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Title: Right on the Scaffold, or The Martyrs of 1822 - The American Negro Academy. Occasional Papers No. 7
Author: Grimké, Archibald Henry, 1849-1930
Language: English
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  The American Negro Academy.

  OCCASIONAL PAPERS No 7.


  Right on the Scaffold, or
  The Martyrs of 1822.

  BY MR. ARCHIBALD H. GRIMKE.


  PRICE FIFTEEN CENTS.

  WASHINGTON, D. C.
  Published by the Academy,
  1901.



The Martyrs of 1822.


He was black but comely. Nature gave him a royal body, nobly planned and
proportioned, and noted for its great strength. There was that in his
countenance, which bespoke a mind within to match that body, a mind of
uncommon native intelligence, force of will, and capacity to dominate
others. His manners were at once abrupt and crafty, his temper was
imperious, his passions and impulses were those of a primitive ruler,
and his heart was the heart of a lion. He was often referred to as an
old man, but he was not an old man, when he died on a gallows at
Charleston, S. C., July 2, 1822. No, he was by no means an old man,
whether judged by length of years or strength of body, for he was on
that memorable July day, seventy-eight years ago, not more than
fifty-six years old, although the hair on his head and face was then
probably white. This circumstance and the pre-eminence accorded him by
his race neighbors, might account for the references to him, as to that
of an old man.

All things considered, he was truly an extraordinary man. It is
impossible to say where he was born, or who were his parents. He was,
alas! as far as my knowledge of his personal history goes, a man without
a past. He might have been born of slave parentage in the West Indies,
or of royal ones in Africa, where, in that case, he was kidnapped and
sold subsequently into slavery in America. I had almost said that he was
a man without a name. He is certainly a man without ancestral name. For
the name to which he answered up to the age of fourteen, has been lost
forever. After that time he has been known as Denmark Vesey. Denmark is
a corruption of Telemaque, the praenomen bestowed upon him at that age
by a new master, and Vesey was the cognomen of that master who was
captain of an American vessel, engaged in the African slave trade
between the islands of St. Thomas and Sto. Domingo. It is on board of
Captain Vesey's slave vessel that we catch the earliest glimpse of our
hero. Deeply interesting moment is that, which revealed thus to us the
Negro lad, deeply interesting and tragical for one and the same cause.

This first appearance of him upon the stage of history occurred in the
year which ended virtually the war for American Independence, 1781,
during the passage between St. Thomas and Cap Francais, of Captain
Vesey's slave bark with a cargo of 390 slaves. The lad, Telemaque, was
a part of that sad cargo, undistinguished at the outset of the voyage
from the rest of the human freight. Of the 389 others, we know absolutely
nothing. Not an incident, nor a token, not even a name has floated to us
across the intervening years, from all that multitudinous misery, from
such an unspeakable tragedy, except that the ship reached its destination,
and the slaves were sold. Like boats that pass at sea, that slave vessel
loomed for a lurid instant on the horizon, and was gone forever--all but
Denmark Vesey. How it happened that he did not vanish with the rest of
his ill-fated fellows, will be set down in this paper, which has essayed
to describe the slave plot which he planned, with which his name is
identified, and by which it ought to be, for all time, hallowed in the
memory of every man, woman and child of Negro descent in America.

On that voyage Captain Vesey was strongly attracted by the "beauty,
intelligence, and alertness" of one of the slaves on board. So were the
ship's officers. This particular object of interest, on the part of the
slave-traders, was a black boy of fourteen summers. He was quickly made
a sort of ship's pet and plaything, receiving new garments from his
admirers, and the high sounding name, as I have already mentioned, of
Telemaque, which in slave lingo was subsequently metamorphosed into
Denmark. The lad found himself in sudden favor, and lifted above his
companions in bondage by the brief and idle regard of that ship's
company. Brief and idle, indeed, was the interest which he had aroused
in the breasts of those men, as the sequel showed. But while it lasted
it seemed doubtless very genuine to the boy, as such evidences of human
regard must have afforded him, in his forlorn state, the keenest pleasure.
Bitter, therefore, must have been his disappointment and grief to find,
at the end, that he had, in reality, no hold whatever upon the regard of
the slave traders. True he had been separated by captain and officers
from the other slaves during the voyage, but this ephemeral distinction
was speedily lost upon the arrival of the vessel at Cap Francais, for he
was then sold as a part of the human freight. Ah! he had not been to
those men so much as even a pet cat or dog, for with a pet cat or dog
they would not have so lightly parted, as they had done with him. He had
served their purpose, had killed for them the dull days of a dull sail
between ports, and he a boy with warm blood in his heart, and hot
yearnings for love in his soul.

But the slave youth, so beautiful and attractive, was not to live his
life in the island of Sto. Domingo, or to terminate just then his
relations with the ship and her officers, however much Captain Vesey had
intended to do so. For Fate, by an unexpected circumstance, threw, for
better or for worse, master and slave together again, after they had
apparently parted forever in the slave mart of the Cape. This is how
Fate played the unexpected in the boy's life. According to a local law
for the regulation of the slave trade in that place, the seller of a
slave of unsound health might be compelled by the buyer to take him
back, upon the production of a certificate to that effect from the royal
physician of the port. The purchaser of Telemaque availed himself of
this law to redeliver him to Captain Vesey on his return voyage to Sto.
Domingo. For the royal physician of the town had meanwhile certified
that the lad was subject to epileptic fits. The act of sale was thereupon
cancelled, and the old relations of master and slave between Captain
Vesey and Telemaque, were resumed. Thus, without design, perhaps, however
passionately he might have desired it, the boy found himself again on
board of his old master's slave vessel, where he had been petted and
elevated in favor high above his fellow-slaves. I say _perhaps_
advisedly, for I confess that it is by no means clear to me whether
those epileptic fits were real or whether they were in truth feigned,
and therefore the initial _ruse de guerre_ of that bright young
intelligence in its long battle with slavery.

