United States and American History: 1822 and Denmark Vesey

About the history of the United States in 1822, murders by slaves in Virginia, Denmark Vesey's planned uprising and the consequence of the Negro Seaman's act in South Carolina.


--Murder conviction statistics for Virginia slaves between 1780 and 1864:

Of the master 56

Of the mistress 11

Of the overseer 12

Of other whites 120

Of free Negroes 7

Of slaves 85

Children killed by their mothers 12

Victim not described 60


May--June Denmark Vesey was a 55-year-old slave. Vesey's original name, Telemaque, was shortened to Telmak, then became Denmark. Having won a lottery of $1,500 when he was 33, Vesey had spent $600 of it to purchase his freedom, after which he worked as a carpenter.

With the help of Peter Poyas and other blacks, Vesey plotted an insurrection of slaves in the Charleston area. His plan, aimed at annihilating the whites in Charleston, received support from blacks within a 70-to 80-mi. radius of this city. Peter Poyas warned their recruits not to mention insurrection plans to those who "receive presents of old coats from their masters, or they'll betray us." Poyas was right.

The insurrection was scheduled for the 2nd Sunday in July. In late May, a slave informed his master of the plans. Poyas and another leader were arrested but insisted the charge was preposterous. When a 3rd slave, hearing he was also a suspect, went voluntarily to his accusers, the whites were reassured and freed all 3 men. But yet another slave, hearing that the date had been changed to Sunday, June 16, passed this news on to his master. On checking the streets Saturday night, whites found black sentinels on guard and arrests were made. One hundred thirty-one blacks were arrested, 43 banished, and 35 hanged, among them, Vesey and Poyas.

Following the abortive insurrection and subsequent trial, South Carolina passed a Negro seaman's act. This permitted removal of Negroes, or persons of color, from vessels upon their entry into South Carolina ports. That the blacks, employed as cooks, stewards, or mariners, were free mattered not at all. Blacks were jailed until their ship was ready to sail. Costs of detention had to be paid by the ship's master. Failure to pay these costs made the captain liable for a $1,000 fine or 2 months' imprisonment. In addition, the blacks involved were sold as slaves.

Not long after this law was passed, over 41 ships in the harbor had their black cooks and sailors seized. An entire crew from a British ship was taken. A test case challenging the arrest produced the ruling that the arrests had been made in accordance with the law of 1822. The case was appealed, and this time drew a divided verdict.

American captains complained to Congress, British captains to George Canning, Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs. He in turn demanded action from the U.S. Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. Adams assured the British that an end would be put to this practice, yet it continued. The law of 1822 remained on the books until the Civil War.

One result of this controversy was the idea that the slavery problem could be resolved by sending blacks back to Africa. As early as 1776, funds had been collected for a colony there, but not much was done until 1817, when the American Colonization Society was founded. It purchased land near present-day Monrovia, capital of Liberia. The motivation behind the society's purchase was not humanitarian.

Several States had passed resolutions supporting such colonization. Ohio called for emancipation of all slaves, and recommended that children of slaves be freed at 21, provided they agreed to move to a black colony. Delaware called for all free Negroes and mulattoes to be removed from the U.S. New Jersey recommended that her sister States join her in fostering emancipation coupled with colonization.

The Colonization Society's agent, Jehudi Ashmun, along with his wife and 37 other blacks, sailed from Baltimore for Liberia in the brig Strong to join a group already settled there. When Ashmun arrived, he found that about 40 of the original settlers had died of fever, and those still living were ill. Of the 2 whites sent to help establish the colony, one was dead, the other had deserted. To make matters even more desperate, jungle natives planned to attack the settlement. Shortly before the attack, both the delicate Ashmun and his wife became ill, and Mrs. Ashmun died. Ashmun, grieving but determined, took command of his pathetic army--27 able men, one small cannon and such obsolete weapons as pikes and muskets--and on November 11, repulsed 2 attacks made by a force of over 800 natives. Only 4 of Ashmun's men were killed and 4 more were injured.

Ashmun assumed leadership of the colony, only to be replaced by a white doctor named Ayres, sent by the Society. Ayres, however, came down with fever and soon returned to the U.S. Ashmun began to teach his colonists to farm--all the while hoping that his colony would prove an alternative to slavery in America. But 6 years later, realizing he hadn't long to live, he had to return to the U.S. A few days after his arrival in New Haven, he died at the age of 35.

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