Denmark Vesey was a former slave, carpenter, and insurrection leader. In 1799 he won $1500 in a lottery and paid his master $600 for his freedom. He used the remaining lottery winnings to open a carpentry shop. Vesey proved to be a highly skilled carpenter and his business did very well. He would go on to become a wealthy man and to mastermind what many historians say was the most important slave revolt that never happened.
Denmark’s birthdate and birthplace remain uncertain; however it is said that he was probably born around 1767 in either Africa or St. Thomas. Most of his past before 1781 is unknown.
In 1781, when he was about fourteen, Denmark was purchased by a slave owner named Captain Joseph Vesey. Denmark was one of 390 slaves whom Captain Vesey brought from St. Thomas to Saint-Domingue (now known as Haiti). From there Denmark was sold and put to work in a sugar plantation.
Denmark did not remain working in the sugar plantation for long. After having an epileptic seizure in the field one day, the boy’s master returned him to Captain Vesey, saying Denmark was not “sound goods” because a slave that suffered from epilepsy was no use on a plantation.
Denmark would become the captain’s personal servant for the next two years, sailing with him and his crew on slave-trading voyages between Africa and the West Indies. During this time, Denmark witnessed firsthand the many horrors of the slave trade.
In 1783, Captain Vesey decided to give up his slaving voyages and settled in Charleston, South Carolina. Denmark would remain his slave for the next 17 years until he was able to purchase his freedom with winnings from a lottery.
In 1816, Denmark and other free Blacks established a Black Methodist church separate from the white churches in Charleston. By 1820, the church had over 3,000 members. Within four years of its beginnings, the church was forced to shut down by the whites in the city.
By this time Denmark was a wealthy man, living comfortably with his family on Bull Street. By most comparative standards of the living conditions of Blacks at that time, Denmark was doing well. He had gained his freedom and was making a good living as a carpenter.
But Denmark had seen too much suffering and was determined to free his people from the horrible oppression and cruelty of slavery. In 1822, Denmark and other leaders from the church began secretly plotting a rebellion. Denmark would hold meetings at his home and speak to workers in the plantations and on street corners, reading aloud from anti-slavery pamphlets written by whites.
By the end of May 1822, he and his four lieutenants had recruited a secret army of slaves and free Black men that was said to have numbered nearly 9,000.
Denmark chose Bastille Day, July 14, 1822 as the day of the uprising, figuring the plantation hands could come to town on a Sunday without arousing suspicion. The plan was to take over Charleston by sieging the city’s arsenals and guardhouses, killing the Governor, and setting fire to the city. Meanwhile, a group of horsemen would ride through the town killing whites to prevent them from sounding the alarm. Finally, they would procure ships and sail to Haiti, where slaves had been liberated by a successful revolution led by Toussaint Louverture decades before.
Although Vesey gave specific instructions that none of the household slaves should be included in the rebellion plot, some of them did hear about it and told their masters of the plan.
The authorities immediately were on the high alert. Denmark’s response was to push the date of the uprising forward to mid-June, but after he informed his followers of the new date he was betrayed again and word got back to the whites.
Suddenly, Charleston was full of soldiers patrolling the streets and guards at every bridge. When Denmark realized that nothing could be done, he burned all lists of names and sent his followers home but too many people knew who the leaders were.
During the next few weeks, hundreds were rounded up, including Denmark, who was captured on June 22 after a two-day search.
Denmark and his co-conspirators were brought to trial. Despite being tortured and threatened with execution, the men refused to give up their followers.
Denmark was sentenced and hanged along with about 35 of his co-conspirators for “attempting to raise an insurrection.” Others who had been captured were sold to West Indian plantation owners.
In the aftermath of the discovered rebellion, the African Church was burned down and authorities passed a series of laws further restricting the rights of Charleston slaves.
Like many others who rose against the inhumane system of slavery, Denmark Vesey was killed fighting for his beliefs that all men should be free. Yet his death and the deaths of all who conspired against the system were not in vain. Their sacrifice became a symbol in the struggle for freedom and inspiration for later abolitionists.
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