However, I do not mean to consume space with speculations on this head.
Suffice to say that Telemaque's condition was improved by the event. Nor
had Captain Vesey any cause to quarrel with the fate which returned to
him the beautiful Negro youth. For it is recorded that for twenty years
thereafter he proved a faithful servant to the old slave trader, who
retiring in due course of time from his black business, took up his
abode in Charleston, S. C, where Denmark went to live with him. There in
his new home dame fortune again remembered her protege, turning her
formidable wheel a second time in his favor. It was then that Denmark,
grown to manhood, drew the grand prize of freedom. He was about
thirty-four years old when this immense boon came to him.

It is not known for how many eager and anxious months or even years,
Denmark Vesey had patronized East Bay Street Lottery of Charleston prior
to 1800, when he was rewarded with a prize of $1,500. With $600 of this
money he bought himself of Captain Vesey. He was at last his own master,
in possession of a small capital, and of a good trade, carpentry, which
he practiced with great industry. He was successful, massed in time
considerable wealth, became a solid man of the community in spite of his
color, winning the confidence of the whites, and respect from the blacks
amounting almost to reverence. He married--was much married it was said,
which I see no reason to doubt, in view of the polygamous example set
him by many of the respectabilities of the master-race in that
remarkably pious old slave town. A plurality of children rose up, in
consequence, to him from the plurality of his family ties; rose up to
him, but they were not his, for following the condition of the mothers,
they were, under the Slave-Code, the chattels of other men.

This cruel wrong eat deep into Vesey's mind. Of course it was most
outrageous for him, a black man, to concern himself so much about the
human chattels of white men, albeit those human chattels were his own
children. What had he, a social pariah in Christian America, to do with
such high caste things as a heart and natural affections? But somehow he
did have a heart, and it was in the right place, and natural affections
for his own flesh and blood, like men with a white skin. 'Twas monstrous
in him to be sure, but he could not help it. The slave iron had entered
his soul, and the wound which it made rankled in secret there.

Not alone the sad condition of his own children embittered his lot, but
the sad condition of other black men's children as well. He yearned to
help all to better social conditions--to that freedom which is the gift
of God to mankind. He yearned to possess this God-given boon, in its
fullness and entirety, for himself before he passed thence to the grave.
For he possessed it not. He had indeed bought himself, but he soon learned
that the right to himself which he had purchased from his master was not
the freedom of a man, but the freedom accorded by the Slave-Code, to a
black man, a freedom so restrictive in quantity and mean in quality that
no white man, however low, could be made to live contentedly under it for
a day.

In judging this black man, oh! ye critics and philosophers, judge him
not hastily and harshly before you have at least tried to put yourselves
in his place. You may not even then succeed in doing him justice, for
while he had his faults, and was sorely tempted, he was, nevertheless,
in every inch of him, from the soles of his feet to the crown of his
head, a man.

At the period which we have now reached in his history, he was in
possession of a fairly good education--was able to read and write, and
to speak with fluency the French and English languages. He had traveled
extensively over the world in his master's slave vessel, and had thus
obtained a stock of valuable experiences, and a wide range of knowledge
of men and things of which few inhabitants, whether black or white, in
the slave community of Charleston, during the first quarter of the
nineteenth century could truthfully have boasted. Yet in spite of these
undeniable facts, in spite of his unquestioned ability and economic
efficiency as an industrial factor in that city, he was in legal and
actual ownership of precious little of that right to "life, liberty, and
the pursuit of happiness" which the most ignorant and worthless white
man enjoyed as a birthright. Wherever he moved or wished to move he was
met and surrounded by the most galling and degrading social and civil
conditions and proscriptions. True he held a bill of sale of his person,
had ceased to be the chattel property of an individual, but he still
wore chains, which kept him, and which were intended to keep him and
such as him, slaves of the community forever, deprived of every civil
right which white men, their neighbors, were bound to respect. For
instance, were he wronged in his person or property by any member of the
dominant race, be the offender man, woman, or child, Vesey could have
had no redress in the courts, in case, the proof of his complaint or the
enforcement of his claim depended exclusively upon the testimony of
himself and of that of black witnesses, however respectable.

Such a man, we may be sure, was conscious of the possession,
notwithstanding his black skin and blacker social and civil condition,
of longings, aspirations, which the Slave-Code made it a crime for him
to satisfy. He must have felt the stir of forces and faculties within
him, which, under the heaviest pains and penalties, he was forbidden to
exercise. Thus robbed of freedom, ravished of manhood, what was he to
do? Ay, what ought he to have done under the circumstances? Ought he to
have done what multitudes had done before him, meek and submissive folk,
generations and generations of them, borne tamely like them his chains,
without an effort to break them, and break instead his lion's spirit?
Ought he to have contented himself with such a woeful existence, and to
have been willing at its end to mingle his ashes with the miserable dust
of all those countless masses of forgotten and unresisting slaves?
"Never!" replied what was bravest and worthiest of respect in the breast
of this truly great-hearted man. The burning wrong which he felt against
slavery had sunk in his mind below the reach of the grappling tongs of
reason. It lay like a charge of giant powder, with its slow match
attachment in the unplumbed depths of a soul which knew not fear; of a
soul which was as hot with smouldering hate and rage as is a live
volcano with its unvomited flame and lava. As well, under the
circumstances, have tried to subdue the profound fury of the one with
argument, as to quench the hidden fires of the other with water.

He knew, none better, that his oppressors were strong and that he was
weak; that he had but one slender chance in a hundred of redressing by
force the wrongs of himself and race. He knew too, that failure in such
a desperate enterprise could have for himself but a single issue, viz.:
certain death. But he believed that success on the other hand meant for
him and his the gain of that which alone was able to make their lives
worth the living, to wit.: a free man's portion, his opportunity for the
full development and free play of all of his powers amid that society in
which was cast his lot. And for that portion, so precious, he was ready
to take the one chance with all of its tremendous risks, to stake that
miserable modicum of freedom which he possessed, the wealth laboriously
accumulated by him, and life itself.

