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1822 - Denmark Vesey Conspiracy

Denmark Vessey was an African American who had bought his freedom and settled in Charleston, South Carolina. He was accused of masterminding an alleged revolt, planned in conjunction with certain slaves, the more important of whom were Gullah Jack, Monday Gell and Peter Poyas. Betrayal by an enslaved African resulted in arrests, trials, deportations, and 35 executions. It resulted in the passing of the Negro Seaman's Act, intended to prevent entrance into Charleston by African American sailors who might stir up unrest among enslaved African Americans.

Denmark Vesey inspired and led the most extensive effort to organize a slave insurrection in US history. This was once a familiar story in textbooks, lecture notes, and monographs. Vesey recruited a set of coconspirators from among the enslaved laborers, domestics, and hired-out slaves in Charleston, South Carolina. Some estimates put the number of participants at as many as 3,000 men. They plotted a bold revolt during the spring of 1822, inciting support by advocating for a biblical exodus and the natural rights of the enslaved.

The bitter and prolonged Congressional debates concerning the admission of Missouri into the Union, in the course of which men like King and Tallmadge expressed opposition to slavery, somehow reached the ears of certain of the slaves involved in the great Vesey conspiracy of 1822 in South Carolina. But it reached their ears in exaggerated form, or, as is more likely, they put into what they heard that which they wished to believe. In this way they became convinced that Congress had not merely heard speeches denunciatory of slavery but had actually passed an act of emancipation, by which their masters refused to abide. Mention of this is made in the official report of the trials of the rebels, and it is also remarked upon by Joel R. Poinsett, who was in Charleston at the time and declared: "The discussion of the Missouri question at Washington, among other evils, produced this plot. It was considered by this unfortunate and half instructed people as one of emancipation."

Preaching a doctrine of negritude combined with various religious elements, Vesey attracted large numbers of blacks to a messianic crusade for freedom.

The slaves invited to join were told that the whites were contemplating a gigantic slaughter of the negroes because they had become too numerous. The plan was for those in the plot to rise suddenly about the first of July, seize the shipping, burn the town, and then sail away. It was planned that nine thousand armed slaves and free blacks were to converge on Charleston, set the city aflame, seize the government arsenal, and then murder the entire white population of the city, sparing only the ship captains who would carry Vesey and his followers to Haiti or Africa. Everything was apparently in readiness for some time.

On 30 May 1822, Peter, a faithful slave who had been asked to join the plot, communicated what he knew to his master. The city authorities were apprised, a court summoned, and information sought. Arrests were made, and, to show the persistence of the leaders, even after some of those involved had been arrested, they either in desperation or without fully calculating the determination of the whites made efforts to bring the plot into execution. But the greater part of them were intimidated.

The special negro court of magistrates and freeholders sat almost continuously for nearly a month. Those first arrested were placed in solitary confinement, and as the trial proceeded confessions came out, some after the prisoners had been sentenced to be hanged. The number arrested was 131, 67 of whom were convicted; the number executed was 35, all slaves except Vesey; the number deported, 32. In is related the trial and conviction of four white men in the session court for complicity in the plot. Their sentences ranged from three to twelve months' imprisonment and upon release they were to be required to give security for good behavior for five years in sums ranging from $100 to $1,000.

On July 2, 1822, Denmark Vesey and five co-conspirators were hanged in a desolate marsh outside of Charleston, South Carolina. They had been betrayed by black informers during their attempt to set in motion the largest slave rebellion in the history of the United States--an effort astonishing in its level of organization and support.

The Vesey plot put everybody to thinking. The fancied security of the whites, if it existed, had a rude awakening. Everybody was anxious that some remedy should be applied, but were perhaps doubtful of what it should be. Citizens of Charleston presented a memorial to the legislature praying the expulsion of free negroes from the state. Indeed, because Vesey was free and because he was not a native of the state great distrust of the free negroes arose, and particularly did the people appear to think that every precaution should be taken to keep any of this class from coming into the state.

Since several strengthenings of the slave law had already been accomplished in the three years just preceding—as a new patrol law and one prohibiting further manumission—the only direction in which further improvements could be effected was in a stricter enforcement of the laws, and passing of the seamen acts.f But the extreme precaution taken against immigrant free persons of color in the seamen act threatened to cause international complications. The Vesey plot checked any tendency toward liberalism which may have been prevalent at this time and made the arguments of the abolitionists which began to be disseminated within the next decade, the less acceptable to the South.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2017 18:03:25 ZULU