History is often filled with irony. And it's generally the sad kind.
Freedom for some
Gabriel Prosser was born in 1776 (possibly the year before), the year the United States declared its independence and freedom from the British. There was much talk about liberty and "rights" going on in the former colonies as he grew up. Talk that inspired him and made him think about those thingsthings categorically denied him because he was a slave. Another source of these ideas came the slave revolt in Sainte-Domingue (the French name for the their part of the island that today makes up Haiti and the Dominican Republic). They had been inspired by similar talk of freedom and liberty following the French revolution and had the arrogance to try fighting for it.
Gabriel grew up on a tobacco plantation in Virginia (owned by a Thomas Prosser). He was intelligent, learned to read and write (mostly from the Biblethe story of the Jews overcoming their bondage striking a chord with him), and became very strong from his training and work as a blacksmith (he was supposedly one of the best smiths in the area). By the time he was twenty, he was at least six foot two (1.8 m) and considered a leader by even older slaves.
His owner died in 1796, the running the plantation turning over to his son (also Thomas Prosser). He was a hard taskmaster and pushed his workers to their limits. A few of the more skilled ones (including Gabriel and his brother Solomon) were allowed to labor in town. Though there were laws discouraging the practice of "hiring out" slaves, the cheap ("slave") labor was desirable to merchants concerned with their bottom line. It was touted as a privilege and almost any money that they earned went to the owner. In a way it was a privilege of sorts, as it was the only way (aside from escape) to have even the illusion of freedom of travel.
Other laws discouraged slaves from interacting with the few free blacks and prohibit them from interacting with whites in any social contextparticularly working class whites (a great fear was that the lower classes, who were treated only somewhat better, would join with the blacks and rebel). But Gabriel did meet other slaves and occasionally other people. The "talk" of those dream words "freedom" and "liberty" were in the air as a new nation worked to establish itself within its borders and in the world. It was difficult to insulate someone from the ideas of the time (ideas that were really meant to apply to well-off white male landowners, rather than to non-landed working class, women, blacks, and Indians).
Of course, all those high ideals and philosophy cannot bring freedom and liberty, concepts that are seldom given and more often than not need to be taken. And when one is part of an oppressed group, beaten down constantly, treated and viewed as subhuman, and given no means or hope of achieving those desired elusive ideals, that person can be prone to "taking" it in a violent manner. Further, when treatment is consistantly abusive and violent, one learns that to be the "normal" means of control and attaining one's goals. That is one way that rebellions form.
In 1799, Gabriel, Solomon, and another slave stole a pig. They were caught by an overseer, who Gabriel wrestled to the groundduring which, he bit of most of the man's ear. The court found him guilty of maiming a white man, which was a capital offense (whereas a slave killed during a beating would be looked upon as an accident in the course of disciplining chattel). A loophole (called "benefit of clergy") would allow him to escape the capital punishment if he could recite a Bible verse (which he could easily do). In lieu of execution, he was branded on his left hand in front of the court. He also spent a month in jail.
The following spring, he began to plan his rebellion.
He decided that he would gather the slaves from the area and lead them in an attack on Richmond, Virginia. In what would be a nightmare for those in power, he expected the poor and working class to join his slaves in a fight for the supposedly "unalienable rights" and freedom. Completing the nightmare, nearby Catawba Indians were to be asked to join in as well. They were to storm the city and attack the Capitol, the magazine, the penitentiary, and the governor's house, taking him (future president James Monroe) hostage and giving them leverage in negotiations with the authorities.
Most of the whites they would encounter at those places would be "massacred, save those who begged for quarter and agreed to serve as soldiers with them" (Solomon's confession, www.pbs.org). There were some others that would be spared, religious groups like the Quakers and Methodists (groups that pushed for the abolishment of slavery), Frenchmen, and the poor. He also believed that the French might intervene and join in at some later time.