It is impossible to fix exactly the time when the bold idea of resistance
entered his brains, or to say when he began to plan for its realization,
and after that to prepare the blacks for its reception. Before embarking
on his perilous enterprise he must have carefully reckoned on time, long
and indefinite, as an essential factor in its successful achievement.
For, certain it is, he took it, years in fact, made haste slowly and with
supreme discretion and self-control. He appeared to have thoroughly
acquainted himself with the immense difficulties which beset an uprising
of the blacks. Not once, I think, did he underestimate the strength of
his foes. A past grand master in the art of intrigue among the servile
population, he was equally adept in knowledge of the weak spots for
attack in the defences of the slave system, knew perfectly where the
masters could best be taken at a disadvantage. All the facts of his
history combine to give him a character for profound acting. In the
underground agitation, which during a period of three or four years, he
conducted in the city of Charleston and over a hundred miles of the
adjacent country, he seemed to have been gifted with a sort of Protean
ability. His capacity for practicing secrecy and dissimulation where
they were deemed necessary to his end, must have been prodigious, when
it is considered that during the years covered by his underground
agitation, it is not recorded that he made a single false note, or took
a single false step to attract attention to himself and movement, or to
arouse over all that territory included in that agitation and among all
those white people involved in its terrific consequences, the slightest
suspicion of danger.

In his underground agitation, Vesey, with an instinct akin to genius,
seemed to have excluded from his preliminary action everything like
conscious combination or organization among his disciples, and to have
confined himself strictly to the immediate business in hand at that
stage of his plot, which was the sowing of seeds of discontent, the
fomenting of hatred among the blacks, bond and free alike, toward the
whites. And steadily with that patience which Lowell calls the "passion
of great hearts," he pushed deeper and deeper into the slave lump the
explosive principles of inalienable human rights. He did not flinch from
kindling in the bosoms of the slaves a hostility toward the masters as
burning as that which he felt toward them in his own breast. He had,
indeed, reached such a pitch of race enmity that, as he was often heard
to declare, "he would not like to have a white man in his presence."

And so, devoured by a supreme passion, mastered by a single predominant
idea, Vesey looked for occasions, and when they were wanting he created
them, to preach his new and terrible gospel of liberty and hate. Thus
only could he hope to render their condition intolerable to the slaves,
the production of which was the indispensable first step in the
consummation of his design. Otherwise what possibility of final success
could a contented slave population have offered him? He needed a fulcrum
on which to plant his lever. He had nowhere in such an enterprise to
place it, but in the discontent and hatred of the slaves toward their
masters. Therefore on the fulcrum of race hatred he rested his lever of
freedom for his people.

As the discontented bondsmen heard afresh with Vesey's ears the hateful
clank of their chains, they would, in time, learn to think of Vesey and
to turn, perhaps, to him for leadership and deliverance. Brooding over
their lot as Vesey had revealed it to them, they might move of themselves
to improve or end it altogether, by adopting some such bold plan as
Vesey's. Meantime he would continue to wait and prepare for that moment,
while they would be training in habits of deceit, of deep dissimulation,
that formidable weapon of the weak in conflict with the strong, that
_ars artium_ of slaves in their attempts to break their chains--a habit
of smiling and fawning on unjust and cruel power, while bleeds in secret
their fiery wound, rages and plots there also their passionate hate, and
glows there too their no less passionate hope for freedom.

Everywhere through the dark subterranean world of the slave, in
Charleston and the neighboring country, went with his great passion of
hate and his great purpose of freedom, this untiring breeder of
sedition. And where he moved beneath the thin crust of that upper world
of the master-race, there broke in his wake whirling and shooting
currents of new and wild sensations in the abysses of that under world
of the slave-race. Down deep below the ken of the masters was toiling
this volcanic man, forming the lava-floods, the flaming furies, and the
awful horrors of a slave uprising.

Nowhere idle was that underground plotter against the whites. Even on
the street where he happened to meet two or three blacks, he would bring
the conversation to his one consuming subject, and preach to them his
one unending sermon of freedom and hate. It was then as if his stern
voice, with its deep organ chords of passion, was saying to those men:
"Forget not, oh my brothers your misery. Remember how ye are wronged
every day and hour, ye and your mothers and sisters, your wives and
children. Remember the generations gone weeping and clanking heavy chains
from the cradle to the grave. Remember the oppression of the living, who
with heart-break and death-wounds, are treading their mournful way in
bitter anguish and despair across burning desert sands, with parched soul
and shriveled minds, with piteous thirsts, and terrible tortures of body
and spirit. Weep for them, weep for yourselves too, if ye will, but learn
to hate, ay, to hate with such hatred as blazes within me, the wicked
slave-system and the wickeder white men who oppress and wrong us thus."

Ever on the alert was he for a text or a pretext to advance his
underground movement. Did he and fellow blacks for example, encounter a
white person on the street, and did Vesey's companions make the
customary bow, which blacks were wont to make to whites, a form of
salutation born of generations of slave-blood, meanly humble and
cringingly self-effacing, rebuking such an exhibition of sheer and
shameless servility and lack of proper self-respect, he would thereupon
declare to them the self-evident truth that all men were born free and
equal, that the master, with his white skin, was in the sight of God no
whit better than his black slaves, and that for himself he would not
cringe like that to any man.

Should the sorry wretches, bewildered by Vesey's boldness and dazed by
his terrifying doctrines, reply defensively "we are slaves," the harsh
retort "you deserve to remain so," was, without doubt, intended to sting
if possible, their abject natures into sensibility on the subject of
their wrongs, to galvanize their rotting souls back to manhood, and to
make their base and sieve-like minds capable of receiving and retaining,
at least, a single fermenting idea. And when Vesey was thereupon asked
"What can we do?" he knew by that token that the sharp point of his
spear had pierced the slavish apathy of ages of oppression, and that
thenceforth light would find its red and revolutionary way to the
imprisoned minds within. To the query "What can we do?" his invariable
response was, "Go and buy a spelling book and read the fable of Hercules
and the Wagoner." They were to look for Hercules in their own stout
arms and backs, and not in the clouds, to brace their iron shoulders
against the wheels of adversity and oppression, and to learn that
self-help was ever the best prayer.

