Gabriel's Insurrection

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GABRIEL'S INSURRECTION, a slave uprising in Virginia in 1800. The democratic ideals expressed in the slogan of the French Revolution (1789)—"liberty, equality, fraternity"—resonated in France's Caribbean colonies. In Saint Domingue, slaveholders were slaughtered in the successful 1791 slave uprising led by the freed slave Toussaint Louverture. This led to the liberation of all slaves in that colony in 1793. Hundreds of French plantation owners fled to the United States, bringing with them thousands of slaves who had been exposed to the ideas of democracy. This made many American plantation owners nervous, including Virginians like Thomas Jefferson. Although a discourse, led by prominent Virginians, about natural rights and the duty of a regime to represent all its people had become prevalent following the American Revolution, many Virginians were increasingly fearful of slaves asserting their claim to equal human rights.

As the growing demand for cotton brought more slaves directly from Africa to Virginia, fugitive laws were tightened in order to deter and punish escaped slaves. The concomitant existence of free blacks further destabilized the social hierarchy. Furthermore, growing literacy and knowledge of the ideas that informed the American Revolution made Virginia a restive place at the turn of the nineteenth century. Ideas of democracy and freedom spread among many black urban artisans. They sought the abolition of slavery, freedom of movement, and better wages. These streams of resistance, American civic nationalism, and an emerging African American lower-middle class converged in Gabriel Prosser. He was a slave blacksmith seeking freedom by the only means he deemed plausible: violence against the merchants who oppressed laborers and the institutions of government that disenfranchised his people.

Gabriel recruited and organized a group of urban artisans and plantation workers, including his own brother and two white Frenchmen, planning to march an army on Richmond, Virginia, under the banner "Death or Liberty." He devised a military strategy to outmaneuver his enemies: they would occupy the treasury and the arsenal and capture the governor; this would unleash waves of support from poor whites, and any opponents (other than Quakers, Methodists, and Frenchmen, since they were "friendly to liberty")would be killed.

A hundred and fifty soldiers gathered near Richmond on the night of 30 August 1800, expecting hundreds of men to join their ranks. Heavy rain caused delay, and several conspirators betrayed the plan. The local militia crushed the troops. Scores, including Gabriel, were hanged; the rest were sold to slavery outside Virginia. Most memorable were the last words of a condemned man: "I have ventured my life in endeavoring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and I am a willing sacrifice to their cause."

Jefferson was elected president of the United States later the same year. Other sporadic insurrections heightened fears that previously docile slaves would overthrow white rule. This attitude was a setback to abolitionism, and led to a growing interest in removing blacks from U.S. soil, giving rise to various schemes by the American Colonization Society to resettle them in places such as Liberia.


Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Genovese, Eugene D. From Rebellion to Revolutionary: Afro-American Slave Revolts in the Making of the Modern World. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.


See alsoSlave Insurrections .

Gabriel Prosser

views updated May 14 2018

Gabriel Prosser

Gabriel Prosser (ca. 1775-1800) was the African American slave leader of an unsuccessful revolt in Richmond, Va., during the summer of 1800.

Gabriel Prosser, the slave of Thomas H. Prosser, was about 25 years old when he came to the attention of Virginia authorities late in August 1800. Little is known of his childhood or family background. He had two brothers and a wife, Nanny, all slaves of Prosser. Gabriel Prosser learned to read and was a serious student of the Bible, where he found inspiration in the accounts of Israel's delivery from slavery. Prosser possessed shrewd judgment, and his master gave him much latitude. He was acknowledged as a leader by many slaves around Richmond.

With the help of other slaves, especially Jack Bowler and George Smith, Prosser designed a scheme for a slave revolt. They planned to seize control of Richmond by slaying all whites (except for Methodists, Quakers, and Frenchmen) and then to establish a kingdom of Virginia with Prosser as king. The recent, successful American Revolution and the revolutions in France and Haiti—with their rhetoric of freedom, equality, and brotherhood—supplied examples and inspiration for Prosser's rebellion. In the months preceding the attack Prosser skillfully recruited supporters and organized them into military units. Authorities never discovered how many slaves were involved, but there were undoubtedly several thousand, many armed with swords and pikes made from farm tools by slave blacksmiths.

The plan was to strike on the night of Aug. 30, 1800. Men inside Richmond were to set fire to certain buildings to distract whites, and Prosser's force from the country was to seize the armory and government buildings across town. With the firearms thus gained, the rebels would supposedly easily overcome the surprised whites.

On the day of the attack the plot was disclosed by two slaves who did not want their masters slain; then Virginia governor James Monroe alerted the militia. That night, as the rebels began congregating outside Richmond, the worst rainstorm in memory flooded roads, washed out bridges, and prevented Prosser's army from assembling. Prosser decided to postpone the attack until the next day, but by then the city was too well defended. The rebels, including Prosser, dispersed.

Some slaves, in order to save their own lives, testified against the ringleaders, about 35 of whom were executed. Prosser himself managed to escape by hiding aboard a riverboat on its way to Norfolk. In Norfolk, however, he was betrayed by other slaves, who claimed the large reward for his capture on September 25. Returned to Richmond, Prosser, like most of the other leaders, refused to confess to the plot or give evidence against other slaves. He was tried and found guilty on Oct. 6, 1800, and executed the next day.

Further Reading

There is no full-length biography of Gabriel. There are short biographical accounts in Herbert Aptheker, Essays in the History of the American Negro (1945) and in Wilhelmena S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1968). The best account of his rebellion is in Joseph C. Carroll, Slave Insurrections in the United States, 1800-1865 (1938). Additional information is contained in Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (1943; new ed. 1969), and in Robert McColley, Slavery and Jeffersonian Virginia (1964). Arna Bontemps, Black Thunder (1936), is a fictionalized treatment of Gabriel and his conspiracy. □

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Gabriel Prosser

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