Portraiture and Slavery: Reflections and Resistance

Check out this great opportunity to learn about American portraiture made during slavery at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s event

Tuesday, January 31, 5:00–6:00 p.m. 
Online via Zoom

“This conversation with Drs. Adrienne L. Childs, John Stauffer, and Jennifer Van Horn will explore the approaches to portraiture made during slavery and in relation to slavery and race. Discover how the use of photography, prints, material culture, and painting varied according to sectional differences in the United States as well as across the Atlantic.

Moderated by Portrait Gallery Historian Kate Clarke Lemay, this program is part of the Greenberg Steinhauser Forum in American Portraiture.”

Join the conversation and sign up for free here!



Denmark Vesey: Charleston’s “Slave Rebellion Organizer”

Photo of Bernard Powers in a Charleston street
Dr. Bernard Powers

by Bernard E. Powers Jr.

This year marks two centuries since the life and death of Denmark Vesey, a character whose role in Charleston’s history is even today still debated and often maligned.  We want to take this opportunity to briefly set forth some of the most salient features of his life and to particularly contextualize his insurrectionary plans and their aftermath.  There are many Vesey-related sites in Charleston today, including a marker which commemorates his life that was erected in Hampton Park in 2014.  Beginning on Thursday, July 14, there will be a series of activities in the city intended to further illuminate Denmark Vesey and the implications of his life.  This will be the most significant Denmark Vesey-related public event since 2014. Details of this Denmark Vesey Bicentenary are provided in this link. We hope you will take the time to participate.

Denmark Vesey was part of a radical trans-Atlantic antislavery tradition. In Africa and everywhere bondage existed, African people resisted enslavement. On plantations and in cities, slavery created a perpetual state of war, a battlefield where, as historian John Blassingame asserted, “slaves fought masters for physical and psychological survival.” This stark reality shaped Denmark Vesey.

Born enslaved in approximately 1767 on St. Thomas, Denmark was purchased there by slave trader Joseph Vesey and relocated to Charleston in 1783. Denmark remained enslaved until 1799 when he purchased his freedom with money from a winning lottery ticket. Now free, Denmark worked as a carpenter, had three enslaved wives and numerous children. His inability to free his family members was a source of continual frustration. This problem was aggravated by the routine racial discrimination free blacks experienced in Charleston and throughout the South.

A bronze statue of Denmark Vesey
Statue of Denmark Vesey holding a Bible and carpenter’s tools. Hampton Park, Charleston, SC.

Denmark Vesey found some comfort in spirituality. In 1817 he was a communicant at the white Second Presbyterian Church. However, after Charleston’s African Church formed in 1818 Vesey joined, becoming a class leader. Led by free black minister Morris Brown, this congregation consisted primarily of slaves who left Charleston’s white Methodist Church and affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.) of Philadelphia. Being affiliated with this church was revolutionary, as a rejection of white authority, and because the A.M.E. Church was an abolitionist denomination! By this initiative taken by black Charlestonians, antislavery now extended into South Carolina, a state with an extraordinary commitment to slavery.  Unsurprisingly, white citizens and officials used every means to harass the church’s members and leaders, further radicalizing Vesey.

In a bold plan, Denmark Vesey and a cadre of skilled, privileged slaves organized rural and city slaves to overpower the municipal guard, arm themselves, set fires and escape to Haiti. Haiti was revered as the only place where enslaved people overthrew their colonial masters and created an independent nation. Offering legal protection to blacks who reached its shores, Haiti changed the geography of freedom in the Atlantic World. No wonder, Vesey’s compatriots tried communicating with Haitian leaders. However, their plans were betrayed. Trials followed, Denmark and thirty-four others were executed, and thirty-seven men were transported from the country. Municipal authorities also destroyed the African Church.

Denmark Vesey’s impact survived his demise in part because white South Carolinians never recovered from his dreadful plans. That is why writer Edwin Holland urged vigilance, describing slaves as “Barbarians who would, if they could, become the destroyers of our race.”  To counter the threat, Charleston’s police force expanded and the Citadel began in 1842 to provide white men with military training to protect a slaveholding society. The Negro Seaman Acts of 1822-23 now required jailing out-of-state free black sailors as dangerous antislavery influences.  Even so, abolitionists were not easily thwarted and some antislavery messages relied on the memory of Denmark Vesey. Reverend Henry Highland Garnet’s famous 1843 “Address to the Slaves” was an attempt to communicate directly with enslaved people and to encourage insurrection. In the speech Garnet elevated Vesey alongside Toussaint L’Ouverture, Nat Turner and Joseph Cinque in the honored pantheon of freedom fighters.  Then Garnet urged his audience to seize the moment:  “Brethren, arise, arise! Strike for your lives and liberties. . .Rather die freemen than live to be slaves. . . .Let your motto be resistance! resistance! RESISTANCE!”  Similarly, popular novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe’s  Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp developed the theme of slave resistance.  Dred, one of the main characters, was a fugitive slave maroon whose personality and insurrectionary plans embodied the characteristics of both Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner.

