Congo Jack

Congo Jack, also called Gullah Jack, appears in history in connection with the insurrection planned by Denmark Vesey in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822. He was the person Vesey relied on to strengthen the rebels against harm.
Vesey, like so many other African American leaders of the 19th century, came from the “upper class” of slaves: the engineers and craftspeople who were given a high degree of independence and self-actualization, as opposed to field workers or house slaves. He purchased his own freedom and settled down as a carpenter in Charleston, South Carolina.
Despite the surface placidity of his free life, he was fired with anger over slavery and the situation of black slaves. Throughout his entire free existence, he planned and thought about freeing his fellow slaves. He was so full of anger that companions say that he could not even remain in the presence of a Euro-American.
Like Gabriel Prosser, another rebellion leader, Vesey was also deeply inspired by Christianity, in particular the Old Testament. An integral aspect of slave and free Christianity was its emphasis on the delivery of the “children of Israel” from bondage in Egypt. This story was perhaps the most powerful religious and cultural influence on the world-view of 19th-century Americans. Although most historians stress the passive nature of the Israelite deliverance, that deliverance was also yoked to the Israelite invasion of the land of Canaan.
Although this invasion was barely successful, the Old Testament books telling the history of the Canaan occupation and its aftermath are ruthlessly violent and present a warrior god with no mercy toward non-Israelites. All evidence suggests that slaves understood that these two events were connected and that deliverance along Israelite lines would be bought with human blood. Vesey, who went around quoting biblical texts to slaves to inspire them to revolt, particularly loved to quote Yahweh's instructions to Joshua when he demands that Joshua kill every occupant of the cities of Canaan including women and children.
Congo Jack was the spiritual guide who convinced Vesey that it was alright to rise against enslavement. In fact, Vesey, having come from the West Indies, probably the Virgin Islands that had been controlled by the Danish, believed more firmly in Congo Jack than many of those he wanted to lead.
Vesey's task, as he saw it, was to incite enslaved Africans into revolt. In 1821, that focus changed dramatically, and he began to organize his own revolt. He organized a working group of lieutenants that included Gullah Jack, a religious man considered absolutely invulnerable, and Peter Poyas, who was one of the great military and organizational geniuses of the early 19th century. Poyas organized the revolt in separate cells under individual leaders. Only the leaders knew the plot; if any slave betrayed the plot, they would only betray their one cell.
By 1822, almost all the slaves in the plantations surrounding Charleston had joined the revolt. The plan was brilliantly simple. The rebels would all station themselves at the doors of Euro-Americans; late at night, a group of rebels would start a major fire. When the men came out their doors, the rebels would kill them with axes, picks, or guns. They would then enter the houses and kill all the occupants. Like Prosser's revolt, this one almost succeeded. The rebels were betrayed early in the game, but the cell structure prevented officials from finding out the plot or identifying any of the leaders. It was only the day before that a slave, who knew the entire plot, betrayed Vesey. He and his co-leaders were hung, but only one confessed. The insurrection failed, but not before it demonstrated that a religious man, Congo Jack, played a role in inspiring the people to revolution as the spiritual advisor to Denmark Vesey. What was clear in the insurrection was that Africans, many of them recently from the continent, were partly persuaded to join Vesey by Congo Jack's ritual ceremonies.



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Further Reading

  • Buckley, R. N. (1997). Congo Jack: A Novel. Mt. Kisco, NY: Pinto Press.