in South Carolina 1822
to Denmark Vesey
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
Y. Hayne, commander of the troops and attorney general, was chosen
United States Senator. And John L. Wilson, owner of a slave informer, became
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.
general, the policies of the fanatical racists triumphed over
those of the liberal politicians in the suppression of the Vesey
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
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
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
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.
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
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.”
* * *
|Number of Blacks found guilty and
|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
|Number of Blacks found guilty and
sentenced to be transported beyond the limits
|the United States by their owners, under the
direction of the City Council
|Number of Blacks found guilty and
sentenced to be transported out of the state of
|Number of Blacks found not guilty, but
suggested to owners to transport beyond the
|limits of the United States
|Number of Blacks found not guilty and
|Number of Blacks arrested, not tried,
|Number of Whites convicted and
|Whole Number Arrested
Source: Robert S. Starobin, editor. Denmark
Vesey: The Slave Conspiracy of 1822. Englwood Cliffs, N.J.:
Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1970
* * *
updated 9 October 2007