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

By Egerton, Douglas R. | South Carolina Historical Magazine, April 2000 | Go to article overview

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


Egerton, Douglas R., South Carolina Historical Magazine


Denmark Vesey: The Buried History of America's Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It. By David Robertson. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf,1999. Pp. x, 202. $23.00, cloth.)

The fact that Denmark Vesey, arguably one of the most important and influential black abolitionists in the 19th Century, lacked a biographer until 1999 is both an unhappy commentary on a profession too often content to churn out unnecessary studies of insignificant Civil War officers, as well as a sad reminder of the extent to which southern antislavery activists had to conceal their lives from public view. Aside from journalist John Lofton's pioneering, if now dated, account of the old carpenter's meticulously-- planned 1822 plot, Insurrection in South Carolina (1964), Vesey has been accorded little more than cameos in monographs on nullification or slave religion. Yet scholars have long understood Vesey's impact on the subsequent course of South Carolina history, and if for no other reason, David Robertson's popular account is a welcome addition to antebellum historiography.

Given Vesey's determined efforts to avoid the preying eyes of white authorities, it is perhaps not surprising that Robertson's book is not a traditional biography. The boy rechristened Telemaque by Captain Joseph Vesey first appears on page 27, and he dies by page 103. The remainder of the book is given over to a sometimes thoughtful but ultimately unpersuasive attempt to depict Vesey as a practicing Muslim and to connect him to contemporary black leaders like Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad.

Admittedly, in recent years comparative analyses of slave societies by talented scholars like Peter Kolchin, Barrington Moore, and Roderick A. McDonald have proved richly rewarding. But Robertson's failure to appreciate the situational differences between antebellum Charleston and post-World War II New York City too often leaves his Vesey a rebel without a context.

Robertson, a poet and novelist, is the author of the justly praised Booth, an ingenious work of historical fiction. Unfortunately, this slim foray into nonfiction appears rushed. …

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