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Black History

Police Control of the Slave in South Carolina

The following brief look at insurrections in the Carolinas, are continuing excerpts from a Vanderbilt University Ph. D thesis written in 1914. This was 49 years after the end of slavery, and yet the writer, Howell M. Henry, shows himself to be very much a part of the mentality that can empathize with people-owners and their problems. Looking at the work of this educated man, we can see how slow and gradual is the process of true civilization. This stands in stark contrast to the evolution of technology and the control and tracking of people. The most powerful new weapon on this horizon is the computer, and according to Moore’s Law, it doubles in power every 18 months. It is in the differential in these rates of development that we find the danger that we are in. To help remember how far we have come in the struggle to control our own destinies, and see how far we have to go we offer the following.

(The balance of this article is transcribed from Mr. Henry’s thesis. It does not reflect the opinion of OUR TIME PRESS.) First published in OTP October, 1997
The following paragraph will narrate some instances of well-known insurrectionary attempts that may be found treated in other accounts of slavery. Their mention here will not only serve to complete the description of the police control of the slave, but will at the same time show what basis there was for the great fear which the whites continually felt in varying degrees of intensity.”

The danger from insurrections seems to have been imminent from early times since almost the first act on slavery, that of 1690, provided the death penalty for an attempt to instigate an uprising. As a precaution the act of 1722 made it the duty of the Justice of the Peace to seize any horses kept solely for slaves since they afforded additional opportunity for the carrying on of insurrectionary plots.
The first plot of much importance was the Stono* uprising of September 9, 1739. The Spanish colony at St. Augustine was always hostile to the South Carolina settlement, and seems to have encouraged in every way the incendiary propensities of the South Carolina slaves.A plot to capture Charleston by the negroes in 1720 is mentioned by Schaper, “sectionalism in South Carolina,” p. 310.” But it was discovered and many of them taken prisoners, and some burned, and some hanged and some banished.”


McCrady, (South Carolina Under the Royal Government, 1719-1776 p185) whose account is for the most part followed here, says that the slaves were encouraged by emissaries of the Spanish to leave their masters and on reaching the Spanish fort were protected and even organized into militia companies,” and these fact were communicated to other slaves in Carolina to encourage them also to leave. A number of negroes finally assembled at Stono, broke open a warehouse, killed the two guards, stole the arms and ammunition and preceding further, killed a Mr. Godfrey and family and fired his house. Governor Bull met them on his return from a visit to the outside. A Mr. Golightly had also observed them from a safe distance. These two spread the alarm, the latter pressing immediately after them on securing the assistance of the white men who were attending worship at a Presbyterian Church, and who in obedience to the law had gone to church armed. The militia surrounded the rebellious negroes and captured nearly all of them. Those who apparently had followed because of pressure were pardoned those losing their lives in the attack and those of the negroes executed amounted to forty-four.

The outbreak brought consternation to the peaceful inhabitant of the colony. The militia patrol to the Southwards was strengthened. In 1740 the great slave act was passed which remained the basic negro law for the next century and a quarter. It would not be surprising that on investigation This code should be found to be severe. Such is not the case however. McCrady states that in some respects the condition of the slaves was ameliorated. The precautions against insurrections, however, were rigid, one section prohibiting beating drums, blowing horns or the like which might on occasion be used to arouse slaves to insurrectionary activity.*

McCrady speaks of the negroes in the Stono insurrection as marching “with colors flying and drums beating.”
The City Gazette and Daily Advertiser (ed. Note ital) (Charlston) of November 22, 1787 tells of four negroes being tried on the charge of conspiracy to fire the city of Charlston. One turned state’s evidence against the others. This one with one of the others was sentenced to be transported, while the other two went to the scaffold. Five days later another was implicated and hanged…Some fear apparently had come to be had of unprincipled and irresponsible whites who for any reason might aid in insurrectionary movements. The act of 1805 made it treason punishable with death for “any person” in any way to aid in an insurrection. Confession or the testimony of two witnesses was sufficient to convict. Good reason for believing that this was intended to reach whites is that no such limitations as to evidence would be probable in the case of a negro.
The Camden attempt at insurrection occurred in 1826. The betrayal of the plot led the whites to believe that it had been in contemplation for a long time. The plan was to fire the “powder magazine,” an old arsenal. Thus attracting the attention of the white people to that part of the town while the negroes should assemble in another quarter, massacre the whites and burn the rest of the town. They had apparently, as was usually the case except in the Vesey instance, nothing further definitely in view. The date for the attempt significantly set for July 4.*
a “Carolinian” in a pamphlet, “The Slave Population of South Carolina (in its Religious Aspects),” says fourth of July orations should not be heard by slaves as they would be misled by addresses on liberty. A faithful slave revealed the plot to his master who communicated with the governor. An officer of the militia was detailed to secure evidence of the plot, without if possible revealing the identity of the informing slave. By a shrewd stroke Col. Chestnut carried on a counter plot and in this way secured the details of the original plot. Seventeen were arrested, seven of whom were convicted after a trial before a court consisting of two magistrates and five freeholders. Five were executed; one was pardoned after all the plans for his execution had been completed;…the informing slave was purchased by an act of the legislature appropriating $ 1,100 for the purpose and giving to the slave $50 per annum during his lifetime. But the attempt as insurrection which is the best known was one of the more important plots in the United States, and which showed more intelligence in its conception and plans, was the Vesey plot of 1822 in Charlston. Denmark Vesey, a free negro, planned it in conjunction with certain slaves, the more important of whom were Gullah Jack, Monday Gell and Peter Poyas. The plan was for those in the plot to rise suddenly about the first of July, seize the shipping, burn the town, and then sail away to the West Indies. The slaves invited to join were told that the whites were contemplating a gigantic slaughter of the negroes because they had become too numerous. Everything was apparently in readiness for some time. On May 20, Peter, a faithful salve who had been asked to join the plot, communicates what he knew to his master. The city authorities were apprized, a court summoned and information sought. Arrests were made, and, to show the persistence of the leaders, even after some of those involved had been arrested, they either in desperation or without fully calculating the determination of the whites made efforts to bring the plot into execution. But the greater part of them were intimidated… The number arrested was 131, 67 of whom were convicted; the number executed was 35, all slaves except for Vesey; the number deported, 32. In the appendix to Kennedy & Parker’s Negro Plot (ital) p189 , is related the trial and conviction of four white men in the session court for complicity in the plot. Their sentences ranged from three to twelve months imprisonment and upon release they were to be required to give security for good behavior for five years in sums ranging from $ 100 to $1,000. If the Vesey plot put everybody to thinking, the fancied security of the whites, if it existed, had a rude awakening. Everybody was anxious that some remedy should be applied, but were perhaps doubtful of what it should be. Citizens of Charlston presented a memorial to the legislature praying the expulsion of free negroes from the state. Indeed, because Vesey was free and because he was not a native of the state, great distrust of the free negroes arose, and particularly did the people appear to think that every precaution should be taken to keep any of this class from coming into the state. Since several strengthenings of the slave law had already been accomplished in the three years just preceding – as a new patrol law and one prohibiting further manumission – the only direction in which further improvements could be effected was in stricter enforcement of the laws and passing of the seamen acts.

The act of 1822 also provided the death penalty for participating in an insurrection whether successful or not.
But the extreme precaution taken against immigrant free persons of color in the seamen act threatened to cause international complications. As Professor Phillips suggests, the Vesey plot checked any tendency toward liberalism which may have been prevalent at this time and made the arguments of the abolitionists which began to be disseminated in the next decade, the less acceptable to the South.
November – Abolition and Incendiary Literature


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