Gabriel And His Rebellion
Gabriel was an extraordinarily intelligent slave who organized a rebellion outside Richmond, Virginia.
Although his plans were foiled before they could begin, the shock from this event had long lasting consequences in his State and beyond.
*Please note: the subject of this article’s full name is simply Gabriel. He is today referred to as Gabriel Prosser because traditionally American slaves were known by the last name of their owners. However, there is no evidence of Gabriel being described with the last name Prosser. Prosser is used in this article to distinguish him from the numerous other Gabriels in world history.
Gabriel Prosser was a Virginian slaved who was taught to read and trained in the art of blacksmithing. As was common at the time, Gabriel’s master loaned him out to work for others in the city of Richmond.
Gabriel was more intelligent than most people and understood the discussions of liberty he heard from the free tradesmen he worked with. Undoubtably, Prosser would have heard about the Haitian Revolution which took place just a few years prior.
Inspired by the ideas he had been exposed to, the 24-year-old decided to stage a revolt of his own.
Gabriel conspired with a group of slaves, free black Patriots, and a handful of white men to storm the city, take the Governor (James Monroe) hostage, and demand abolition of forced labor in the State.
Interestingly, Gabriel specifically demanded that, should violence break out, no Methodists, Quakers or Frenchmen should be killed. This is because these people went out of their way to convince plantation owners to manumit their slaves.
The date for a rebellion was set, but due to a storm it was delayed. This setback proved to be Gabriel’s undoing as word of his intentions were found out.
Gabriel tried to escape on a ship to the Haiti but was caught.
The person who sold Gabriel out was another slave who had been loaned to the Captain. This man wanted the $300 reward so that he could purchase his own freedom. However, since he was a slave, he only received $50.
Gabriel and twenty-five of his accomplices were given closed door trials (which were undoubtably extremely biased).
Prosser and his posse were soon thereafter hung.
What I find extraordinary about Gabriel’s Rebellion is just how badly it backfired.
Not only were the rebels found out and hung, but slavery in Virginia actually became substantially worse due to his efforts.
It was soon forbidden for a slave to be loaned out to other businesses for fear that, like Gabriel, the slaves would learn about freedom and get the idea to revolt. This actually hurt the income of plantation owners as decades of cash-cropping tobacco had destroyed the soil and loaning out their servants was an important means of earning money.
Additionally, education (especially literacy) was restricted to limit the chances of future issues arising.
Furthermore, free blacks were instructed to leave Virginia or be re-enslaved. Certain free blacks were able to petition to stay but this was an arduous process that did not garuntee success.
Please make no mistake, I applaud Gabriel’s intentions. His goal of freeing his brethren and not just himself is commendable.
It is hard to imagine Gabriel attempting an uprising if he did not think it could be successful. Also, he could never have known how strong the backlash would be.
It is easy to use hindsight and say ‘look what you did’ or (sarcastically) ‘good going buddy.’ However, with the ideas of liberty and freedom being passed around the young United States at the time, in addition to the many white Americans fighting for abolition, Gabriel may very well have believed that one small spark might eliminate the country’s most ‘necessary evil.’
For a deeper look into Gabriel’s Rebellion, check out ‘Whispers of Rebellion’ by Michael L. Nicholls. It is a fascinating look at the tensions between white and black, slave and freeman in the greater Richmond area at the beginning of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Pick it up through the affiliate link below or at your library.