The foregoing developments and others such as John Brown’s 1859 Raid and the election of Abraham Lincoln the next year, coupled with South Carolina’s black majority, propelled the state into secession and war.  These radical steps were taken to protect white lives, to escape Denmark Vesey’s looming shadow; the effort failed and almost destroyed the nation in the process. Today’s persistent racial ills two centuries after Denmark Vesey’s life reveal how limited his options were, and how potent is the legacy of slavery. Vesey’s shadow persists, demanding we confront that legacy or risk the health and stature of the nation.

Bernard Powers, director of the College’s Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston, is History Professor Emeritus at the College of Charleston. He is the author of _Black Charlestonians: A Social History 1822-1885_ (1994), the co-author of _We Are Charleston: Tragedy and Triumph at Mother Emanuel_ (2016), which contextualizes the city’s 2015 racially motivated murders. Among numerous other works, his  most recent essay is entitled “Denmark Vesey, South Carolina, and Haiti: Bourne, Bound and Battered by a Common Wind” in James Spady’s _Fugitive Movements: Commemorating the Denmark Vesey Affair and Black Radical Antislavery in the Atlantic World_ (2022).  Dr. Powers served as the interim president of Charleston’s International African American Museum (IAAM). He will participate in a panel discussion on Vesey on July 14. Cover of book "Fugitive Movements"

Two Events with Dr. James O’Neil Spady

A bronze statue of Denmark VeseyThe Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston will be hosting two upcoming events with the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) program featuring Dr. James O’Neil Spady, Associate Professor of American History at Soka University in Aliso Viejo, California. Dr. Spady is the author of Education and the Racial Dynamics of Settler Colonialism in Early America: Georgia and South Carolina, ca. 1700 – ca. 1820, and editor and contributor of the book Fugitive Movements: Commemorating the Denmark Vesey Affair and Black Radical Antislavery in the Atlantic World.

On April 18th at 6pm EST Dr. Spady will be giving CSSC’s annual lecture entitled “A Movement, not a Conspiracy: A New Narrative of the 1822 Denmark Vesey ‘Affair.'” Attendees can join online via Zoom or in person in Room 101 at the Rita Liddy Hollings Science Center at 58 Coming Street, Charleston. Register for tickets on Eventbrite.

Dr. Spady will also be leading the seminar “Mapping a Movement: Archival and Digital Methods for Representing the Social and Spatial Connections of the 1822 Denmark Vesey ‘Affair'” on April 19th at 3:30pm EST in Room 360 of Addlestone Library. Addlestone Library currently requires a College of Charleston faculty or student ID for entrance.

Finding South Carolina’s Slavery Connection to St. Lucia

This summer I was fortunate to pursue my African American and diasporic research on St. Lucia, one of the Windward Islands in the eastern Caribbean. It is a lush and densely vegetated island with a rugged and mountainous topography. That makes it absolutely breathtaking to view and somewhat challenging to drive through on the winding, often narrow and alternately rising and plummeting roads. This place has a complicated history as revealed by the mixture of place names one finds. Travelers fly into Hewanorra International Airport which takes its name from the indigenous Carib inhabitants. The airport is in Vieux Fort–a town named by the French, the first European settlers–while a scenic area in the north, Rodney Bay, is named for a British naval officer. The mixture of English and French names speaks to the complicated modern history of the island colony. Until the early nineteenth century, through conquest or diplomacy, control of the island passed between Britain and France fourteen times. The British gained final control in 1814 in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars. Although it never became an economic powerhouse like its neighbors Barbados or Martinique, the French and British developed a slave-based plantation economy here geared to sugar production for world markets.

