In a time when revolution swept both Old World and New, it should have been no surprise that eighteenth century Charleston would find revolution fermenting among its slave population. In his book "He Shall Go Out Free", Douglas Egerton describes the life of Denmark Vesey, a freed slave in Charleston, who held a deep and thinly-veiled hatred of slavery and the city’s ruling elite, and was best known for leading a failed attempt at revolt which cost his life. However, Egerton argues one must look beyond the span of Vesey’s lifetime to best understand his impact upon the history of the city.
Like most slaves, much about Vesey's early years, including his exact age, family, and nationality, is unknown. The first thing we know about his life was his purchase as a teenager in 1781 from St. Thomas Island, a Dutch colony in the Caribbean, by Joseph Vesey, a slave trader (3). After a short stint as Vesey's cabin boy, he was sold on the island of Saint Domingue, a French colony dominated by sugar plantations where slaves lived short and brutal lives (17).
On Saint Domingue, he feigned epileptic seizures to force his return as "damaged goods". Joseph Vesey put him back to work as his cabin boy, as well as translating for slaves (22). When the British evacuated Charleston in December 1782, Joseph Vesey moved his family to the city, bringing Denmark along with him (26). Fluent in English and a quick learner, he was soon busy helping run his owner’s import business, paying taxes and picking up merchandise upon arrival at the city’s docks (33).
Nearly twenty years after he arrived in Charleston, luck brought Vesey his freedom. A...
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...ir names were a "terror to oppressors." Fiction writers with anti-slavery views included characters similar to Vesey in their stories (226).
In his life, Denmark Vesey was virtually powerless member of Charleston’s small society of free blacks in the years between the American Revolution and Civil War. He spent years expressing his disgust of slavery, and his one effort to strike back was quickly rolled up and brutally eliminated. In light of this, there is great irony in how Charleston, a city which fearlessly defied kings and empires would live in fear not of invading armies and attacking fleets, but at the shadow of Vesey’s failed revolt. That one man’s memory could hold such power validates Egerton's argument that Vesey was both an obscure and nearly powerless person, as well a revolutionary figure whose legacy stood tall indeed.
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