At other times, in order to familiarize the blacks, I suppose, with the
notion of equality, and to heighten probably at the same time his
influence over them, he would select a moment when some of them were
within earshot, to enter into conversation with certain white men, whose
characters he had studied for his purpose, and during the shuttle-cock
and battledore of words which was sure to follow, would deftly let fly
some bold remark on the subject of slavery. "He would go so far," on
such occasions it was said, "that had not his declarations in such
situations been clearly proved, they would scarcely have been credited."
Such action was daring almost to rashness, but in it is also apparent
the deep method of a clever and calculating mind.

The sundry religious classes or congregations with Negro leaders or local
preachers, into which were formed the Negro members of the various
churches of Charleston, furnished Vesey with the first rudiments of an
organization, and at the same time with a singularly safe medium for
conducting his underground agitation. It was customary, at that time,
for these Negro congregations to meet for purposes of worship entirely
free from the presence of the whites. Such meetings were afterward
forbidden to be held except in the presence of at least one representative
of the dominant race. But during the three or four years prior to the year
1822, they certainly offered Denmark Vesey regular, easy and safe
opportunities for preaching his gospel of liberty and hate. And we are
left in no doubt whatever in regard to the uses to which he put those
gatherings of blacks.

Like many of his race he possessed the gift of gab, as the silver in the
tongue and the gold in the full or thick-lipped mouth are oftentimes
contemptuously characterized. And like many of his race he was a devoted
student of the Bible to whose interpretation he brought like many other
Bible students, not confined to the Negro race, a good deal of
imagination, and not a little of superstition, which with some natures
is perhaps but another name for the desires of the heart. Thus equipped
it is no wonder that Vesey, as he pored over the Old Testament Scriptures,
found many points of similitude in the history of the Jews and that of
the slaves in the United States. They were both peculiar peoples. They
were both Jehovah's peculiar peoples, one in the past, the other in the
present. And it seemed to him that as Jehovah bent his ear, and bared
his arm once in behalf of the one, so would he do the same for the
other. It was all vividly real to his thought, I believe, for to his
mind thus had said the Lord.

He ransacked the Bible for apposite and terrible texts, whose commands
in the olden times, to the olden people, were no less imperative upon
the new times and the new people. This new people was also commanded to
arise and destroy their enemies and the city in which they dwelt, "both
man and woman, young and old, * * * with the edge of the sword." Believing
superstitiously, as he did, in the stern and Nemesis-like God of the Old
Testament, he looked confidently for a day of vengeance and retribution
for the blacks. He felt, I doubt not, something peculiarly applicable to
his enterprise, and intensely personal to himself in the stern and
exultant prophecy of Zachariah, fierce and sanguinary words which were
constantly in his mouth: "Then shall the Lord go forth, and fight against
those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle." According to
Vesey's lurid exegeisis "those nations" in the text meant, beyond a
peradventure, the cruel masters, and Jehovah was to go forth to fight
against them for the poor slaves, and on which ever side fought that day
the Almighty God, on that side would assuredly rest victory and
deliverance.

It will not be denied that Vesey's plan contemplated the total
annihilation of the white population of Charleston. Nursing for many
dark years the bitter wrongs of himself and race had filled him, without
doubt, with a mad spirit of revenge, and had so given him a decided
predilection for shedding the blood of his oppressors. But if he intended
to kill them to satisfy a desire for vengeance, he intended to do so
also on broader ground. The conspirators, he argued, had no choice in
the matter, but were compelled to adopt a policy of extermination by the
necessity of their position. The liberty of the blacks was in the
balance of fate against the lives of the whites. He could strike that
balance in favor of the blacks only by the total destruction of the
whites. Therefore, the whites, men, women and children, were doomed to
death. "What is the use of killing the louse and leaving the nit?" he
asked coarsely and grimly on an occasion when the matter was under
consideration. And again he was reported to have, with unrelenting
temper, represented to his friends in secret council, that, "It was for
our safety not to spare one white skin alive." And so it was unmistakably
in his purpose to leave not a single egg lying about Charleston, when he
was done with it, out of which might possibly be hatched another future
slave-holder and oppressor of his people. "Thorough" was in truth, the
merciless motto of that terrible man.

All roads, on the red map of his plot, led to Rome. Every available
instrument which fell in his way, he utilized to deepen and extend his
underground agitation among the blacks. Wherefore it was that he seized
upon the sectional struggle which was going on in Congress over the
admission of Missouri, and pressed it to do service for his cause. The
passionate wish, unconsciously perhaps, colored if it did not create the
belief on his part, that the real cause of that great debate in
Washington, and excitement in the country at large, was a movement for
general emancipation of the slaves. It was said that he went so far in
this direction as to put it into the heads of the blacks that Congress
had actually enacted an emancipation law, and that therefore their
continued enslavement was illegal. Such preaching must have certainly
added fresh fuel to the deep sense of injury, then burning in the
breasts of many of the slaves, and must have operated also to prepare
them for the next step which Vesey's plan of campaign contemplated,
viz.: a resort to force to wrest from the whites the freedom which was
theirs, not only by the will of Heaven, but as well by the supreme law
of the land.

A period of underground agitation, such as Vesey had carried on for
about three or four years, will, unless arrested, pass naturally into
one of organized action. Vesey's movement reached, in the winter of
1821-22, such a stage. As far as it is known, he had up to this time
done the work of agitator singlehanded and alone. Singlehanded and alone
he had gone to and fro through that under world of the slave, preaching
his gospel of liberty and hate. But about Christmas of 1821, the long
lane of his labors made a sharp turn. This circumstance tended necessarily
to throw other actors upon the scene, as shall presently appear.

The first step taken at the turn of his long and laborious lane was
calculated to put to the utmost test his ability as a leader, as an arch
plotter. For it was nothing less momentous than the choice by him of fit
associates. On the wisdom with which such a choice was made, would
depend his own life and the success of his undertaking. Among thousands
of disciples he had to find the right men to whom to entrust his secret
purpose and its execution in co-operation with himself. The step was
indeed crucial and in taking it he needed not alone the mental qualities
which he had exhibited in his role of underground agitator, viz.:
serpent-like cunning and intelligence under the direction of the most
alert and flexible discretion, but as well a practical and profound
knowledge of the human nature with which he had to deal, a keen and
infallible insight into individual character.