As Solomon put it in his confession, Gabriel "influenced me to join him and others in order that (as he said) we might conquer the white people and possess ourselves of their property" (www.pbs.org).1 They would carry a flag that read "Death or Liberty" (it was the battle cry at Sainte-Domingue; it also recalls Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech). Gabriel shared his plan with his brother and some other slaves. They began secretly recruiting others for the impending revolt. Another leader, Jack Bowler, later said "we had as much right to fight for our liberty as any men" (chss.montclair.edu).
While women were not part of the "army," they helped in the preparations which included turning scythes into swords and bayonets and making crude bullets. Most were slaves but some freemen joined in and a few white workers. Two Frenchmen also joined (militant abolitionists). Gabriel spent time in Richmond familiarizing himself with the layout and where guns and ammunition were kept.
Recruitment continued into the summer of 1800. Gabriel wasn't the only one who felt some confidence in their endeavor and many people were ready to take out lifetimes of toil and abuse on anyone who got in their wayas one recruit said, "I was never so glad to hear anything in my life. I am ready to join them at any moment. I could slay the white people like sheep" (www.pbs.org). For such a large operation, the rebellion was kept very secretthere were some rumors and even Governor Monroe (in a letter to then vice president Thomas Jefferson) wrote of "fears of a negro insurrection" (chss.montclair.edu). But no one was seriously concerned (rumors of slave rebellion were not unheard of)
A date was chosen: 30 August. Gabriel had noted there had been a discharge of a number of soldiers from Richmond and felt it would give the attack a better chance of success.
Rain, betrayal, capture
The Saturday of the rebellion arrived. While there is no certain estimate of the number of men involved (numbers given at trial included 2000, 6000, and 10,000the Governor of the Mississippi Territory claimed the absurd 50,000), it is fairly safe to put it at well over a thousand. Regardless, it was a formidable force. The attack was set for that night (as Solomon noted in his confession, it would take place "in the dead of night, at which they would be unguarded and unsuspicious") and much of the group gathered at the arranged place about six miles (9.6 km) from Richmond.
But it would not take place. That night a huge thunderstorm took place, one described by an inmate in the jail as "the most terrible thunder accompanied with an enormous rain, that I ever witnessed in this state" (chss.montclair.edu). It's highly probable that the weather kept some of the "army" away from the meeting spot. The torrents of rain swelled the rivers and creeks and a place called Brook Swamp to bursting. It made the roads and bridges into Richmond that the rebels would have to take impassable. Faced with that, they decided to postpone it until the following evening.
Again it was as if something conspired against them. That day, two slaves had already spilled the details of the plot to their masters. The militia and other soldiers were thrown into action and by the next day making dozens, if not hundreds, of arrests. Gabriel and some others managed to escape the "round up."
When the "trials" began on 11 September, he was still free. On the fourteenth, he swam to and boarded a schooner. He spoke to the captain but not before being identified by two former slaves. Fortunately the captain, a former slave owner, decided instead to take him to freedom. Unfortunately, when the boat docked in Norfolk, one of the slaves informed the authorities who was on board. Though there was a $300 reward, he only received $50. By 6 October, Gabriel had joined the accused in court.
The slaves were to be tried in front of "Oyer and Terminer" courtscourts where there was no benefit of jury, the case was heard by six judges, and the only appeal could be to the governor (an obvious drawback under the circumstances). Because there was no way to be sure of the extent of the rebellion, the court offered leniency or pardons for those who informed on their comrades.
At least twenty-six hanged (possibly more) for their part in the plot, including Gabriel and Solomon. Another died in jailhanged, maybe a suicide, while in custody. According to an eyewitness, "of those who were executed, no one has betrayed his cause. They have uniformly met death with fortitude," another stating that "The accused have exhibited a spirit, which, if it becomes general, must deluge the Southern country in blood. They manifested a sense of their rights, and contempt of danger, and a thirst for revenge which portend the most unhappy consequences" (chss.montclair.edu). Again with those "rights."
Those convicted but not executed were sold and transported out of state. Four (or two) escaped from prison (no mention of them ever being recaptured). The two who had informed won their freedom.
