religious leader in the African Church.  

It is also true that one rebel leader warned recruits not to reveal plans “to those waiting men who receive presents of old coats, etc., from their masters, or they’ll betray us.”  But other leaders seemed willing to rely on trustworthy house servants to slit their masters’ throats or to poison the city’s water wells, and even some of Governor Thomas Bennett’s personal servants were involved.  So incendiary did whites regard these individual acts of sabotage by house servants that references to poisoning wells were deleted from the printed records.  In any event, the evidence suggests that a revision of the traditional role assigned to house servant is in order.

The bravery of the conspiracy’s leadership contrasts sharply with the treachery of its traitors.  All of the leaders, with the exception of Monday Gell and Rolla Bennett, who confessed under coercion, met their death with calm and dignity.  Peter Poyas strengthened a fellow prisoner who was being tortured by urging him to “Die like a man.”  Then, Poyas responded to the court’s interrogation with only a “cryptic smile,” and from the gallows stated to other blacks: “Do not open your lips; die silent, as you shall see me do!”  Vesey defended himself ably in court, challenging witnesses and disputing the charges against him, and faced his execution with complete composure.  Before he was captured, Gullah Jack planned to rescue the imprisoned leaders and continue the revolt.

Compared to other insurrections, the Vesey Plot embodied an extraordinarily rich ideology.  Beyond a general antiwhite attitude, Vesey combined the Old Testament’s harsh morality and the story of the Israelites with African religious customs, knowledge of the Haitian Revolution, and readings of antislavery speeches from the Missouri controversy.  

“He was in the habit of reading to me all the passages in the newspapers that related to St. Domingo, and apparently every pamphlet he could lay his hands on that had any connection with slavery,” testified one rebel as to Vesey’s organizational strategy.  “He one day brought me a speech which he told me had been delivered in Congress by a Mr. [Rufus] King on the subject of slavery; he told me this Mr. King was a black man’s friend, that he, Mr. King, had declared . . . that slavery was a great disgrace to the country.”  

While Gullah Jack provided recruits with African religious symbols to guarantee victory, Monday Gell may have written to the Haitians in order to obtain assistance.  It is also possible that Vesey planned, if the need arose, to escape to Haiti or to Africa.  A profound consciousness of the African homeland was certainly revealed when Prince Graham, after his conviction, “at his own request was transported to Africa on board of a vessel which sailed from Charleston.”  Indeed, few other slave revolts, except for the one in Haiti, developed such a high level of political and cultural consciousness.

The hysterical reaction to the conspiracy by virtually all white Charlestonians indicates the pathological dimensions of the “mind of the Old South.”  Officials disagreed over the extent of the plot and the best means of repressing it, but no one at the time doubted that the blacks actually intended to rebel.  The whole white community seemed gripped by fear for over two months, and the panic persisted through the fall legislative session and beyond.  

Even Governor Bennett and his brother-in-law, United States Supreme Court Justice William Johnson, both of whom deplored the panic and criticized the procedures of the authorities, believed that a plot did in fact exist and became somewhat hysterical themselves.  Bennett secretly communicated with Secretary of War John C. Calhoun to request federal reinforcements for local garrisons; Calhoun complied by shifting troops from Savannah and St. Augustine to the Charleston area.  Thus, the military preparations, the numbers of arrests, deportations, and executions, the harsh punishments, and the fears expressed privately by many whites—all indicate the magnitude of the hysteria.

Most of all, slaveowners` feared their “indiscriminate slaughter” and the rape and “prostitution” of white women.  Such fears of sexual “transgressions” were a prominent theme in both private and public utterances, just as they had been in earlier crises.  A Charleston businessman, for example, disclosed that “the females were to be reserved for worse than death,” while a newsweekly reported that a slave of Governor Bennett “was to have had his daughter, a beautiful young lady, as part of his share of the spoils.”  Even young Anna Johnson (whose father was urging public calm) believed that “poor devils were to have been reserved to fill their Harams—horrible—I have a very beautiful cousin,” she added, repeating the rumor about Bennett’s daughter, “who was set apart for the wife or more properly the ‘light of the Haram’ of their Chiefs. . . .”  

Thus one historian’s view that “no conspiracy in fact existed” was not accepted by South Carolinians in 1822.

Politicians manipulated the hysteria (which they had helped create and promote) for their own political purposes.  By the fall of 1822, James Hamilton, Jr., the zealous mayor-prosecutor, was elected to the United States House of Representatives.  Robert Y. Hayne, commander of the troops and attorney general, was chosen United States Senator.  And John L. Wilson, owner of a slave informer, became Governor.  By comparison, Bennett left office in disrepute, and had his report on the conspiracy tabled by a legislature hostile to criticism of the repression of blacks.  Justice Johnson was widely denounced for his dissenting views, and eventually he was hounded from the state because of his opposition to states’ rights.  

In general, the policies of the fanatical racists triumphed over those of the liberal politicians in the suppression of the Vesey Plot.

Given the savagery of the white retaliation against the blacks, serious methodological problems arise in assessing the evidence left from the plot, for all of the surviving sources derive either from terrorized blacks or fearful whites.  The trial testimony came largely from witnesses who desired to escape death or to direct attention away from themselves.  Though two leaders confessed, they did so under extreme duress; the rest of the leadership denied complicity or remained silent.  The original court minutes survive, but the whole trial record was edited by the magistrates before publication.  

In sum, the evidence is inherently biased against the conspirators and must therefore be used with skepticism and caution.

