Denmark Vesey: boiling rage, docile smiles

August 08, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | By M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

"Denmark Vesey: The Buried History of America's Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It,"

by David M. Robertson. Knopf. 193 pages. $23.

Denmark Vesey's name does not resound with the power of Nat Turner, whose slave revolt of 1831 brought fear and bloodshed to Virginia. Nine years earlier, Vesey plotted to destroy Charleston, S.C. Had he succeeded, the city might not be standing today. He wanted to burn the city to the ground, kill every white person he and his followers could find, then set sail for Africa or Haiti.

David Robertson, poet and author, explores Vesey's fascinating story in this excellent, engaging and well-researched volume. It should not be missed by anyone seeking a deeper understanding of that heartbreaking and complex period. Robertson has brought to life a man whose story touches almost every aspect of the black experience in the New Word.

Vesey grew up a slave, bought his freedom after winning a Charleston lottery, then decided he could not live without trying to free the thousands living around him. Hundreds joined his cause. "What news?" a conspirator would ask a possible recruit. And when the potential rebel shrugged, Vesey's follower would say, "We are free."

He left little to document his life. There are no letters, only trial testimony, a narrative of the case and the recollections of others. No one even thought to describe him, or sketch his portrait. His face is a mystery. His deeds are not.

Robertson helps the story along by digging into the world of Charleston. Founded in 1670 by slavers from Barbados, Charleston became a slave city. Its markets fed a planter society that craved "salt water" blacks. By 1820, nearly 60,000 slaves lived in the Charleston area alongside about 20,000 whites.

The result was a brutally repressive society and a form of "domestic theater" in which each race played its part. Whites were benevolent, yet firm parents; blacks were lovable, but needed constant correction and guidance. Whites masked their fear with a genteel air; blacks masked their boiling rage with a docile smile. Gullah Jack, one of Vesey's lieutenants, was a master at playing the role.

Others were equally adept. During the trial, one master, unwilling to believe the testimony of others, asked his slave, "what were your intentions?" The slave replied: "To kill you, rip open your belly, and throw your guts in your face."

Even after the trial, the facts seemed improbable to Charleston's planter elite. At Vesey's sentencing, the presiding judge said: "It is difficult to imagine what infatuation could have prompted you to attempt an enterprise so wild and visionary." The infatuation was with freedom.

All tolled. 131 black men were arrested; 15 were acquitted; 38 were discharged after imprisonment; 43 were sold off to plantations farther south; 35, including Vesey, were hanged. He was almost 60. His betrayer, a mulatto named Peter Prioleau, lived on and enjoyed a life that reveals yet another side of American slavery.

In the end, Robertson rightly leaves the reader to decide how to place Denmark Vesey. Was he a hero and martyr? Was he a demigod bent on slaughter? Robertson is content to give us a story worth reading and remembering.

M. Dion Thompson is a features writer at The Sun. Before, he was assistant bureau chief in the Anne Arundel bureau. He has been writing for newspapers for 12 years. Besides The Sun, he worked at the Miami Herald and before that, the Hartford (Conn.) Courant.

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