Cover image for Denmark Vesey
Denmark Vesey
Robertson, David, 1947 August 11-
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Physical Description:
x, 202 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F279.C49 N473 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
F279.C49 N473 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
F279.C49 N473 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ
F279.C49 N473 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Biography

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On July 2, 1822, Denmark Vesey and five co-conspirators were hanged in a desolate marsh outside of Charleston, South Carolina. They had been betrayed by black informers during their attempt to set in motion the largest slave rebellion in the history of the United States--an effort astonishing in its level of organization and support. Nine thousand armed slaves and free blacks were to converge on Charleston, set the city aflame, seize the government arsenal, and then murder the entire white population of the city, sparing only the ship captains who would carry Vesey and his followers to Haiti or Africa. The attempted revolt was a significant episode in American history, yet it, and its leader, have been all but forgotten. In this balanced and gracefully written biography of Vesey--the first in many decades--David Robertson gives us a profile of this extraordinary man. He shows how, by preaching a doctrine of negritude combined with various religious elements, Vesey was able to attract large numbers of blacks to a messianic crusade for freedom. Robertson details the aftermath of the failed revolt, analyzes its social and political consequences, and articulates the essential, disturbing questions it poses to a racially and ethnically pluralistic society today.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

"No one thought to describe his face." Unlike Nat Turner, Marcus Garvey, or Malcolm X, most people do not know the name Denmark Vesey. Briefly, he was a revolutionary. Further, he was a black freeman of Charleston, South Carolina, who, in 1822, organized "the most elaborate and well planned slave insurrection in the history of the United States." And like Che Guevara, his captors hid his body and attempted to erase his identity from the records. They were partially successful. John Hope Franklin has written of Vesey, as have Eugene Genovese and a few others. But this book is truly something new. Robertson, author of Booth: A Novel (1998), is a dogged seeker of truth with a fertile imagination whose works stake a claim on the way one views aspects of life more often than not. He disinters the secret of those who needed to bury Vesey's outrage and thereby deflect the light from their outrageous treatment of people they made slaves. Robertson, for the sake of history and the sake of truth, must confront that human need to cover evil in order to maintain and enjoy privilege. It's what real writers are for. --Bonnie Smothers

Publisher's Weekly Review

Much is already known about Denmark Vesey, who purchased his freedom from slavery in 1800 with money he won in a lottery. Yet his apparently sudden transformation from successful free black carpenter and property owner to the organizer of "the most elaborate and well-planned slave insurrection in U.S. history," in 1822, still fuels lingering curiosity. Evoking the atmosphere of material wealth enjoyed by antebellum South Carolina whites, Robertson reveals their fear at being surrounded by a black slave population whose labor made their comfort possible but who outnumbered them four to one. Drawing on the correspondence and memoirs of whites and their descendantsÄbut not of blacksÄRobertson addresses his central question: "Why were individual freedom and prosperity not enough for Denmark Vesey?" The author's answer, which links Vesey's dissatisfaction (and that of the thousands of slaves who were reputedly ready to join him in arms) to the spiritual autonomy he achieved through the African Methodist Episcopal Church, is persuasive. Furthermore, Robertson identifies Vesey as a spiritual and political leader whose views were a precursor to modern Black Theology. Based on the word of a slave informant, Vesey and more than 20 slaves were hanged as insurrectionists in the summer of 1822, despite little physical evidence. Robertson's well-researched narrative and smooth style make this an intellilgent analysis of, as well as a worthy tribute to, his subject. Photos not seen by PW. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Robertson recounts a remarkable but little-known event in U.S. history: Denmark Vesey's plan to lead a slave revolt that would end in the slaughter of Charleston's white population and carry thousands of slaves to freedom in Haiti or Africa. Vesey and five coconspirators were ultimately hanged. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Robertson's brief work offers a stylish overview of Denmark Vesey and his slave conspiracy of 1822. The author deftly sketches South Carolina's development as a slave society, as he does Vesey's life in slavery and freedom, with due emphasis on the role of Charleston's African Church. Robertson competently chronicles the plot to kill Charleston's whites, its discovery, and Vesey's trial and execution, though with little depth regarding other conspirators. Closing chapters speculate about Vesey' s significance in history. Robertson imaginatively evokes Vesey as a protean figure, mixing cultural traditions and metaphors to recruit both African-born and creolized slaves to his plot. Forays at contextualizing the revolt are less successful. Only scanty evidence is offered to support assertions that slave rebellions were more likely to occur when cotton prices were fluctuating downwards. Robertson cites recent scholarship to show that many slaves may have practiced Islam, but he overstates the case for Vesey's connection to Islam. The author's penchant for claiming too much about intriguing but uncertain historical connections will irritate academic readers. Nevertheless, Robertson has written an engaging and provocative account of Vesey that deserves a wide general readership. T. S. Whitman; Mount St. Mary's College and Seminary



