Although the Outer Banks version of Denmark Tanny is fictional, the character is inspired by a real person named Denmark Vesey. Denmark Vesey, a Black carpenter from South Carolina, was the inspiration for this fictional character. Vesey, like Tanny, was enslaved until he obtained his freedom.
Many of Outer Banks‘ treasure stories are fabricated, but Denmark Tanny is actually based upon a real-life, formerly enslaved, man from Charleston, South Carolina. The first season Outer Banks features the adventures of teenage characters, the Pogues. They set out on a treasure hunt for the $400 million worth of gold found on a shipwreck dating back to the 1800s. Season 2 follows John B, Sarah and JJ as they uncover more treasures from the sunken Royal Merchant. They also learn secrets about Denmark Tanny, the only survivor of the shipwreck.
Outer Banks‘ fiction places Denmark Tanny as one the area’s first wealthy citizens. He was an enslaved man who worked onboard the Royal Merchant from its sinking to the point where he became a cook. Tanny, the only person to survive the shipwreck brought many of the treasures from the ship on land to create a community that would allow other enslaved North Carolina residents to be free. Tannyhill is the name of his vast estate. Outer Banks Ward Cameron lives there with his family in the Figure Eight area.
Denmark Tanny was inspired by South Carolina’s Denmark Vesey. Vesey was a Black activist from Charleston. He was born into slavery in the Caribbean in late 1700s and eventually gained his freedom at 32 when he won a lottery. Vesey tried unsuccessfully to buy the freedom of his children and wife after becoming a freeman. Tanny, the fictional Vesey, and Vesey the real-life are both well-known activists and leaders in their communities as freedmen. Vesey established an African Methodist Episcopal Church, similar to Outer Banks. Demark Tanny also founded a church on the island in order to meet other freedmen (which also happened be the place where he hid his Cross of Santo Domingo).
Considering part of Outer Banks season 2 also takes place in Charleston where the Limbreys reveal they held Denmark Tanny’s wife and children as slaves, the connection between the two men is no coincidence. Both Vesey and Tanny also met their demise in similar ways: at the plotting of wealthy white slave owners who had stakes in their families’ ownership. Vesey was executed for allegedly planning a widespread slave revolt to free his family, and Tanny for trying to free his wife and children, eventually being hanged after he buried his wife’s bones under a tree in the Outer Banks.
The real Denmark Vesey never came to a vast fortune nor was subject to a high-profile shipwreck, but his tale and tragic demise that are reflected in Denmark Tanny contribute to the growing conversations on Outer Banks about racial and wealth inequality. Now that the Netflix TV show revealed Pope Heyward is a direct descendant of Denmark Tanny and probable heir to the Royal Merchant’s treasures, the series will likely put much more effort into discussing his backstory and what it means for the family reclaiming Tannyhill. Outer Banks‘ popularity may also inspire Charleston historians to put more research into Denmark Vesey’s story and his effects on Southern race relations in the Carolinas.