Water wheel and sugar mill in the jungle
A waterwheel-driven sugar mill

Although many slavery-related themes are ripe for investigation in this place, on this visit my interest was very specific. I have been particularly attracted to the international ramifications of the American and French Revolutions for the institution of slavery. This is in keeping with the work we are striving to accomplish here at the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston (CSSC). We don’t simply research slavery in this city. We want to broaden the lens through which people view slavery, its ramifications and its legacy. Our Charleston vantage point affords the opportunity to look out onto the Atlantic and the Caribbean and see slavery’s many important hemispheric linkages to our city and to the state. That’s how I got to St. Lucia.

When the gates of the Bastille in Paris were flung open in July 1789, French revolutionaries issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and subsequently rallied around the motto “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” This call reverberated throughout the major western colonial empires. In St. Lucia as early as 1790, free persons of color began meeting and demanding equality. Two years later, the colonial assembly extended the right to vote and hold office to free men of color. However, the enslaved population was unaffected and grew increasingly restive. Some relatively small, scattered and unsuccessful rebellions occurred on plantations by 1792. That summer the royalist governor resigned and departed the island and representatives of the new French government took control. Recognizing a new era had arrived, many slaves began abandoning the plantations by early 1793. Life on the island became increasingly unpredictable, and the British began an invasion of France and similarly threatened other parts of its empire. On February 4, 1794 the French Republic, after vacillating for years and in an effort to strengthen its military preparations, abolished slavery throughout the empire and bestowed citizenship on the freedmen. These steps were taken too late for the French to save St. Lucia, which was successfully occupied by British forces in the fall. However, the British soon discovered, just as they had previously learned during the American Revolution, that they could occupy forts and cities relatively easily, but their greatest challenges arose from rebels in the countryside.

Supporters of the French revolutionary government gathered in the countryside and organized L’ Armee Francaise dans les Bois (the French Army in the Woods). Comprised mainly of fugitive slaves, the group also attracted free men of color, poor whites and some French soldiers. For the fugitive slaves, the French Revolutionary government represented emancipation; others became supporters for a variety of reasons. The British and their royalist supporters disparagingly referred to this unofficial band of insurgents as the Brigands. They were nevertheless a powerful and resourceful adversary because they were familiar with the topography and used guerilla warfare tactics that were well adapted for the mountainous, densely vegetated environment.

Map of the island St. Lucia from 1759, with the island's mountain ranges featured.
A 1759 map of St. Lucia showing the island’s mountain ranges

After one skirmish with the Brigands in 1794 in northern St. Lucia, a British officer recalled: “the Rascals are in such Numbers and the Woods impenetrable that I am much afraid they will not be easily quelled particularly as I cannot well spare more men from this Garrison.” In addition, tropical diseases sidelined many soldiers, further eroding British military strength.

St. Lucia’s royalist planters opposed arming their slaves, fearing this would only invite insurrection. In order to improve their effectiveness, British Lieutenant General Sir John Vaughan reinforced his soldiers by bringing the Black Carolina Corps to St. Lucia from their base on Martinique. This group consisted of fugitive slaves and free persons of color that labored and fought for the British in South Carolina during the American Revolution. Toward the end of the war, in late 1782, at least 264 of these men evacuated Charleston with their British counterparts bound for St. Lucia. Once there they were formally organized, serving until the war ended and they were transferred to Grenada. The Carolina Corps was the first black unit to be permanently incorporated into the British West Indies peacetime military forces. They were now pressed into service on St. Lucia. They were soon joined by Malcolm’s Rangers or the Black Rangers, a group comprised of royalist slaves from French Martinique. The French forces, not sitting idly, were taking some important initiatives. During the era’s incessant fighting, the neighboring French island of Guadeloupe temporarily fell to the British, but by the end of 1794 it was recaptured by revolutionary France. It became a vital source of supplies and tactical support for the Brigand resistance against the British on St. Lucia.

In the fighting that ensued in 1795, the British forces continued facing protracted insurgent resistance. On multiple occasions in the southern part of the island, the insurgents successfully ambushed the invaders from the hillside and along narrow pathways. One such attack in April emanated from a Brigand settlement located on the side of Gros Piton, one of the tallest volcanic peaks on the island. The camp was led by a highly regarded and talented colored woman, Flore Bois Galliard, whose memory is enshrined in the piton named for her: Piton Flore. In another nearby campaign, the eight-hour Battle of Rabot, British forces faced withering Brigand fire and lost over one hundred men, forcing them to retreat from the southern island and take refuge in the north. Even here they only found temporary respite as Brigand attacks dislodged them from Pigeon Island and forced them from St. Lucia by mid-June.

