Denmark Vesey: an Atlantic perspective.

Author:Flemming, Tracy Keith
Position:P. 36-69

In providing details about a "confession [that] was given on Thursday, the 13th of June ... [that] contained the recital of several occurrences which would precede the attempts and evidence the intention," Bennett noted that even though on the allegedly planned date of the revolt, the early AM hours of June 16, 1822, "Saturday and Sunday morning passed without the predicted demonstration," and the rumors of a revolt were instrumental in "producing a night of sleepless anxiety." It is noteworthy that even Denmark Vesey himself, "a free negro [sic], was arrested on the 21st, and on the 22nd put on his trial. Although he was unquestionably the instigator and chief of this plot, no positive proof of his guilt appeared until the 25th. This grew out of the confession of one of the convicts, [who was] tried on the 27th[, and] his guilt was further established by a servant of Mr. Ferguson." The establishment of a "Committee of Vigilance, not only to elicit the confirmation of ... statements] ... [about other] convicts, but to apprehend a great number of persons engaged in the plot," revealed the extent of the general panic among White Charlestonians. (126) The following information from Bennett's letter is evidence of how confessions were produced in a manner that resembles the ideas of the historian Natalie Zemon Davis that were conveyed in her analysis of how letters of remission in early modern France were produced by penitents who pled to have their criminal offenses absolved via desperate, pained efforts to survive (127), if even by means of "treachery" that played into the hands of Charleston officials' hegemony.

Several of the conspirators had entered into solemn pledges to partake of a common destiny, and one, at least, was found, who, after his arrest, felt no repugnance to enforce the obligation, by surrendering the names of his associates. A spirit of retaliation and revenge produced a similar effect with others, who suspected that they were the victims of treachery; and this principle operated with full effect, as the hope or expectation of pardon predominated. To the last hour of the existence of several, who appeared to be conspicuous actors in this drama, they were pressingly importuned to make further confessions. (128) The Bennett letter that was published in the Evening Post and that was alarming to enslavers' ideology included information about the literacy of one of the conspirators, Monday Gell. Gell was a hired-out enslaved man who, according to Bennett's letter, allegedly used his shop as a site of recruitment and fomentation of revolt. Gell was said to have confessed to writing a letter to Haitian President Jean-Pierre Boyer (who was also a leader in the Haitian Revolution) "requesting his aid, and addressed the envelop of his letter to a relative of the person who became the bearer of it, a negro [sic] from one of the Northern States." White Atlantic anxieties about, and fears of, the flow of revolutionary information through African Atlantic circuits as well as debates about the future of slavery in the United States (i.e., debates surrounding the Missouri Compromise) are revealed in Bennett's letter. Bennett felt that the plot "infected" a nearby "plantation in St. John's ..., but I do not know on what authority." (129)

Indeed, "[w]hether or not the story is true, the important point is that it seemed plausible" to White Atlantic figures, as even those who were skeptical of the veracity of the revolt in the "Atlantic creole enclave" of Charleston were afraid of the proliferation of antislavery sentiments 130; from social, cultural and juridical standpoints, "the debate in the historiography concerning the actual presence of a conspiracy and the veracity of the official sources is immaterial." (131) Bennett's characterization of African Atlantic resistance to slavery as an infectious disease was similar to widespread fears among White Atlantic figures of the prospects of contamination of their human property by agents of resistance to slavery. According to the historian Michael A. Schoeppner,

