United States 1800
Gabriel, a slave born on a plantation near Richmond, was a blacksmith who could read and write. Inspired by an earlier successful rebellion on Haiti, he masterminded the first U.S. slave rebellion in 1800. Using the communication network fostered by social and religious gatherings, Gabriel and his supporters spread the plans for a mass uprising in which the slaves planned to march into Richmond and take control of weaponry from the arsenal then attack the whites of the city. Weather and betrayal foiled the plot, and Gabriel and more than 40 other slaves were hanged for their part in the uprising. Ultimately, the rebellion contributed to the process of questioning the basic assumptions about slave capabilities and prerogatives that eventually lent force to abolitionist arguments.
- 1775: American Revolution begins with the battles of Lexington and Concord, and delegates from each of the 13 American colonies meet for the Second Continental Congress.
- 1787: Constitution of the United States is signed.
- 1789: French Revolution begins with the storming of the Bastille.
- 1790: The first U.S. census reports a population of about 3,929,000, including 698,000 slaves.
- 1793: Eli Whitney patents his cotton gin—a machine that, by making cotton profitable, spurs the expansion of slave labor in the southern United States.
- 1800: The world's population reaches 870 million.
- 1800: The United States moves its federal government to Washington, D.C.
- 1800: British astronomer William Herschel discovers infrared rays, and Italian physicist Alessandro Volta develops the voltaic cell, an early form of battery.
- 1802: France, under the direction of Napoleon Bonaparte, revokes a 1794 decree emancipating the slaves of Haiti; reintroduces slavery to that colony; and imprisons slave revolt leader Toussaint L'Ouverture.
- 1803: Administration of President Thomas Jefferson negotiates the Louisiana Purchase from France, whereby the United States doubles its geographic size, adding some 827,000 square miles (2,144,500 sq km)—all for the price of only $15 million.
- 1808: U.S. Congress bans the importation of slaves.
- 1810: Revolts begin in South America, initiating the process whereby colonies will win their freedom from Spain and other European colonial powers.
Event and Its Context
The Economic Climate
In a period of revolution—in America, France, Ireland, and Haiti—the first slave rebellion, led by Gabriel, deserves special attention, for it brought the elements of organization into the most backward workplace: the plantations of Virginia.
Gabriel was born a slave in 1776 on the tobacco plantation of Thomas Prosser, in Henrico County, southwest of Richmond, Virginia. By the age of 10, he was trained, along with his brother Solomon, as a blacksmith and, remarkably, had learned to read and write. His great physical strength, his artisan status, and his literacy mingled with an intense desire to free the slaves made him a natural leader.
In 1798, Thomas Prosser died and the control of the plantation passed to his son, Thomas Henry Prosser, just as a period of economic hardship struck the plantation economy. Prosser responded in disparate ways: by cruelly driving his slaves while allowing some of the skilled artisans like Gabriel to self-hire themselves out in Richmond for wages. Even though the Virginia legislature had passed laws to restrict the hiring of slaves, the laws were seldom enforced because local merchants relied on skilled self-hire slaves, who worked more cheaply than white tradesmen.
The period of 1780-1800 was a time of dramatic change in Richmond, as it became the center of a thriving regional economy. Plantations, which had once been isolated and self-sufficient entities, now shipped and bought commodities from Richmond. Slaves transported these good back and forth from the plantations while other blacks, both slave and free, had positions as boatmen guiding wooden skiffs on the regional rivers and canals. These boatmen were so important that, during the rebellion, Governor James Monroe was reluctant to ship weapons to outlying areas on the skiffs because he feared that the pilots would turn over the weapons to the rebels.
As a growing urban area, Richmond had a significant African American population. According to the federal census in 1800, slaves constituted 47 percent of Virginia's population, with a higher percentage in the Richmond area. Within the city, 20 percent of blacks were free. This created a large community in which slaves, free blacks and poor whites lived, worked, worshipped, and even socialized together. Extensive communication networks proliferated among the slaves; individual slaves and those attending mass meetings such as religious services or social events relayed news and messages.
