Black History Month: Denmark Vesey

Denmark Vesey

(c. 1767 – July 2, 1822)

3rd - Denmark Vessy


[su_note note_color=”#40cd11″ radius=”5″]Noteworthy Accomplishments & Historical Facts

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  • Planned what would have been the largest slave revolt in US history
  • Successfully purchased his freedom


They Called Him Telemaque 

There are no official records for Denmark which shows his place of origin. However, there have been speculation that he was either from St. Thomas or Africa. Denmark’s story as we know it starts when he was 14 years old.

Captain Joseph Vesey, an old resident of Charleston, SC, commanded a Slave ship that traveled between St. Thomas and Cape Francis (San Domingo). He was engaged in supplying the French of that island with slaves. In 1781, in St. Thomas, Captain Vesey took aboard 390 slaves and sailed for Cape Francis. During the voyage, Vesey and his officers were struck with the beauty and intelligence of young Denmark, “whom they made a pet of” (Vesey, Denmark Trials and Litigation via LOC). They took him to the cabin, cleaned him up, and began calling him Telemaque. It was the other slaves who began calling him Denmark, and in some cases Telemak.

Even though Captain Vesey adored Denmark, he no longer had any use for him and sold him along with the other slaves before returning to St. Thomas. However, when Captain Vesey returned to the Cape three months later, he was forced to buy back Denmark from the man he sold him to. The man claimed he was unsound goods because of the repeated epileptic fits he had.

Denmark wasn’t suited for hard labor because of his fits, so instead Captain Vesey made Denmark his personal servant.  However, it must be noted that he never had a “fit” again after leaving the plantation. During the next two years, Denmark worked as an interpreter to assist the Captain on his voyages to acquire slaves. This position afforded him some authority and protection. However, he could not turn a blind eye to how slave trade worked, and saw the many horrors of the slave trade business. In 1783, the Captain decided to give up his slaving voyages and settle in Charleston, SC, where Denmark served as his slave for the next 17 years.

Winning the Lottery Set Him Free

As a personal slave, Denmark lived a relatively comfortable life, compared to those working on plantations. He had a certain amount of freedom which allowed him to come and go as he pleased. Nevertheless, he was still a slave, who was subjected to the whims of his master. In 1800, when he won a $1500 lottery in the East-Bay-Street-Lottery, his first thought was to buy his freedom – which he successfully did for $600. The rest of his winnings he used to set up a carpentry shop.

The Plan to Liberate the Oppressed

Denmark did quite well as a carpenter; he was highly skilled and grew quite wealthy. However, he had some children who were still slaves, according to witness testimony from the court documents. He despised the fact that they were slaves and wanted badly to free them. He got word of the Haitian Slave Revolt and that ignited a fire within him. This revolution inspired him to gather slaves and freedmen to start their own revolution. He figured if they could be triumphant, why could the slaves of the south not do the same!

3rd - Denmark Vessy gathering slaves


“In 1816, free blacks from five states met in Philadelphia and formed the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1818, Charleston’s first A.M.E. Church was built, co-founded by Mr. Vesey, and in June of that year, it was temporarily shut down by white authorities. 140 freemen and slaves were arrested for violating city ordinances by worshipping after sunset. It was shut down again in 1821, and the City Council warned Rev. Morris Brown against allowing classes at the church to become “schools for slaves.” Mr. Vesey’s intense anger at these closings is also thought to have fueled his desire for the insurrection” (Bernews).

Prior to the first closure in 1818 and thereafter, Vesey urged his congregation to break free from slavery, and he quoted verses from the Bible to give them encouragement. He spoke to workers in the plantations and on street corners, reading aloud from antislavery pamphlets written by whites. He even argued with whites who supported slavery — an activity that always drew an admiring and awestruck black audience.

The Plan to Liberate the Oppressed

After the closure in 1821, Vesey and members of the church grew more upset. He began to travel all over to spread word of his plan to liberate the oppressed. The Blacks in Charleston started to view him as a savior, especially because Vesey was taking a great risk because he had already gained his freedom. However, it is noted that during the slave voyages he was on with the Captain, he always felt like the Black slave traders should have been stopping the trade instead of furthering the slave trade business. By 1822, he had concocted a complete plan, and even appointed four leaders to aid him in the recruitment of slaves and other Blacks. The planned revolution was to take place on Sunday, July 14th. Vesey chose this day because the plantation hands could come to town on a Sunday without arousing suspicion.

The Leak That Stop the Rebellion

According to court documents, the plan revolt may have taken place if it weren’t for an unauthorized individual whom tried to recruit a slave to join in the cause. This man was not authorized by Vesey or any of the other leaders. The slave who was approached was against the cause and said he wanted no parts of it. Feeling burdened with the information he consulted a friend (a free Black man), and his friend advised him to tell his master immediately – which he did.

At first, his master and the authorities were not sure whether or not they should believe him. However, when the word spread about the potential Slave revolt, the white population was fearful and sought every measure to protect themselves. “In the 1820s, South Carolina was the only state with a black majority. In Charleston — at the time the third biggest American city — slaves outnumbered whites by more than 3 to 1. In the 1800 US census, Charleston reported a population of 18,768 whites and 63, 615 blacks” (Bernews).

Denmark ended up being called to trial along with the other people involved. In all, 131 people were arrested, 67 convicted, and 35 executed. On July 2, Denmark Vesey and six others were hung at dawn. Twenty-eight additional hangings followed, some botched, which necessitated the shooting of the condemned.

Inspiration for Other Abolitionists

If this slave revolt would have happened, it would have been the largest slave revolt in US History, with approximately 9,000 willing participants. Denmark’s attempted Slave rebellion made him a symbol in the struggle for freedom, and an inspiration for later slave revolts, including one led by White abolitionist, John Brown.

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Vesey, Denmark,–ca. 1767-1822–Trials, litigation, etc. (via Library of Congress)


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