Monday, February 24, 2014
Black History: Gabriel’s Rebellion
Gabriel Prosser was a literate enslaved blacksmith who planned a large slave rebellion in the Richmond area in the summer of 1800. Information regarding the revolt was leaked prior to its execution, and he and twenty-five followers were taken captive and hanged in punishment. In reaction, Virginia and other state legislatures passed restrictions on free blacks, as well as prohibiting the education, assembly and hiring out of slaves, to restrict their chances to learn and to plan similar rebellions.
History reports that Gabriel was born into slavery at Brookfield, a tobacco plantation in Henrico County, Virginia, Gabriel had two brothers, Solomon and Martin. They were all held by Thomas Prosser, the owner. As Gabriel and Solomon were trained as blacksmiths, their father may have had that skill. Gabriel was also taught to read and write.
By the mid-1790s, as Gabriel neared the age of twenty, he stood “six feet two or three inches tall, was marred by the loss of his two front teeth and “two or three scars on his head”. White people, as well as blacks, regarded the literate young man as “a fellow of great courage and intellect above his rank in life.”
During the spring and summer of 1800, Gabriel planned the revolt. On August 30, 1800, he intended to lead slaves into Richmond, but the rebellion was postponed because of rain. The slaves’ owners had suspicion of the uprising, and two slaves told their owner, Mosby Sheppard, about the plans. He warned Virginia’s Governor, James Monroe, who called out the state militia.
Gabriel escaped downriver to Norfolk, but he was spotted and betrayed there by another slave for the reward offered by the state, which the slave did not receive the full reward. Gabriel was returned to Richmond for questioning, but he did not submit. Gabriel, his two brothers, and 23 other slaves were hanged.
The historian Douglas Egerton offered a new perspective on Gabriel in his book Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1802 (1993). He based this on extensive primary research from surviving contemporary documents. Egerton believed that Gabriel had two white co-conspirators, at least one of whom was identified as a French national. He found reports that documentary evidence of their identity or involvement was sent to Governor Monroe, but never produced in court, and suggests that it was to protect the Republican Party; a significant part of the Republican base were major planters, colleagues of Jefferson and Madison.
Egerton noted that Gabriel did not order his followers to kill all whites except Methodists, Quakers and Frenchmen; rather, he instructed them not to kill any people in those three categories. During this period, Methodists and Quakers were active missionaries for manumission, and many slaves had been freed since the end of the Revolution in part due to their work. The French were considered allies as they had abolished slavery in their Caribbean colonies in 1794.
Gabriel’s uprising was notable not because it was quelled before it could begin but because of its potential for mass chaos and widespread violence. In Virginia in 1800, 39.2 percent of the total population were slaves; they were concentrated on plantations in the Tidewater area and west of Richmond. No reliable numbers existed regarding slave and free black conspirators; most likely, the number of men actively involved numbered only several hundred.
Gabriel’s rebellion served as an important example of slaves’ taking action to gain freedom. In 2002, the City of Richmond adopted a resolution to commemorate the 202nd anniversary “of the execution of the patriot and freedom fighter, Gabriel, whose death stands as a symbol for the determination and struggle of slaves to obtain freedom, justice and equality as promised by the fundamental principles of democratic governments of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America.”
On August 30, 2007, Governor Kaine informally pardoned Gabriel and his co-conspirators. Kaine said that Gabriel’s motivation had been “his devotion to the ideals of the American revolution; it was worth risking death to secure liberty.” Kaine noted, “Gabriel’s cause to end slavery and the furtherance of equality of all people has prevailed in the light of history”, and added“it is important to acknowledge that history favorably regards Gabriel’s cause while consigning legions who sought to keep him and others in chains to be forgotten.” The pardon was informal because it was posthumous.
Although betrayed, Gabriel stands as a courageous giant in the annals of time, and he should be honored for his significance for giving his life for a crime against humanity. And that’s my thought provoking perspective…