8.9.3 An official report of the trials of sundry Negroes, charged with an attempt to raise an insurrection in the state of South-Carolina
Record of the trial of Denmark Vesey, principal defendant, and others.
With the establishment of slavery came resistance to it: faking illness, setting fires, administering poison, breaking tools, and escaping. Another form of resistance — among enslaved and free blacks as well as non-blacks — involved insurrections, or revolts, against slave owners that challenged the larger slave system. In some cases, multiple slaves and/or free blacks and whites made plans months in advance. The report you see here contains trial transcripts from a supposed revolt. Historians are unsure if a planned revolt existed. Some suggest that local whites used the trial for political control and to instill fear into those who might decide to revolt in the future. Uprisings against slave owners or attempts to escape to freedom brought extreme risks; those caught doing so could be whipped, maimed, or even killed. Nevertheless, a couple hundred slave rebellions took place in the colonies / United States. It seems clear why an enslaved person would want to rebel. Why do you think not every person who was enslaved chose to violently rebel against their owners? What forms of freedom or control over their own lives, if any, were possible for those enslaved?
Historians remain uncertain whether Denmark Vesey actually planned an antislavery revolt in July of 1822. Given the rampant racism and vigilantism of the time — Vesey’s church was burned down as a consequence — historians argue that both the trial and trial transcripts cannot be trusted as evidence of a plot. However, they do agree that Vesey was a central figure and had great influence during this crisis. Skilled as a carpenter, fluent in many languages (French, Spanish, and English), and deeply religious, Vesey purchased his freedom in 1818. He previously grew up on the island of Saint Thomas, which was a Danish colony (briefly occupied by the British). While still enslaved, Vesey made his way to Charleston, South Carolina, when his master retired in the area in the late 1700s. If true, he organized the revolt as a free man among fellow African Methodist Episcopal Church leaders. His inspiration is said to have come from the successful antislavery and pro-independence revolt in Haiti (1791 – 1804) and confidence in his religious beliefs that the Bible supported emancipation. When outed by a peer and before any rebellion took place, local authorities captured and executed Vesey and 34 others for their supposed participation in the rebellion. Some historians argue that more important than a supposed planned revolt is that Vesey and those accused did not give up any damaging details when tortured and threatened with death. In addition, analyzing the way white authorities responded to the real or perceived threat provides a window into South Carolina’s sense of law and order. Vesey became an inspiration to some in the abolitionist movement and to many enslaved people as well. Having students research and compare arguments about Vesey’s rebellion would support discussion about the challenges of reconstructing history and historical narratives.
Official Report of the Trials of Sundry Negroes, charged with an attempt to raise an insurrection in the state of South Carolina, preceded by an introduction and narrative; and in an appendix, a report of the trials of four white persons, on indictments for attempting to excite the slaves to insurrection.