It is not too much to claim for Denmark Vesey, that his genius rose to
the emergency, and proved itself equal to a surpassingly difficult
situation, in the singular fitness of the five principal men on whom
fell his election to associate leadership, with himself, and to the work
of organizing the blacks for resistance. These five men, who became his
ablest and most efficient lieutenants, were Peter Poyas, Rolla and Ned
Bennett, Monday Gell and Gullah Jack. They were all slaves and, I believe,
full-blooded Negroes. They constituted a remarkable quintet of slave
leaders, combined the very qualities of head and heart which Vesey most
needed at the stage then reached by his unfolding plot. For fear lest
some of their critics might sneer at the sketch of them which I am
tempted to give, as lacking in probability and truth, I will insert
instead the careful estimate placed upon them severally by their slave
judges. And here it is: "In the selection of his leaders, Vesey showed
great penetration and sound judgment. Rolla was plausible and possessed
uncommon self-possession: bold and ardent, he was not to be deterred
from his purpose by danger. Ned's appearance indicated that he was a man
of firm nerves and desperate courage. Peter was intrepid and resolute,
true to his engagements, and cautious in observing secrecy where it was
necessary; he was not to be daunted nor impeded by difficulties, and
though confident of success, was careful against any obstacles or
casualties which might arise, and intent upon discovering every means
which might be in their favor if thought of beforehand. Gullah Jack was
regarded as a sorcerer, and as such feared by the natives of Africa, who
believe in witchcraft. He was not only considered invulnerable, but that
he could make others so by his charms; and that he could and certainly
would provide all his followers with arms. He was artful, cruel, bloody;
his disposition in short was diabolical. His influence among the
Africans was inconceivable. Monday was firm, resolute, discreet and
intelligent."

From this picture, painted by bitter enemies, who were also their
executioners, could any person, ignorant of the circumstances and the
history of those men, possibly guess, with the exception of Gullah Jack,
to what race the originals belonged, or think you, that such a person
would so much as dream that they were in fact, as they were in the eye
of the law under which they lived, nothing more than so many human
chattels, subject like cattle to the caprice and the cruelty of their
owners?

Such nevertheless was the remarkable group of blacks on whom had fallen
Vesey's choice. And did they not present an assemblage of high and
striking qualities? Here were coolness in action, calculation, foresight,
plausibility in address, fidelity to engagements, secretiveness, intrepid
courage, nerves of iron in the presence of danger, inflexible purpose,
unbending will, and last though not least in its relations to the whole,
superstition incarnate in the character of the Negro conjurer. Masterly
was indeed the combination, and he had no ordinary gift for leadership,
who was able to hit it off at one surprising stroke.

As the work of organized preparation for the uprising advanced, Vesey
added presently to his staff two principal and several minor recruiting
agents, who operated in Charleston and in the country to the North of
the city as far as the Santee, the Combahee, and Georgetown. Their
exploitation in the interest of the plot extended to the South into the
two large islands of James and John's, as well as to plantations across
the Ashley River. Vesey himself, it was said, traveled southwardly from
Charleston between seventy and eighty miles, and it was presumed by the
writers that he did so on business connected with the conspiracy, which
I consider altogether probable. He had certainly thrown himself into the
movement with might and main. We know, that its direction absorbed
finally his whole time and energy. "He ceased working himself at his
trade," so ran the testimony of a witness at his trial, "and employed
himself exclusively in enlisting men."

The number of blacks engaged in the enterprise was undoubtedly large. It
is a sufficiently conservative estimate to place this number, I think,
at two or three thousand, at least. One recruiting officer alone, Frank
Ferguson, enlisted in the undertaking the slaves of four plantations
within forty miles of the city; and in the city itself, it was said that
the personal roll of Peter Poyas embraced a membership of six hundred
names. More than one witness placed the conjectural strength of Vesey's
forces as high as 9,000, but I am inclined to write this down as a gross
overestimate of the people actually enrolled as members of the conspiracy.

Here is an example of the nice calculation and discretion of the man who
was the soul of the conspiracy. It is contained in the testimony of an
intensely hostile witness, a slave planter, whose slaves were suspected
of complicity in the intended uprising.

"The orderly conduct of the Negroes in any district of country within
forty miles of Charleston," wrote this witness, "is no evidence that
they were ignorant of the intended attempt. A more orderly gang than my
own is not to be found in this State, and one of Denmark Vesey's
directions was, that they should assume the most implicit obedience."

Take another instance of the extraordinary aptitude of the slave leaders
for the conduct of their dangerous enterprise. It illustrates Peter's
remarkable foresight and his faculty for scenting danger, and making at
the same time provision for meeting it. In giving an order to one of his
assistants, said he, "Take care and don't mention it (the plot) to those
waiting men who receive presents of old coats, &c., from their masters
or they'll betray us." And then as if to provide doubly against betrayal
at their hands, he added "I'll speak to them." His apprehension of
disaster to the cause from this class was great, but it was not greater
than the reality, as the sequel abundantly proved. Let me not, however,
anticipate.

If there were immense difficulties in the way of recruiting, there were
even greater ones in the way of supplying the recruits with proper arms,
or with any arms at all for that matter. But vast as were the
difficulties, the leaders fronted them with buoyant and unquailing
spirit, and rose, where other men of less faith and courage would have
given up in despair, to the level of seeming impossibilities, and to the
top of a truly appalling situation. Where were they, indeed, to procure
arms? There was a blacksmith among them, who was set to manufacturing
pike-heads and bayonets, and to turning long knives into daggers and
dirks. Arms in the houses of the white folks they designed to borrow
after the manner of the Jews from the Egyptians. But for their main
supply they counted confidently upon the successful seizure, by means of
preconcerted movements, of the principal places of deposit of arms
within the limits of the city, of which there were several. The capture
of these magazines and storehouses was quite within the range of
probability, for every one of them was at the time in a comparatively
unprotected state. Two large gun and powder stores, situated about three
and a half miles beyond the Lines, and containing nearly eight hundred
muskets and bayonets, were, by arrangement with Negro employees
connected with them, at the mercy of the insurgents whenever they were
ready to move upon them. The large building in the city, where was
deposited the greater portion of the arms of the State, was strangely
neglected in the same regard. Its main entrance, opening on the street,
consisted of ordinary wooden doors, without the interposition between
them and the public of even a brick wall.