Denmark Vesey was a foreigner, tainted by his West Indian birth, corrupted by his Atlantic voyages, and polluted by his short stint on prerevolutionary Saint Domingue. When he moved to Charleston, he contaminated South Carolina's slave population with his dreams of a Haitian-style revolution. That was the essence of the narrative that white Charlestonians constructed in the summer of 1822 after local law enforcement officials uncovered what they believed to be the largest slave conspiracy since the Stono Rebellion in 1739. (132) Bennett contradictorily felt that "the scheme has not been general nor alarmingly extensive ... No weapons (if we except 13 hoop poles) have been discovered; nor any testimony received but of six pikes." He mocked the notion "[t]hat the first essay would be made with clubs against the state Arsenal," which could be "inferred from their being unprovided with arms, and the concurrence of several witnesses ... [I]f any plan had been organized it was never communicated by the principal conspirator to the leaders or the men, as they were wholly ignorant even of the places of rendezvous; although within two days of the time appointed." He went on to suggest that enslaved people were incapable of organizing a successful revolt against American slavery due to their race and their condition. But his alleged "reluctance" to write about the issue that caused what he publicly considered to be needless "general anxiety and alarm" revealed the extent of his and other White Atlantic fears of African Atlantic resistance to slavery. In fact, he concluded his circular by encouraging "the citizens ... [to] faithfully perform the duty enjoined on them by the Patrol Laws" so that "we shall continue in the enjoyment of as much tranquility and safety as any state in the Union." But it was not as simple as Bennett hoped. He indicated in the section of his letter that followed the information that he provided to readers about the establishment of a Committee of Vigilance that "seventy-two, have been disposed of, thirty-five executed, and thirty-seven sentenced to banishment." (133) Northern newspapers like the Evening Post and southern newspapers like the Daily Georgian certainly knew the significance of White Atlantic anxieties about slavery and the potential of African Atlantic resistance to American slavery, and detailed speculations about the literacy of Monday Gell and other Atlantic dimensions of the plot would not sit easy with officials in Atlantic enclaves like New York, New York or Savannah, Georgia. (134)

The National Advocate, a newspaper published in New York, New York, circulated an article about the Denmark Vesey conspiracy on August 28, 1822, entitled "Insurrection." The editors acknowledged receipt of "a pamphlet from Charleston of 48 pages," James Hamilton's Negro Plot: An Account of the Late Intended Insurrection among a Portion of the Blacks of the City of Charleston, South Carolina (135), and the newspaper editors felt that this was "a plot, which threatened the most direful consequences to the innocent and unsuspecting whites." (136) Reference was also made to Denmark Vesey's Atlantic origins, as he "was taken by a Captain [Joseph] Vesey, among other slaves, in 1781, and sold at Cape Francois [Saint Domingue]." After noting that "for 20 years Vesey was his faithful, honest slave," the editors described an emancipated Denmark Vesey between 1800 and 1822 as a man who "subsequently worked at the carpenter's trade; [he] was a powerful black, [and he was] bold, despotic and ambitious. He could read and Write with facility, and [he] appears to have been the sole mover and instigator of the plot." The writers of this northern newspaper then suggested the need for Southerners to abolish Black "congregational or class meetings" and expressed their belief that "religious bigotry was a powerful agent of Vesey's in urging the execution of his bloody schemes. It will now be a question for the southern people to decide, whether such assemblages, which may cover dangerous projects, had not better be abolished." According to the New York City-based National Advocate, Blacks "are a much more shrewd and intelligent race of people than is generally imagined." (137)

"The Negro Plot. Copy of a Circular from the Governor of South Carolina. Executive Department, Charleston, Aug. 10, 1822" appeared in the Alexandria Herald, and it was comprehensive except for its exclusion of the valediction in the original that was composed by Bennett, which read: "I have the honor to be, very respectfully, sir, your obedient servant, .... THO. Bennett." (138) On August 29, 1822, the Baltimore Patriot & Mercantile Advertiser published a headline entitled "Account," which was a continuation of its coverage of the "Account of the Negro Plot at Charleston, S.C. published by the authority of the Corporation." The trials of Rolla, Batteau, Peter, Ned ("the property of Gov. Bennett"), Denmark Vesey, Jesse, Monday Gell, Charles Drayton, John Horry, Harry Haig, and Gullah Jack--all of whom were found guilty--were chronicled; in addition, the trials of Stephen, Amherst, Samuel Guifford (one of "two free persons of color"), Robert Hadden (one of "two free persons of color"), Mathias, Mungo, Robert, Richard, John, Jim, Sandy, Friday, and Abraham--"all whom ... [were] found not guilty, and discharged'--were also chronicled in this article. (139) Noteworthy was inclusion of information about Peter's idea of assistance from "San Domingo" as a reality in his eyes and as a recruitment tactic:

He appeared, from the testimony, to have employed uncommon pains to remove all the objections arising in the minds of those whom he attempted to enlist, as to the probability of the success of the effort. And [he] spoke with great confidence of the succors which were expected from San Domingo. (140) Abraham, who "was found not...

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