Denmark Vesey was a free black carpenter who led a conspiracy of about 9,000 slaves in Charleston, South Carolina, in the summer of 1822. The goal of this conspiracy was to seize the federal arsenal, set fire to the city, slaughter as many of the white inhabitants as possible, and then seize ships and flee to Haiti.
Vesey had been a slave, but had purchased his freedom after he won $1,500 in a lottery in Charleston in 1800. He was intelligent, fluent in several languages, and possessed leadership skills that he demonstrated in the planning of his conspiracy.
He informed only a small number of trusted lieutenants, usually skilled slaves and members of the African Church, of the details of the plot, keeping the rank and file ignorant of such information.
He recruited few domestic slaves because he feared they would betray the plot to their masters. His main coconspirators were “Gullah Jack” Pritchard, Ned and Rolla Bennett, Monday Gell, Bacchus Hammett, Mingo Harth, and Peter Poyas.
Ned and Rolla Bennett were slaves of the South Carolina governor, Thomas Bennett, who lived three blocks from Denmark Vesey. Gell was a harness maker, and Poyas was a shipwright. “Gullah Jack” was an Angolan priest and carpenter as well as an effective recruiter of slaves for the conspiracy.
Gell, Harth, and Poyas also played integral roles in spreading word about the uprising and recruiting slaves for the cause. Vesey instructed his lieutenants to keep separate lists of volunteers so that if one of them was arrested, that conspirator would be unable to provide the names of the other volunteers to the white authorities.
In the wake of an arrest, the other conspirators would then be able to destroy their lists and protect themselves and their volunteers. Vesey maintained a tight-knit conspiracy through this control of information and threats of reprisals against those who informed white authorities of the plot.
The attack on Charleston was to occur on 14 July, the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille in the opening days of the French Revolution. It was also a time when many of Charleston’s white citizens would be out of town, escaping the summer heat, and thus reducing the strength of the militia the conspirators would have to face.
That date happened to fall on a Sunday, which was a day when many slaves came to the city to visit the markets. A large number of black slaves would thus not raise apprehensions among the city’s whites. The attack was to begin at midnight.
Rolla Bennett was to murder the governor and mayor, while house servants were to murder their masters. “Gullah Jack” was to lead a company of Angolan slaves, Poyas was to seize the arsenal and its weapons, and slaves from the countryside were to enter Charleston.
For those slaves who entered Charleston that night, Vesey made arrangements to procure some weapons, such as swords and pikes, for their use. For the conspirators who had to overwhelm white defenders near key installations such as the arsenal, Vesey contracted with a white barber to provide these men with white wigs and whiskers as disguises.
The Conspiracy Unravels
The conspiracy came undone on 22 May, when William Paul, one of Vesey’s recruiters, tried to convince Peter Prioleau, the mulatto cook for Colonel John Prioleau, to join the plot. Peter rebuffed Paul and then informed his friend, William Penceel, another mulatto, of the plot. On 30 May, Peter told his master of the plot and of Paul’s attempt to get him to join.
Prioleau told the mayor, James Hamilton, of the plot, and the mayor then convened the city council. Paul had already been arrested and gave the authorities the names of Harth and Poyas. Both men were arrested but laughed off the suggestions of a plot.
Paul implicated Ned Bennett, who personally went to the mayor to defend himself from the charges. Bennett then told Vesey of the developments and Vesey decided to move the date of the uprising to 16 June. Thus far, the white authorities remained unsure if a conspiracy actually existed. That uncertainty soon evaporated.
On 9 June, Rolla Bennett told George Wilson, a mulatto blacksmith and a fellow parishioner of the African Church, of the plot and asked him to join. Wilson refused to join and told his master, Major John Wilson, of the plot on 14 June.
Wilson told Hamilton, who now felt his suspicions were confirmed because two slaves had implicated the same conspirators, slaves who belonged to the governor. Governor Bennett ordered the arrest of almost a dozen slaves, including Harth, Poyas, and Rolla and Ned Bennett.
The Charleston authorities instructed the militia to patrol the city and asked for, and received, additional military support from the federal government. The planned uprising on 16 June never occurred because Vesey’s remaining coconspirators could not leave the city and coordinate their efforts with slaves in the countryside.
The heightened state of alert of the local militia, and the military resources of the federal government, doomed the chances for the conspiracy. Charleston authorities arrested the remaining fugitives, Vesey on 22 June, Gell on 27 June, and Pritchard on 5 July.
Trials of the accused began in the Workhouse, where the prisoners were held, and a committee of local leading white men oversaw the judicial process. In all, 101 men were put on trial and 35 were hanged, including Vesey, Poyas, Ned and Rolla Bennett, Harth, and Pritchard.