In the general plan of attack, the capture of this building, which held
tactically the key to the defense of Charleston, in the event of a slave
uprising, was assigned to Peter Poyas, the ablest of Vesey's lieutenants.
Peter, probably disguised by means of false hair and whiskers, was at a
given signal at midnight of the appointed day, to move suddenly with his
band upon this important post. The difficulty of the undertaking lay in
the vigilance of the sentinels doing a duty before this building, and
its success depended upon Peter's ability to surprise and slay this man
before he could sound the alarm. Peter was confident of his ability to
kill the sentinel and capture the building, and I think that he had good
ground for his confidence. In conversation with an anxious follower, who
feared lest the watchfulness of the guard might defeat the attempt,
Peter remarked that he "would advance a little distance ahead, and if he
could only get a _grip at his throat he was a gone man_, for his sword
was very sharp; he had sharpened it, and made it so sharp it had cut his
finger." And as if to cast the last lingering doubt out of his disciple
in regard to his (Peter's) ability to fix the sentinel, he showed him
the bloody cut on his finger.

Other leaders, at the head of their respective bands, were at the same
time, and from six different quarters, to attack the city, surprising and
seizing all of its strategical points, and the buildings, where were
deposited its arms and ammunition. A body of insurgent horse was,
meanwhile, to keep the streets clear, cutting down without mercy all
white persons, and suspected blacks, whom they might encounter, in order
to prevent the whites from concentrating or spreading the alarm through
the doomed town. Such was Denmark Vesey's masterly and merciless plan of
campaign in bare outline for the capture of Charleston, a plan, which,
with such a sagacious head as was Vesey, was entirely feasible, and
which would have, undoubtedly, succeeded but for the happening of the
unexpected at a critical stage of its execution. Against such an
occurrence as was this one, no man in Vesey's situation, however supreme
might have been his ability as a leader, could have completely provided.
The element of treachery could not by any device have been wholly
eliminated from his chapter of accidents and chances. To do what he set
out to do, with the means at his disposition, Vesey had of necessity to
take the tremendous risk of betrayal at the hand of some black traitor.
It was, in reality, sad to relate his greatest risk, and became the one
insurmountable barrier in the way of his final success.

Sunday at midnight of July 14, 1822, was fixed upon originally as the
time for beginning his attack upon the city. But about the last of May,
owing to indications that the plot had been discovered, he shortened the
period of its preparation, and appointed instead midnight of Sunday,
June 16th, of the same year. His reason for selecting the original date
illustrates his careful and astute attention to details in making his
plans. He had noted that the white population of Charleston was subject,
to a certain extent, to regular tidal movements; that at one season of
the year this movement was at high tide, and that at another it was at
low tide. It was no great difficulty, under the circumstances, for a man
like Denmark Vesey to forecast with reasonable accuracy these recurrent
movements, and natural enough that he should have planned his attack with
reference to them. And this was exactly what he did when he appointed July
14th as the original date for beginning the insurrection. At that time the
city was less capable than at an earlier date to cope with a slave
uprising, owing to the departure in large numbers from it, for summer
resorts, of its wealthier classes.

Again his selection of the first day of the week in both instances was
equally the result of careful calculation on his part, as on that day
large bodies of slaves from the adjacent plantations and islands were
wont to visit the town without molestation, whereas on no other day
could this have been done. Thus, without exciting alarm, did Vesey plan
to introduce his Trojan horse or country bands into the city, where they
were to be concealed until the hour for beginning the attack.

But the attack, carefully planned as it was, did not take place. For the
thing which Peter Poyas feared, and had vainly endeavored to provide
against, came to pass. One of those very "waiting men," for whom Peter
entertained such deep distrust, and against whom he had raised his voice
in sharp warning, betrayed to his master the plot, the secret of which
had been communicated to him by an overzealous convert, whose discretion
was shorter than his tongue. All this happened on the morning of the
30th of May, and by sunset of that day the secret was in possession of
the authorities of the city. Precautionary measures were quickly taken
by them to guard against surprise, and to discover the full extent of
the intended uprising.

Luckily for the conspirators the information given by the traitor was
vague and general. Nor was the city able to elicit from the informant of
this man, who had been promptly arrested and subjected to examination,
any disclosures of a more specific or satisfactory character. He was, in
truth, in possession of but few particulars of the plot, and was therefore
unable to give any greater definiteness to the government's stock of
knowledge relative to the subject. Suspicion, however, lighted on Peter
Poyas and Mingo Harth, one of Vesey's minor leaders. They were, thereupon
apprehended, and their personal effects searched, but nothing was found to
inculpate either, except an enigmatical letter not understood by the
authorities at the time. This circumstance, coupled with the coolness and
consummate acting of the pair of suspected leaders, perplexed and deceived
the authorities to such a degree that they ordered the discharge of the
prisoners. But the fright and anxiety of the city were not so readily got
rid of. They held Charleston uneasy and apprehensive of danger, and so
kept it suspicious and watchful.

Things remained in this state of watchfulness anxiety, on both sides, for
about a week. Vesey on his part remitted nothing of his preparations for
the coming 16th of June, but pushed them if possible with increased vigor
and secrecy. He held the while nocturnal meetings at his house on Bull
street, where modified arrangements for the execution of his plans were
broached and matured. How he dared at this juncture to incur such extreme
hazard of detection, it is difficult to understand. But he and his
confederates were men of the most indomitable purpose, and took in the
desperate circumstances, in which they were then placed, the most
desperate chances. They had to. They could not do otherwise.

