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In 1822, a conspiracy among African-Americans to rise up and destroy Charleston, South Carolina and its environs was exposed. News of the plot crystallized the slave-owners' paranoia concerning the oppressed majority around them, and was extensively publicized in support of increased demands for repression of the South's black populations, including restrictions on literacy and assembly, as well as trade and travel by free blacks.

The leader of the conspiracy, a charismatic free black tradesman known as Denmark Vesey, was hanged, along with 34 co-conspirators, in July 1822.

The Spectre of 'San Domingo'

Slaves in the Caribbean had been engaged in revolt since the 1750's, when bands of runaway slaves gathered in the mountains in Saint-Domingue, the French colony on the island of Hispanola, now known as Haiti, and practiced guerilla warfare. During one six year period, between 1751-1757, over 6000 people were killed in raids led by one François Macandal, reputed to be a voodoo sorceror. The French captured Macandal and burned him at the stake in 1758.

Then in 1791, a voodoo-inspired slave rebellion resulted in the slaughter of thousands. The rebel slaves killed all the white people they encountered, and sacked, looted and burned plantations. The rebellion was eventually quashed in a bloody battle at Cap Français, but set in motion a series events which led to the establishment of a black republic led by François-Dominique Toussaint L'Ouverture. L'Ouverture was captured during a brief interval in which Napolean Bonaparte was not distracted by European wars, and the French sought to re-establish control over their most lucrative colony in the New World, this period did not last long. France ceded its North American claims to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines and his followers were able to establish the independent Republic of Haiti in 1804.

In the southern United States in the 1820's, however, the independent state of Haiti was of little concern. What dominated the imagination of southern plantation owners were the tales of planatations burning for months at a time, and bands of murderous blacks, following the standard of the body of a white baby impaled on a pike.

Denmark Vesey's life

In 1781, teenage Denmark Vesey got the attention of a slaver known as Captain Vesey, operating between the Danish slave-trading post on St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands, and the French colony of Saint-Domingue. J. Hamilton, "Intendant" (Mayor) of Charleston, South Carolina, writing in the months after the discovery of Vesey's conspiracy, put it this way:

[Captain Vesey] and his officers were struck with the beauty, alertness and intelligence of a boy about 14 years of age, whom they made a pet of, by taking him into the cabin, changing his apparel, and calling him by way of distinction Telemaque, (which appellation has since, by gradual corruption, among the negroes, been changed to Denmark, or sometimes Tebaak.)

At Cape Francis, Captain Vesey sold the boy, but he took ill and appeared to suffer from epileptic fits, and was returned to the slaver as damaged goods. Denmark served Captain Vesey in Charleston for twenty years, until in 1800, he won a lottery prize in the princely sum of $1,500, and purchased his freedom from Captain Vesey for $600 (much less than his real value). He then worked as a carpenter and became involved in the African Methodist Episcopal ("AME") church.

Seeds of the Rebellion

Initially tolerated as a way to civilize the black population, the African Methodist Episcopal Church became a target for repression when it was used to organize to improve the lives of its members, including, for example, raising money to purchase the freedom of slaves. In December 1817 and again in June 1818, Charleston authorities sent police to the AME Church to harass and arrest worshippers for creating a "nuisance". (Any gathering of blacks not supervised by a white man was deemed a "nuisance" as a matter of law).

Repression of the AME Church combined with other factors to lead its members to a plan of violent and bloody insurrection. There was, first of all, the example of "San Domingo" (Haiti). Second, violent reaction had some chance of success because blacks outnumbered whites in Charleston. The sixth largest American city in 1820, Charleston had 12,652 slaves and 1,475 free blacks, compared to 11,654 whites. Third, northern abolitionist sentiment (the Missouri Compromise was enacted in 1820) gave the rebels some hope that in the long run they might receive assistance from the Northern States.

At the time of the arrest in 1818, the AME Church had five thousand members, both slave and free blacks.

Denmark Vesey, who could read, became a "class leader" for the church, preaching to a small group in his home during the week. While in the white Churches, slaves would hear the words of St. Paul telling slaves to obey their masters, Vesey would read to them from the Book of Exodus the story of the deliverance of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt.

To reach the less-cultivated or unassimilated slaves on the plantations, Vesey enlisted Jack "Gullah Jack" Pritchard, a shaman from Angola or Mozambique (sources vary). Gullah Jack led men in prayer, singing and ritual meals that transformed them from powerless slaves to rebels with a common purpose. He gave them crab claws as amulets to protect them in battle.

Together, they planned an insurrection for July 14, 1822.

The Plot Revealed

Vesey, along with many of his co-conspirators was a free black skilled laborer. While his wages were only a fraction of those received by white carpenters, and he never accumulated enough money to own property, his trade gave him the opportunity to travel and meet with other blacks without raising suspicions. Supplies and weapons were gathered, and detailed plans were laid, involving the seizure of state and federal arsenals, bombing and burning the city of Charleston, and executing its leaders.

The co-conspirators feared that "house" slaves would expose the plot to their masters, and indeed that happened. In May, 1822, George Wilson, also a "class leader" in the AME Church and "a favourite and confidential slave" informed his master of a planned insurrection. Although he was granted his freedom as a reward, Wilson reputedly eventually lost his sanity and committed suicide.

Following a trial in front of a special tribunal, on July 2nd, Denmark Vesey and five other men were hanged. Gullah Jack was executed several days later, with the total number of executions reaching 35 by August 9th. Scores of other blacks were deported.

The AME Church was burned down, and Charleston's blacks, slave and free, were subject to severe restrictions on personal liberties.

Gullah Jack's Sentence

9th July, 1922 -- Jack, a slave belonging to Paul Pritchard, commonly called GULLAH JACK, and sometimes COUTER JACK, was brought up, and sentence pronounced by L.H.KENNEDY, Presiding Magistrate.

JACK PRITCHARD -- The Court, after deliberately considering all the circumstances of you case, are perfectly satisfied of your guilt. In the prosecution of your wicked designs, you were not satisfied with resorting to natural and ordinary means, but endeavored to enlist on your behalf, all the powers of darkness, and employed for that purpose, the most disgusting mummery and superstition. You represented yourself as invulnerable; that you could neither be taken nor destroyed and that all who fought under your banners would be invincible. While such wretched expedients are calculated to inspire the confidence, or to alarm the fears of the ignorant and credulous, they excite no other emotion in the mind of the intelligent and enlightened, but contempt and disgust. Your boasted Charms have not preserved yourself, and of course could not protect others. "Your Altars and your Gods have sunk together in the dust." The airy spectres, conjured by you, have been chased away by the special light of Truth, and you stand exposed, the miserable and deluded victim of offended Justice. Your days are literally numbered. You will shortly be consigned to the cold and silent grave, and all the Posers of Darkness cannot rescue you from your approaching Fate! Let me then conjure you to devote the remnant of your miserable existence, in fleeing from the "wrath to come". This can only be done by a full disclosure of the truth. The Court are willing to afford you all the aid in their power, and to permit any Minister of the Gospel, whom you may select to have free access to you. To him you may unburthen your guilty conscience. Neglect not the opportunity, for there is "no device nor art beyond the tomb," to which you must shortly be consigned.

Quotations are from Slave Insurrections: Selected Documents, reprinted in 1970 by the Negro Universities Press, A Division of Greenwood Press, Inc., Connecticut.

Some primary source material can be found at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3p2976.html