At Gabriel's trial, several witnesses gave evidence against him. He chose to make no statementThe Pennsylvania Gazette put their own spin on it by claiming that
Gabriel, during his trial, appeared extremely uneasy in his mind, as if laboring under the severest oppressions of a guilty conscience. ...the Court observed to him that much anxiety and trouble seemed to hang upon his countenance, and recommended an open concession of all what he knew...to relieve himself in a measure of the heavy burthen which evidently distressed him; however, he would make no discoveries, but plead with earnestness for the day of his execution to be put off until Friday. (www.courses.dsu.edu)
He was to be put to death the next day (7 October) but asked it be postponed to the tenth so he could die with six others being hanged. The court allowed it (though cheated him of his attempt at solidarity by hanging them in three different locations and saving Gabriel for last). During the interim, Monroe visited him to seek information, later relating that "he seemed to have made up his mind to die, and to have resolved to say but little on the subject of conspiracy" (chss.montclair.edu).
More might have been executed except Monroe began to be concerned about the number of executions. He wrote Jefferson about it, getting the reply: "The other states & the world at large will forever condemn us if we indulge a principle of revenge, or go one step beyond absolute necessity" (chss.montclair.edu). That his concern seems to be more for what it makes the United States look like to the rest of the world seems notable.
Later, Jefferson shows his "concern" for those convicted saying "I doubt whether these people can ever be permitted to go at large among us with safety," therefore suggesting they be reprieved and kept in prison. Wondering if there might not be a "fort & garrison" "where they would be confined, & where the presence of the garrison would preclude all ideas of attempting a rescue."
Some were given reprieves (then sold and shipped away from Virginia as noted above). In addition to "looking bad" to the world and being a "what to do with them" problem, it became a domestic political issue, as "Federalists cited the event as a consequence of the Democratic-Republicans' support of the French Revolution and ultrademocratic ideals" (www.lva.lib.va.us). A long way from "Liberté, égalité, fraternité" and other "revolutionary" ideals of freedom and the rights of man that this was supposed to be about.
And the slave owners got their justice: the court reimbursed them (as per the law) over $8,900 for those that were executed.
After the trials
Results of the near rebellion (it would have been the largest in US history had it taken placeAndry's Rebellion holds that title) stretched throughout the country. Monitoring of activities was increased, penalties for misbehavior expanded, and laws were enacted to restrict literacy and learning among the slave population. Restrictions were also placed on free blacks.
In 1804, a lawyer related to a visitor in the area some testimony that one of the rebels had given. That man copied it into his journal. He wrote:
A lawyer who was present at their trials at Richmond, informed me that on one of them being asked, what he had to say to the court on his defence, he replied, in a manly tone of voice: "I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice in their cause: and I beg, as a favour, that I may be immediately led to execution. I know that you have pre-determined to shed my blood, why then all this mockery of a trial?" (www.pbs.org)
1Some sources claim his intention was to set up a black "state" or "nation" with himself as a sort of king, others only that he wished to "destroy slavery in Virginia" (www.co.henrico.va.us). Solomon's confession includes: "Gabriel informed me, in case of success, that they intended to subdue the whole of the country where slavery was permitted, but no further" (www.pbs.org). This is a bit ambiguous, partly because it is unclear what is meant by "country." It could be the actual United States, all of Virginia, or merely the "country" around Richmondthere were already plans to expand into nearby cities if the rebellion went well. Further, there is no indication as to what was to be done following this "subduing."
Another source (www.lva.lib.va.us) quotes one of the captured rebels as saying that if the slaves were all freed, Gabriel "would dine and drink with the merchants of the City." It seems unclear as to what the ultimate intention was following the freeing of slaves (or the extent to which they would be freeing them).
(Sources: www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part3/3p1576.html and related pages; chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/spl/gabrielrevolt.html; www.africana.com/Articles/tt_270.htm; www.courses.dsu.edu/history/Slavery/prosser.asp;