The city on its side, was listening during a part of this same week to a
second confession of that poor fellow whose tongue had outmeasured his
discretion. It was listening with reviving dread to the wild and
incoherent disclosures of this man, whom it had flung into the black
hole of the workhouse. There, crazed by misery and fear of death, he
raved about a plot among the blacks to massacre the whites and to put
the town to fire and pillage. This second installment of William Paul's
excited disclosures, while it increased the sense of impending peril,
did not put the government in better position to avert it. For groping
in the dark still, it knew not yet where or whom to strike. But in this
period of horrible suspense and uncertainty its suspicion fell on
another one of Vesey's principal leaders. This time it was on Ned
Bennett that the city's distrustful eye fastened. Like that game which
children play where the object of search is hidden, and where the
seekers as they approach near and yet nearer to the place of concealment,
grow warm and then warmer, so was the city, in its terrible search for
the source of its danger, growing hot and hotter. That was, indeed, a
frightful moment for the conspirators when Ned Bennett became suspected.
The city, as the children say in their game, was beginning to burn, for
it seemed as if it must at the next move, thrust its iron hand into that
underground world where the plot was hatching, and clutching the heart
of the great enterprise, snatch it, conspiracy and conspirators, into
the light of day. But it was at such a tremendous moment of danger, that
the leaders, unawed by the imminency of discovery, took a step to throw
the city off of their scent, so daring, dextrous and unexpected as to
knock the breath out of us.

Ned Bennett, whom the city was watching as a cat, before springing,
watches a mouse, went voluntarily before the Intendant or Mayor of the
city, and asked to be examined, if so be he was an object of suspicion
to the authorities. Ned was so surprisingly cool and indifferent, and
wore so naturally an air of conscious innocence, that the great man was
again deceived, and the city was thus thrown a second time out of the
course of its game. Ned's arrest and examination were postponed, as the
authorities in their perplexity were afraid to take at the time any
decisive action, lest it might prove premature and abortive. And so
lying on its arms, the city waited and watched for fresh developments
and disclosures, while the insurgent leaders, in their underground world
watched warily too, and pushed forward with undiminished confidence
their final preparations, when they would, out of the dark, strike
suddenly their liberating and annihilating blow. This awful state of
suspense, of the most watchful suspicion and anxiety on one side, and of
wary and anxious preparations on the other, continued for about five or
six days, when it was ended by a second act of treachery emanating from
the distrusted class of "waiting men," whose highest aspirations did not
seem to reach above their masters' cast off garments.

Unlike the first, the information furnished to the authorities by the
second traitor, was not lacking in definiteness. For this fellow knew
what he was talking about. He knew almost all of the leaders, and many
particulars connected with the plot. The city was thus placed in
possession of the secret. It knew now the names of the ringleaders. But
confident, apparently, of its ability to throttle the intended
insurrection, it allowed two days to pass and the 16th of June, without
making any arrests. Cat-like it crouched ready to spring, while it
followed the unconscious movements of the principal conspirators. For
Vesey and his principal officers were at that time, ignorant of the
second betrayal, and therefore of the fact that they were from the 14th
of June at the mercy of the police. On Saturday night, June 15th, an
incident occurred, however, which warned them that they were betrayed,
and that disaster was close at hand. This incident revealed as by a
flash of lightning the hopelessness of their position. On that day Vesey
had instructed one of his aids, Jesse Blackwood, to go into the country
in the evening for the purpose of preparing the plantation slaves to
enter the city on the day following, which was Sunday, June 16th, the
time fixed for beginning the insurrection. Jesse was unable to
discharge this mission, either on Saturday night or Sunday morning,
owning to the increased strength and vigilance of the city police and of
its patrol guard. He had succeeded on Sunday morning in getting by two
of their lines, but at the third line he was halted and turned back into
the city. When this ominous fact was reported to the Old Chief, Vesey
became very sorrowful. He and the other leaders must have instantly
perceived that they were caught, as in a trap, and that the end was
near. It was probably on this Sunday that they destroyed their papers,
lists of names and other incriminating evidence. The shadow of the
approaching catastrophe deepened and spread rapidly around and above
them as they watched and waited helplessly under the huge asp of
slavery, which enraged and now completely coiled, was about to strike.
The stroke fell first on Peter, Rolla, Ned, and Batteau Bennett. The
last, although but a boy of eighteen, was one of the most active of the
younger leaders of the plot. Vesey was not captured until the fourth day
afterward. So secret and profound had been his methods of operations in
the underground world, that the early reports of his connection with the
conspiracy, were generally discredited among the whites. Jesse Blackwood
was taken the next day, and four days later, on June 27th, Monday Gell
was arrested. Gullah Jack eluded the search of the police until July
5th, when he too was struck by the huge slave asp.

In all, there were one hundred and thirty-one blacks arrested,
sixty-seven convicted, thirty-five executed, and thirty-seven banished
beyond the limits of the United States. Five of these last were of the
class of suspects, whom it was thought best to get rid of. Of the whole
number of convictions, not one belonged to the bands of either Vesey, or
Peter, or Rolla, or Ned, and but few to that of Gullah Jack's. Absolutely
true did these five leaders prove to their vow of secrecy, and so died
without betraying a single associate. This alas! cannot be said of
Monday Gell, who brave and loyal as he was throughout the period of his
arrest and trial, yet after sentence of death had been passed upon him,
and under the influence of a terror-stricken companion, succumbed to
temptation, and for the sake of life, consented to betray his followers.
Denmark, Peter, Rolla, Ned, Batteau, and Jesse, were hanged together,
July 2, 1822. Ten days later Gullah Jack suffered death on the gallows
also. Upon an enormous gallows, erected on the lines near Charleston,
twenty-two of the black martyrs to freedom were executed on the 22nd day
of the same ill-starred month.

A curious circumstance connected with this plot was the high regard in
which the insurgents were held by the whites. But instead of my own, I
prefer to insert in this place the remarks of the slave judges on this
head. In their story of the plot they observed: "The character and
condition of most of the insurgents were such as rendered them objects
the least liable to suspicion. It is a melancholy truth, that the general
good conduct of all the leaders, except Gullah Jack, had secured to them
not only the unlimited confidence of their owners, but they had been
indulged in every comfort and allowed every privilege compatible with
their situation in the community; and although Gullah Jack was not
remarkable for the correctness of his deportment, he by no means
sustained a bad character. But not only were the leaders of good
character and much indulged by their owners, but this was generally the
case with all who were convicted, many of them possessed the highest
confidence of their owners, and not one of bad character."

