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5.0 out of 5 stars Within a hair's breadth of changing US history, March 30, 2001
This review is from: Denmark Vesey: The Buried Story of America's Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It (Paperback)
The parallels between Denmark Vesey's failed slave insurrection in Charleston in 1822 and the start of Toussaint's successful slave insurrection in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) in 1791 are striking. In both circumstances, black slaves comprised the vast majority of the population -- 75% in Charleston, 90% in Saint Domingue. In both, the hopeful liberators were former slaves who had become literate, fairly well-to-do, free blacks. Both Toussaint and Vesey distrusted mulattoes, who were regarded in both societies as a distinct class, with ambivalent loyalties. Both leaders took advantage of the disparate religious beliefs of their followers to enhance group cohesiveness.
In any such mass event, planned well in advance, the risk of discovery or betrayal is always great. Remarkably, in both of these planned insurrections, rumors and confessions alerted authorities weeks in advance of the scheduled dates. And in both, the white slaveholders were incredulous that ignorant, simple blacks could possibly coordinate an uprising of the size suggested by their informants. In both instances, the threat was dismissed as fantasy. As we know, the French authorities of Saint Domingue were too late in recognizing the magnitude and reality of the uprising. Few of us, however, have grasped the slim margin of time by which white Charlestonians were able to prevent a similar success in Charleston. Considering that Charleston was the prime destination of French planters fleeing the conflagration in Saint Domingue, Charlestonians should have been more attuned to the threat brought on by their slaveholding, minority autocracy. But, as Robertson points out, there was a degree of theater involved in living as a dominant white minority among a vast population of black slaves, and part of that theater was the belief by slaveholders that their slaves were grateful for being well treated--that slaves could recognize that it is better to be fed and clothed and sheltered as a slave than to be free as a savage. This delusion led to the Charlestonians' nearly fatal delay in responding to the signs of impending insurrection.
STRENGTHS: The story of Denmark Vesey is as fine an example of "Silencing the Past", in Michel-Rolph Trouillot's words, as the story of Saint Domingue. Despite the conscious efforts of Charlestonians to obliterate the history of the event (efforts well chronicled by Robertson) the author has assembled a creditable body of confirmed and "probable" details about Vesey and the planned insurrection. His unflinching thoroughness is revealed in such details as the fact that Peter Prioleau, the slave who initially betrayed the plot, was freed in 1822 by a special act of the legislature, and given a lifetime pension. We learn that by 1840, Prioleau is himself the owner of 7 slaves. The brief text (153 pages) is readable compelling, and well documented.
In an appendix, Robertson includes 1 paragraph biographies of the other men who were executed along with Denmark Vesey. These poignant scraps are practically all that is know of many of these would be liberators.
Interestingly, we learn that Vesey's attempted insurrection apparently led to the US's refusal to grant diplomatic recognition to the Republic of Haiti until the US Civil War. This veritable boycott of the Western Hemisphere's second oldest republic by its older brother may be seen as a significant cause of Haiti's financial and political instability during the first half of the 19th century.
WEAKNESSES: I'm stumped here. Perhaps the only shortcoming I can point out is that the text would be enhanced by a period map of Charleston, to enable the reader to follow some of the geographical commentary.
CONCLUSION: This short, fluidly written history of an event which could have resulted in a stunning alteration of American history, is also great reading.
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