The printed and manuscript trial evidence may be criticized on other grounds.  Discrepancies appear between the manuscript confession by Bacchus Hammet and John Enslow and the printed version; contradictions also appear within the printed record itself.  However, the manuscript confessions were taken when the slaves were in jail, while the printed version stems from similar, but not necessarily identical, testimony given or read in court.  

Moreover, the wealth of detail about the rebels’ plan, the coincidence of names, and the correspondence of places contained in the printed record—all seem derived more from common knowledge by blacks about the plot than from testimony manufactured by the whites.  Also, the rebel leaders had sufficient time to destroy their records and hide their arms, since Peter Poyas and Mingo Harth, after being arrested, were temporarily released, and Vesey and Gullah Jack remained at large for many days.

The means used to extract testimony from the blacks also casts serious doubt on the reliability of the trial evidence.  The authorities did not of course hesitate to use various forms of coercion to gain information from the blacks.  William Paul, for example, was kept in solitary confinement for nine days until he incriminated other slaves.  Other suspects were lodged in separate cells to prevent communication among themselves.  

Peter Poyas was chained in his cell while another black man was being interrogated nearby.  Monday Gell, Charles Drayton, and Harry Haig confessed only after being sentenced to death, but were then promised clemency for cooperation.  The court simply delayed their execution so that they had more time to implicate other rebels and testify against them.  

As a reward, the court commuted their sentences from death to deportation.  Little evidence bears on the extent of torture, but even Governor Bennett admitted publicly that “no means which experience or ingenuity could devise were left unessayed, to eviscerate the plot.”

The trials took place in a small room in the same building where the prisoners were confined.  The public was barred from the courtroom and blacks were not allowed within two blocks of the building.  Troops guarded the prison and court day and night to prevent blacks from freeing the captives and continuing the conspiracy.  The trial procedure was far from equitable: owners and counsel who gave testimony under a pledge of secrecy.  

Thus, four of five witnesses against Rolla Bennett were anonymous, and the fifth was a slaveowner.  The court permitted hearsay evidence without objection, and attorneys often did not bother to cross-examine those witnesses who testified openly.  There was no jury; only a majority of the magistrates was necessary for conviction.  

Bennett and Johnson objected that these procedures were so unfair as to endanger valuable slave property, and the court later admitted that it had departed “in many essential features, from the principles of the common law, and some of the settled rules of evidence.”  However, since blacks were involved, Attorney General Hayne ruled that the procedures were justified.  So the trials continued.

It is clear that the purpose of the trials was not only to ferret out and punish slave conspirators but also to terrorize and pacify the rest of the black community.  “The terror of example we thought would be sufficiently operative by the number of criminals sentenced to death,” explained the magistrates.

Governor Bennett conceded that the death sentences were intended “to produce a salutary terror.”  Altogether, 35 blacks were executed, many in a mass hanging toward the end of July; more than 30 others were deported from the state  Many awaiting deportation were still incarcerated in the workhouse as late as the beginning of 1823; others received public whippings.  

Those sentenced to death were hung publicly before crowds of spectators, and reportedly “their bodies [were] to be delivered to the surgeons for dissection, if requested.”  To complete the “terror of example,” the black community was prevented from dressing in black or wearing black crepe to mourn its dead.

In order to promote “proper” behavior by blacks in the future, the original informers received substantial rewards from the state legislature in the fall of 1822.  The owner of Peter Devany and George Wilson were authorized to emancipate their slaves.  The traitors receive lifetime annuities and exemption from taxation.  The assembly then granted William Pencil, the free black who had counseled Peter to inform, $1,000 outright, while Scott, a free black who had implicated a white man, received a $500 award.  Of course the owners of banished slaves also gained compensation for the loss of their human chattel.  (For further discussion of the plot, see Afterword.)

Despite white retaliation and repression, Denmark Vesey’s slave conspiracy helped politicize the black communities of America.  

Control of South Carolina’s slaves remained a problem for whites down to the Civil War, and the informers were ostracized by Charleston’s blacks.  Black leaders of the North like Henry H. Garnett, William C. Nell, William Wells Brown, Archibald H. Grimke, and a certain “Colored American” kept alive the spirit of the conspiracy throughout the nineteenth century.  

Militant whites like Joshua Coffin, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and John Brown also revered Vesey’s deeds.  And when the fugitive slave Frederick Douglass recruited troops for the Union Armies during the Civil War, he called upon black Americans to “remember Denmark Vesey.”  

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Recapitulation of Sentences

Number of Blacks found guilty and executed

55

Number of Blacks found guilty and sentenced to death, but pardoned upon the 
condition that they be transported out of the limits of the United States

12

Number of Blacks found guilty and  sentenced to be transported beyond the limits of 
the United States by their owners, under the direction of the City Council

19

Number of Blacks found guilty and sentenced to be transported out of the state of 
South Carolina

1

Number of Blacks found not guilty, but suggested to owners to transport beyond the 
limits of the United States

11

Number of Blacks found not guilty and discharged..

15

Number of Blacks arrested, not tried, and discharged

38

Number of Whites convicted and imprisoned

4

Whole Number Arrested

135

Source: Robert S. Starobin, editor. Denmark Vesey: The Slave Conspiracy of 1822. Englwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970

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Nathaniel Turner, the Bible, & the Sword

A  Reconsideration of the 1831 “Confessions”

 By Rudolph Lewis

Biblical Scholars, Theologians & Other Commentators

on Nathaniel Turner of Southampton

Compiled by Rudolph Lewis

 

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 9 October 2007

 

 

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