Comment on this significant fact is unnecessary. It contains a lesson
and a warning which a fool need not err in reading and understanding.
Oppression is a powder magazine exposed always to the danger of
explosion from spontaneous combustion. _Verbum sat sapienti._

Another curious circumstance connected with this history, was the trial
and conviction of four white men, on indictments for attempting to
incite the slaves to insurrection. They were each sentenced to fine and
imprisonment, the fines ranging from $100 to $1,000, and the terms of
imprisonment, from three to twelve months.

And now for the concluding act of this tragedy, for a final glance at
four of its black heroes and martyrs as they appeared to the slave
judges who tried them, and to whose hostile pen we are indebted for this
last impressive picture of their courage, their fortitude and their
greatness of soul. Here it is: "When Vesey was tried, he folded his arms
and seemed to pay great attention to the testimony, given against him,
but with his eyes fixed on the floor. In this situation he remained
immovable, until the witnesses had been examined by the court, and
cross-examined by his counsel, when he requested to be allowed to
examine the witnesses himself. He at first questioned them in the
dictatorial, despotic manner, in which he was probably accustomed to
address them; but this not producing the desired effect, he questioned
them with affected surprise and concern for bearing false testimony
against him; still failing in his purpose, he then examined them
strictly as to dates, but could not make them contradict themselves. The
evidence being closed, he addressed the court at considerable length * *
* When he received his sentence the tears trickled down his cheeks."

I cannot, of course, speak positively respecting the exact nature of
the thought or feeling which lay back of those sad tears. But of this I
am confident that they were not produced by any weak or momentary fear
of death, and I am equally sure that they were not caused by remorse for
the part which he had taken, as chief of a plot to give freedom to his
race. Perhaps they were wrung from him by the Judas-like ingratitude and
treachery, which had brought his well-laid scheme to ruin. He was about
to die, and it was Wrong not Right which with streaming eyes he saw
triumphant. Perhaps, in that solemn moment, he remembered the time,
years before, when he might have sailed for Africa, and there have
helped to build, in freedom and security, an asylum for himself and
people, where all of the glad dreams of his strenuous and stormy life
might have been realized, and also how he had put behind him the
temptation, "because" as he expressed it, "he wanted to stay and see
what he could do for his fellow creatures in bondage." At the thought of
it all, the triumph of slavery, the treachery of black men, the
immedicable grief which arises from wasted labors and balked purposes,
and widespreading failures, is it surprising that in that supreme moment
hot tears gushed from the eyes of that stricken but lion-hearted man?

But to return to the last picture of the martyrs before their judges:
"Rolla when arraigned affected not to understand the charge against him,
and when it was at his request further explained to him, assumed with
wonderful adroitness, astonishment, and surprise. He was remarkable
throughout his trial, for great presence of composure of mind. When he
was informed he was convicted and was advised to prepare for death,
though he had previously (but after his trial) confessed his guilt, he
appeared perfectly confounded, but exhibited no signs of fear. In Ned's
behavior there was nothing remarkable, but his countenance was stern and
immovable, even whilst he was receiving the sentence of death; from his
looks it was impossible to discover or conjecture what were his
feelings. Not so with Peter, for in his countenance were strongly marked
disappointed ambition, revenge, indignation, and an anxiety to know how
far the discoveries had extended, and the same emotions were exhibited
in his conduct. He did not appear to fear personal consequences, for his
whole behavior indicated the reverse: but exhibited an evident anxiety
for the success of their plan, in which his whole soul was embarked. His
countenance and behavior were the same when he received his sentence,
and his only words were on retiring, 'I suppose you'll let me see my
wife and family before I die,' and that not in a supplicating tone. When
he was asked a day or two after, if it was possible he could wish to see
his master and family murdered who had treated him so kindly, he only
replied to the question by a smile."

The unquailing courage, the stern fidelity to engagements, and the
spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice which characterized so signally
the leaders of this slave plot, culminated, it seems to me, in the
unbending will and grandeur of soul of Peter Poyas, during those last,
tragic days, in Charleston. I doubt if in six thousand years the world
has produced a finer example of fortitude and greatness of mind in
presence of death, than did this Negro slave exhibit in the black hole
of the Charleston workhouse, when conversing with his Chief and Rolla
and Ned Bennett, touching their approaching death, and the safety of
their faithful and forlorn followers, he uttered thus intrepid
injunction: "Do not open your lips! Die silent as you shall see me do."
Such words, considering the circumstances under which they were spoken,
were worthy of a son of Sparta or of Rome, when Sparta and Rome were at
their highest levels as breeders of iron men.

It is verily no light thing for the Negroes of the United States to have
produced such a man, such a hero and martyr. It is certainly no light
heritage, the knowledge, that his brave blood flows in their veins. For
history does not record, that any other of its long and shining line of
heroes and martyrs, ever met death, anywhere on this globe, in a holier
cause or a sublimer mood, than died this Spartan-like slave, more than
three quarters of a century ago.

May some future Rembrandt have the courage, as the genius, to paint that
tragic and imposing scene, with its deep shadows and high lights as I
see it now, the dark and hideous dungeon, the sombre figures and grim
faces of the four glorious black martyrs, with Peter in the midst,
speaking his deathless words: "Do not open your lips! Die silent as you
shall see me do."

  "Right forever on the scaffold,
    Wrong forever on the Throne,
  Yet that scaffold sways the future,
    And, behind the dim unknown,
  Standeth God within the shadow,
    Keeping watch above His own."



Transcriber's Notes:

Passages in italics are indicated by _underscore_.

The following misprints have been corrected:
  "th" corrected to "the" (page 5)
  "Nego" corrected to "Negro" (page 11)
  "buiding" corrected to "building" (page 16)
  "New" corrected to "Ned" (page 19)
  "behavoir" corrected to "behavior" (page 23)





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