From Chapter One A black slave stepped upon the ground that would later be the district of Charleston. In early April 1670, the 220-ton frigate Carolina, six months out from the island of Barbados, entered the waters forming what is now Charleston Harbor. The ship sailed up a shallow river to a point overlooked by a heavily wooded bluff, and there about twenty white Barbadians disembarked as part of the first permanent English-speaking settlement in South Carolina. Although no one recorded the name, the Barbadians had brought with them a black slave to work the new colony.         Slavery thus was present from the beginning in South Carolina, uniquely among the North American colonies, where in all other cases it was introduced only after their founding. And for the next two centuries, South Carolina would maintain its preeminence. From the arrival of the white men from Barbados in the seventeenth century to the U.S. prohibition of slave importation in 1807, over one-fourth of all African slaves brought and sold into the United States--at least 132,918 people--entered through Charleston or one of South Carolina's lesser ports. Hence, among the current African-American population of the United States in the late twentieth century, roughly one in four has an ancestor who was sold as a slave at Charleston.         There is no reason to think these figures would have displeased the men from Barbados as the Carolina found slippage between the trees at the riverbank. They had come to South Carolina intending to grow rich on a slave economy, just as had their fathers on the small island they had left.         Barbados, a piece of "sixpence throwne down" upon a sailor's map of the eastern Caribbean, as one contemporary chronicler described it, was at the time of the Carolina settlement the most densely populated, the richest, and the most lethal of the English colonies in the New World. Established less than fifty years before the Carolina expedition, Barbados also was the first English colony to introduce the gang-labor system of black slavery into the New World. Rather than encouraging the immigration of a free peasantry, the early settlers chose to import African slaves to work the sugar fields which they were clearing on this once rain-forested Caribbean island. Barbadians, as this first generation of Englishmen called themselves, became known throughout the Caribbean as hard masters. They imposed their will upon their new African laborers by frequent floggings, brandings, and mutilations; and by thus coercing large gangs of slaves to repeat monotonously the same task for ten or eleven hours--slashing the sugarcane with curved knives, grinding the canes between heavy stones, then boiling out the dark molasses to produce crystallized white sugar--the Barbadians became rich.         By mid-century, Barbados was contributing nearly half of the refined sugar sent to the European market, and it had become the first English settlement to have formed a plantation ruling class. Within two generations, this island with a population in 1660 of forty thousand blacks and whites had produced a planter elite of about sixty-two families who controlled local politics, held the most arable land, and owned the most slaves. Practically all the European visitors to the island in the seventeenth century remarked upon the display of wealth and extravagant consumption of the Barbadian elite--behavior to be repeated, as several scholars of the South have noted, by their South Carolina descendants into the lifetime of Denmark Vesey. There was to be in common between these two ruling classes in the Caribbean and in South Carolina that same show of finery, sometimes even to the point of ostentatiousness, evident in both their choice of clothing and their lavishly furnished country estates; there was to be that same easy munificence among the ruling males in bestowing honorary militia titles upon one another, such as "Captain" or "Major." And there also was to be transported to Carolina that same unhesitating brutality, and an absolute conviction that slavery represented the most profitable economic system yet known to Western man.         The slave-generated wealth of Barbados came at an appalling cost in African lives. Throughout the seventeenth century, the island had one of the highest mortality rates for blacks in the Western Hemisphere, and, whether from disease, malnutrition, or torture, more died annually than were imported to work the great sugar plantations. Unlike their English contemporaries in Massachusetts, Barbadians seldom looked inward to their consciences, and so long as the supply of African slaves seemed illimitable, their economy appeared untroubled. What concerned the masters was the lack of arable land on which to expand their slave economy. Barbados is only 21 miles long and 14 miles wide, and with practically all of it under cultivation and concentrated within a few families, economic advancement, particularly for younger men, was limited. Accordingly, a group declaring themselves the Corporation of Barbados Adventurers wrote to England on August 12, 1663, offering to establish a colony in the unsettled lands south of Virginia, an area that had become known as "Carolina in ye West Indies."         The Barbadians promised the eight royal proprietors to expect not only "the aptness of the people here" for establishing a new plantation economy in North America but also a "number of there negroes and other servants fitt for such labor." For six years, the proprietors and the Adventurers negotiated their terms, but ultimately the Barbadian proposal financially enticed the English proprietors. A mainland colony could be supplied and populated much more cheaply from the existing plantations at Barbados than from Europe; accordingly, the proprietors ceded to the Corporation of Barbados Adventurers the exclusive right to settle Carolina with grants of 150 acres to each Adventurer, with an additional 150 acres granted him for each servant transported. The philosopher John Locke, secretary to one of the proprietors, devised an elaborate constitution for the new colonists, a copy of which the Barbadian Adventurers carried with them. Among other stipulations, it promised religious freedom to all residents of the colony, whether black or white. In late 1669, three ships carrying colonists sailed from Barbados, of which only one, the Carolina, bearing its black slave with an unrecorded name, succeeded in reaching the new colony on the South Atlantic coast. Excerpted from Denmark Vesey: The Buried History of America's Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It by David Robertson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.