On July 2, 1822 Denmark Vesey was found guilty of organizing a comprehensive plot to overthrow slavery in the city of Charleston, SC. Various accounts suggest anywhere from 1 – 9 thousand slaves were in collusion to carry out the action. Concerned slaves informed authorities of Vesey’s plot, precluding the July 14th scheduled insurrection set to honor Bastille Day and the French Revolution of 1789. Vesey was hanged, as were 36 of his named co-conspirators. In total, 131 men were arrested, the courts convicted 67 men of conspiracy, a total of 31 men were exiled to Cuba, 27 reviewed and acquitted, and 38 questioned and released.
There are many iterations of Denmark Vesey; he has been named one of the founding fathers of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, lottery winner, free man, carpenter, husband, abolitionist and conspirator. Some researchers suggest there was never a revolt planned among the slaves of Charleston, SC and the entire story was political theatre staged by a disgruntled Mayoral candidate to establish a standard of public safety as his political platform. Denmark Vesey’s life story, as it has been pieced together by court and legal documents, is an extraordinary narrative of sedition and radical advancement of the condition of Blacks in America.
How does a 14 year old free boy from St. Thomas, VI become a slave ship “pet”, personal assistant, seafarer, master carpenter, minister and social activist in the Antebellum era of South Carolina? What manner of wit and intelligence might one need to be possessed with in order to overcome the utterly dehumanizing institution of slavery, and ultimately give his life to provide the same liberation for his family and his people? When we read the stories of our ancestors as told by their captors, cultural translation often looses the sense of person-hood required to make tales of slave revolts and Underground Railroad routes as subjective as our respect requires of us as descendants of these icons. Perhaps the only thing more provocative than the egregiously violent end to Vesey’s life, are the exploits of its adventurous beginnings as a world traveler.
“It is difficult to imagine, what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary. You were a free man, comely, wealthy, and enjoyed every comfort compatible with your situation. You had, therefore, much to risk and little to gain.”
– Judge on Sentencing, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, The Atlantic, 1861
Once upon a slave ship in 1781, three hundred and ninety captured men and women were transported from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands to Cape François, then capitol of the French Colony of Sainte-Dominique, under the command of Captain Joseph Vesey. Among them was a fourteen-year-old boy who is said to have endeared the captain and crew to him by virtue of his striking beauty and intelligence. The boy was brought on board the ship separate from chattel cargo as the cabin pet. He was outfitted in new clothes for the voyage and named Telemaque, meaning, “fighting from afar,” after a central protagonist of Homer’s epic, Odyssey. After a brief period of time as Captain Vesey’s crew pet, the Captain sold Telemaque to the brutal slave trade of Sainte Dominique where it is reported that the boy would frequently suffer epileptic fits and was deemed ‘unsound’ for any valuable labor. When Capt. Vesey returned to Sainte Dominique, he was required to reclaim Telemaque and issue a full refund to his purchaser. Once returned to Captain Vesey’s custody, Telemaque served him dutifully for twenty years without ever suffering another “episode.”
Telemaque’s name was gradually degraded by abbreviation and translation to Telmak and eventually, Denmark. He spoke Spanish, French and English fluently, served in the slave trade and traveled trans continental and Caribbean routes with his owner until Captain Vesey settled in Charleston with his wife in 1796.
On November 9, 1799 Denmark won $1,500 in the city lottery. According to the current U.S. inflation rate of 1.36%, Denmark’s award equates to just over $28,000 in 2017. This striking, beautiful, 14-year-old island boy, turned slave, turned seaman, turned translator, turned craftsman, turned brilliantly handsome grown man, had the benefit of such good fortune as to win the lottery in the prime of his life. He purchased his freedom from Captain Vesey for $600. He took the surname of his longtime owner, and chose to keep Denmark as his first name in honor of his home country of St. Thomas, which was at the time, under Danish rule. Denmark Vesey took great effort toward establishing himself as a legitimate business owner and citizen despite oppressive laws that consistently hindered his progress. He opened his own carpentry shop and married his first wife, an enslaved woman named Beck. Denmark wanted desperately to buy Beck’s freedom but her master would not allow it. Laws stated that children born to slave women were also slaves. So would be all of Denmark’s children.
“Among those of his color he was looked up to with awe and respect. His temper was impetuous and domineering in the extreme, qualifying him for the despotic rule of which he was ambitious.”
– Thomas Wentworth Higginson 1861
Freedom is not free. Denmark Vesey was a highly respected and well-regarded man among his community and used his privilege and what power he had to serve his people. Instead of being content with his wealth and status, as many white and black people would have preferred, Denmark Vesey became much of an agitator and activist promoting the abolition of slavery and the empowerment of his people. This type of behavior is considered provocative even in 2017, so in 1818 when Denmark Vesey rebuffed the order of white authorities to close the ‘Bethel Circuit’ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME Church) in Charleston for violating slave code rules by growing the population to over 1,800 parishioners; Denmark Vesey made enemies. Authorities closed the church again in 1821 under suspicion that Vesey’s bible study was actually a “slave school” which was strictly prohibited by slave code. Vesey used the Bible to promote hope and liberation by drawing parallels between the plights of the slave with those of the Israelites.
Denmark Vesey was forthright and honorable with high expectations for his people and the quality of life he felt they deserve. Instead of leaving the United States and seeking asylum in Liberia, he chose to stay and educate the masses to see what could be done for the condition of his children who were confined to slavery. Denmark Vesey was a missionary for the cause of liberating his people and breaking the yoke of chattel slavery. He established commerce and supported community activism and education. He traveled the world and spoke several languages at a time where literacy of any kind was punishable by death. He did not succeed in his efforts to overthrow the city of Charleston, were that his intention, but the life of Denmark Vesey is a much more compelling tale than the story of his execution. Slaves were routinely brutalized, hanged, raped and murdered for any imaginable offense. The value of life of enslaved people was strictly fiduciary. Being hanged in a public execution as punishment from a hostile and oppressive state is one of the most disappointing tropes of slavery, but it is not uncommon. Denmark lived a life that contradicts stereotypical struggle. He lived a life that teaches by example, exactly how to rebel. His death, a short answer to the question, “Why not?”