Coming to Leadership
Gabriel gained prominence in 1799, when he and Solomon tried to steal a pig from a nearby tenant farmer named Absolom Johnson. When Johnson caught the brothers, he fought with Gabriel, who beat him and also bit off part of Johnson's left ear. Gabriel was "tried" in the Oyer and Terminer court, where disputes were heard without a jury, and was sentenced to 39 lashes; in addition, his left thumb was branded.
With this notoriety, Gabriel began to organize for the rebellion in the spring of 1800. If there were a good time for such a dangerous plan, the year of 1800 provided it. The state of Virginia was seething with the presidential campaign between native son Thomas Jefferson and John Adams in a campaign to define the "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" promised by the American Revolution. Gabriel even hoped—incorrectly, as it turned out—that Governor Monroe might be sympathetic to a movement by the slaves to free themselves.
A possible naval war with France and disputes with Native Americans on the state's borders distracted the government. During the summer of 1800, as part of his evaluation of the state's military preparedness, Governor Monroe compelled the county militias to collect all weapons and turn them in for reconditioning to the Richmond penitentiary, which was temporarily transformed into an arsenal. At the same time, the state purchased 4,000 new muskets, which were also stored in the arsenal. This prompted Gabriel to focus on this building as he planned his rebellion. Visiting Richmond on Sundays, he gained access to the keys with the intention of arming the rebellious slaves.
One inspiration for Gabriel was the successful rebellion of the slaves on the island of St. Domingue, which had been led by a coachman named Toussaint; always able to find l'overature, or the opening, it became his historical surname. On 1 August 1789, after hearing of the events in France, the slaves rose up in a rebellion that was brutally put down by the authorities after the rebels burned 6000 coffee estates and 200 sugar plantations. Several years later, the rebels were more successful and, assisted by Spanish military, they drove out the French troops, repelled counter-attacks by the French and British, and established the continent's first black government.
Toussaint L'Overature established a civilian government on the island, called Haiti, with uniform currency and courts of law. Emigrants from Haiti, both white and black, came to Virginia to spread the word of this successful slave rebellion and black government.
Gabriel traveled the countryside in the spring of 1800 to gather recruits for the rebellion. Some slaves joined for simple revenge against cruel owners, and others were attracted by a plan to seize the state treasury. In general, the simple the desire for freedom roused to action the slaves, free blacks, and even some free whites. Gabriel often spoke of creating a silk flag bearing the motto "Death or Liberty," as an echo of both Patrick Henry and of the Whiskey Rebellion, which had raged across the frontiers of Virginia in 1790.
Supported by his brother Solomon and by Jack Ditcher, the recruiting expanded. Another of Prosser's slaves, named Ben, and Ben Woolfolk, both of whom would subsequently turn on the rebellion in exchange for mercy, joined the campaign.
Although not a religious visionary in the manner of Nat Turner, Gabriel used religious gatherings for organizing, as slaves gathered to practice a religion that combined elements of African worship with religious practices of the Great Awakening. Although white religion often preached submission to the slave owner, the slaves' practices emphasized the vengeful stories of the Old Testament in which oppressed tribes either rose up or fled their masters. A favorite passage at these meetings was Leviticus 26:8: "And five of you shall chase an hundred, and an hundred of you shall put ten thousand to flight: and your enemies shall fall before you by the sword."
The rebels indeed began to gather swords, breaking plowshares in half so that blacksmiths like Gabriel and Solomon could sharpen them and add handles.
Gabriel set 30 August 1800 as the date for the rebellion. The slaves were to gather at Brook Bridge, about six miles outside Richmond, and march toward the city. The plan called for the slaves to kill all whites encountered along the way to protect the secrecy of their movement, although the plans allowed sparing white Quakers, Methodist, French, and other abolitionists.
When the slaves entered Richmond, the plans called for the rebels to divide into three columns: one would set fires in the warehouse district, called Rocketts, to divert the attention of the whites while the rest of the rebels seized the arsenal and captured the weapons. As they returned from Rocketts, the armed rebels would then attack the whites and spread the word. They hoped to incite similar slave rebellions in Norfolk and Petersburg, which had been drawn into the communications network over the summer. There was also some hope that the rebellion would be joined by poor whites in Richmond and by the Catawba Indians, who lived on the frontiers, and even a distant possibility that the French might provide military assistance.