The British occupation had lasted about a year (spanning 1794-95) and had come at considerable cost to themselves and to the island’s enslaved and free black populations. The next year, 1796, British returned in force and mounted a sustained campaign, often using scorched-earth tactics to root out the dogged Brigand resistance; by early 1799 the insurgency had been substantially crushed. One factor contributing to British success at this time was greater reliance on black troops. In mid-1795 when British fortunes deteriorated on St. Lucia, steps were taken to organize more black soldiers. The Black Carolina Corps was combined with similar groups from the Caribbean–Malcolm’s Rangers and the Dominica Rangers–to form the First West India Regiment. Subsequently the Second, Sixth and the Eighth West India Regiments were organized with black troops drawn from several Caribbean islands. Sometimes their ranks were bolstered by Africans imported through the Atlantic slave trade. The West India Regiments were effectively deployed in occupying and pacifying St. Lucia and would become a regular fixture in Britain’s future military operations.

A Private in the West India Regiment
“A Private of The 5th West India Regiment, 1812,” from the UK’s National Army Museum.

Except for a brief period in 1802, St. Lucia remained under British control. This meant the emancipation decree issued by revolutionary France was reversed and Britain reestablished slavery on the island. However, the protracted fighting ensured that the slave population was diminished when peace resumed. In 1790 the slaves numbered 18,406 but by 1799 their numbers had fallen to 13,391. Many died in the fighting while some were carried off to other islands. Many also remained as fugitives in the countryside.

Part of my trip focused on the southwestern part of the island in the vicinity of the major town of Soufriere and the nearby volcanic mountains Petit Piton and Gros Piton, which comprise an important UNESCO World Heritage Site. The image of this area is the iconic representation of the island. It is possible to climb Gros Piton and I was drawn by its stark allure and especially by the opportunity to tread on a landmark that had been a refuge for fugitive slaves and a staging ground for part of the Brigand insurgency.

Piton Mountain peaks on St. Lucia
The Pitons on St. Lucia

The small town at the base of Gros Piton is Fond Gens Libre which means “Valley of the Free People.” Inhabited as early as 1749 by slave insurrectionists that sought protection there, the place seems to have attracted additional fugitives in the 1790s.

A sign in the jungles of St. Lucia, pointing to the village of Fond Gens Libre
The sign to Fond Gens Libre Village in St. Lucia

One can easily see how densely vegetated and rugged the terrain is and thus why fugitives sought out this and similar areas.

St. Lucia jungles, dense vegetation
The dense and rugged terrain of St. Lucia.
A jungle thick with trees
Another shot of the thick vegetation on St. Lucia

At one point my guide and I departed from the regular path and entered a more secluded area. Here she showed me an example of a cave where fugitives were likely to have hidden from authorities or from which Brigand soldiers might have prepared an ambush against invaders.

Dr. Bernard Powers posing in the rocky caves of St. Lucia.

To journey to these places was at once exhilarating and exhausting. One can only imagine what those ancestors of modern day black St. Lucians must have felt in these environs. Travel to this place and immersing oneself in the environment is another way of going to the “primary sources” of history. Once you have done so, you cannot but have a deepened appreciation for the historical experience and the humans who lived it. Some of those who lived it were South Carolinians.

Dr. Bernard Powers, Emeritus Professor of History at C of C, is the director for the Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston and a board member and Interim Director for the International African American Museum (IAAM).


Edgar, Walter, The South Carolina Encyclopedia University of South Carolina, 2006.

Gaspar, David B., “La Guerre des Bois: Revolution, War and Slavery in Saint Lucia 1793-1838” in David B. Gaspar and David P. Geggus, eds., A Turbulent Time: The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean Indiana University, 1997.

Harmsen, Jolien et. al, A History of St. Lucia Lighthouse Publications, 2014.

Nicholas, Lorraine and Brijesh Thapa, “Tourism in the Fond Gens Libre Indigenous community in Saint Lucia: Examining impacts and empowerment.” Accessed August 12, 2019.

“Bourne, Bound and Battered by the Common Wind”

In February, CSSC Director and Emeritus Professor of History, Dr. Bernard Powers, delivered a lecture entitled “Denmark Vesey, South Carolina and Haiti: Borne, Bound, and Battered by the Common Wind.” This was the keynote address for the first evening of the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World’s academic conference, “The Vesey Conspiracy at 200: Black Antislavery in the Atlantic World.”

Find a copy of the conference’s program here.