Two factors defeated the rebellion. A torrential rainstorm hit the area in the afternoon, washing out bridges and making it impossible for the rebels to travel from Henrico County into Richmond. At twilight, Gabriel decided to postpone the rebellion for one day, so the slaves tried to return to their plantations undiscovered.
More important, in late morning on 30 August, two slaves of Mosby Shepherd named Pharaoh and Tom confessed to their master about the planned rebellion. Shepherd frantically worked to get a message to Governor Monroe, who then raised the militia to patrol the area around the Prosser plantation. Patrols covered the countryside, picking up any suspected conspirators; within several days, more than 30 slaves had been jailed in Richmond. A series of "trials" began in the Oyer and Terminer Court on 11 September. To reward their loyalty to their master, Shepherd freed both Tom and Pharaoh after the rebellion was crushed.
Gabriel escaped. Governor Monroe issued a warrant for his arrest, with a bounty of $300. The warrant described Gabriel as "a Negro of brown complexion about 6 feet 3 or 4 inches high, a bony face, well made and very active, has two or three scars on his head, his hair is very short. … He can read and write and perhaps will forge himself a pass, or certificate of his freedom."
After hiding out in Richmond for a week, Gabriel escaped down the Chickahominy River toward Norfolk. He swam out to the schooner Mary in the middle of the river, hoping to convince her captain, a former plantation overseer named Richardson Taylor, to carry him out of the country. Lured by the bounty, however, two men on the Mary, a slave named Isham and a free black named Billy, alerted authorities when the boat docked in Norfolk. Gabriel was captured and brought back to Richmond in chains.
The authorities interviewed Gabriel but postponed his execution in the hope that he would identify other conspirators. The rebel leader refused and was hanged alone on the Richmond gallows at 15th and Broad Streets on 10 October 1800. According to legend, his last words were, "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 endeavoring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am willing to sacrifice to 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?"
Eventually more than 70 slaves were tried and 44 were hanged, often near to plantations as a public spectacle intended to intimidate the other slaves. Some rebels were "transported," or sold south, and a few were declared innocent. By Virginia law, the state had to compensate the owners for executed or transported slaves, so the owners received the enormous sum, for the time, of $8,900. It is impossible to determine a final count of slaves who participated in Gabriel's rebellion; figures range from 200 to 5,000.
The consequences of Gabriel's rebellion were extraordinary, depending upon which side one supports. The white ruling class became watchful for signs of other uprisings, even though many officials publicly claimed that the slaves were too ignorant to organize themselves. States expanded their police and spy systems and even permitted private patrols to cover the countryside. Thomas Jefferson, who owned 185 slaves, used money and favors to bribe some slaves to act as spies; other slave owners publicly offered freedom to slaves who betrayed plans for rebellion. The government tightened the Black Codes, especially to prohibit slaves from learning to read and write.
For slaves, resistance to slavery took both individual and collective forms. Individual acts such as sabotage, murder, or running away were paralleled by successive generations of slave rebels, most famously Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner, who learned of Gabriel's rebellion from oral history. The goal of seizing weapons and arming the slaves for a rebellion, of course, was the dream of John Brown as he made his raid on Harpers Ferry.
The rebellion encouraged the abolitionists, both north and south, but also alarmed many of them, as the vision of slaves, armed and rising, was as frightening as the institution of slavery itself.
Ultimately, the slave uprisings challenged the myths of the happy and submissive slave, loyal to the plantation, and of the ignorant African, for whom slavery was a step up in civilization. Under pressure from southern historians who supported the life of the Confederacy, several more generations passed before the strength and courage of rebels like Gabriel were recognized and celebrated.
Gabriel (1776-1800): An educated blacksmith slave, Gabriel led Virginia's largest slave rebellion in August 1800. Touring the countryside, he roused hundreds of slaves to join an invasion of Richmond, but was defeated by a heavy rainstorm that made roads impassible and by slaves who informed their masters of his plans. He was hanged on 10 October 1800.
Bontemps, Arna. Black Thunder. New York: Macmillan,1936.
Egerton, Douglas. Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
Sidbury, James. Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel's Virginia, 1730-1810. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997)
Tang, Joyce. "Enslaved African Rebellions in Virginia."Journal of Black Studies 27, no. 5 (1997): 598-614.