Today In Labor History: Gabriel's Rebellion
On August 30, 1800, a man named Gabriel Prosser, a Virginia slave, intended to lead a slave rebellion into Richmond. This moment, coming shortly after the successful Haitian slave rebellion, which Gabriel knew about and drew inspiration from, deeply frightened American slaveholders into believing that slaves were going to rise up and kill them, a constant worry in a society dedicated to debasing enslaved people to the point of murdering them.
Gabriel, as most people refer to him since it's not as if he identified as Prosser, was born in 1775 or 1776 on a tobacco plantation in Henrico County, Virginia. He was taught to read, not a common event in late 18th century Virginia, but not unknown either. Maybe 5 percent of slaves in the late 18th century were literate. He gained a reputation for being very intelligent and very impressive as a person. He became a blacksmith and being quite valuable for that, was hired out by his master in the Richmond foundries. With tobacco in decline as a crop and a lot of Virginia masters wondering about the future of the institution, they were looking for new ways of making money on their bonded workers. We don't know what he looked like except that he was a very large man for his time, about 6'3″.
Of course Gabriel hated his status as a slave. And he decided to do something about it. He already had. In 1799, he and a friend stole a pig from a farm owned by a former slave overseer. When the man came out to fight for his pig, Gabriel bit off a chunk of his ear. Under normal circumstances, this could have led to the death penalty. And he was tried. But it seems that his master intervened, due to the high economic value of this blacksmith. He put up a $1,000 bond assuring Gabriel's good behavior for the next year. About that….
Forging A Rebellion
While at the foundry, Gabriel got to know the variety of workers who labored there. That included other Africans, but also free whites, some of whom were immigrants themselves. He started planning a rebellion with nearby slaves, perhaps several hundred. We know he started organizing during slave gatherings, often on Sundays, but probably only two months before the planned revolt, maybe even less. He probably had at least a couple of white co-conspirators, including a French immigrant.
There seems to be some evidence that Gabriel and his fellow rebels placed their urban slavery experiences into the context of contemporary politics. As most of them there were owned by Federalists, they hoped that if they revolted, the Democratic-Republicans would free them as a political act. This was highly misguided given who the leading Jeffersonians were, but it's more than a little too much to ask slaves to understand the broader political context of a nation they weren't allowed to participate in. Gabriel's plan including taking Governor James Monroe hostage to force the end of slavery. The plan was to kill whites except for three categories, which probably represent those Gabriel had known and were sympathetic to him–the French, Quakers, and Methodists.
This was all taking place at a time when many planters were freeing their slaves, partly for the economic reasons discussed above and partly because the Enlightenment rhetoric of the period made at least some whites think that slavery was wrong. The growing number of free blacks made a lot of Virginia whites very nervous. Richmond also had a reputation for a loose relationship between the races, often with free and slave workers laboring together and also drinking and socializing. We don't know exactly how Gabriel's master, Thomas Prosser, son of the man who was the master when Gabriel was born, treated him, but we do know that he had a reputation for brutality toward his human property.
A Thwarted Revolt
The revolt was intended to take place on August 30, 1800. The idea was to meet at Prosser's plantation, then walk to Richmond and split up into three groups. One would start fires to draw white people into the street. This was a known strategy of rebelling slaves. Then the other two groups would capture the state penitentiary and the state's store of arms and then kidnap Monroe. Gabriel specifically wanted to kill two people himself–his master and the man in the pig incident. They started producing weapons, thanks to Gabriel and his brother being blacksmiths. Slaves began showing up with scythes, which they could cut into swords. We don't really know much about any of the slaves who were to take part in the rebellion, except that both of Gabriel's brothers as well as his wife were involved.
But two things happened. First, heavy rains forced them to postpone it by a day. Then, another slave informed on them, which was a very common way that slave revolts were thwarted. Monroe called out the state militia. Gabriel fled to Norfolk but was eventually recognized by a (probably) free black man about three weeks away, who turned him in for the reward. Since the tipster was black, the reward was reduced from $300 to $50. The reason Gabriel was able to escape for so long is that he got work aboard a schooner whose captain was a recent convert to Methodism and so just didn't ask him any questions, though the captain probably knew who he was the whole time.
Gabriel was sent back to Richmond on September 24, where he was probably tortured. But he did not succumb to the torture and said nothing about the plan. Others of course did talk and identified Gabriel as the leader. He and twenty-five other slaves were hanged. At least one of the leaders agreed to testify in exchange for not being executed. At the very least, Virginia leaders believed that Gabriel was planning to arm thousands of slaves and had marched hundreds in preparation. It's really hard to tell though, since situations such as this frequently could lead to exaggerated claims and fear-mongering far outpacing the actual preparation and ability of these slaves to succeed.
The event itself isn't so notable because the rebellion was thwarted. But the aftermath certainly was. Virginia planters began cracking down on free blacks and manumissions of slave laborers plummeted. The growth of cotton production in the Deep South also gave these planters new economic life and many began investing in new plantations, often while staying in Virginia to live. In 1808, the state passed a law banning slaves from being taught to read. Free blacks now had to petition to stay in the state.
Many have wondered, given the context of the time, whether a rebellion that killed a lot of people might have led to greater support to end slavery in the state. Possible, though I remain highly skeptical of such a claim, given the growing cotton economy.
When Virginia decided to honor Gabriel in the late 1990s, the state was inundated with angry white people complaining that they were deifying a mass murderer.
Why It Matters: Slavery Was All About Labor
Too often we forget why slavery existed. Yes, it was a racist system. But the entire point of it was to have a permanent, controlled, unpaid labor force. The degradations of slavery—the brutality, the cruelty, the murders and rapes and breaking up of families—this was a combination of labor control and racism. Defining people of color as lesser than whites has served as a central labor strategy for employers for a very long time and continues to do so today.
It's not that a planned slave rebellion is the same thing as a planned strike by union laborers. Of course it is not that. But if we ignore the fact that slavery was a labor system and that the history of slavery is also the history of work, we severely undermine our understanding of both. By limiting our knowledge in this way, we open ourselves up to seductions about race or about class that allows us to prioritize one over the other when we want to make change in society. But in the American context at least, prioritizing race over class or class over race makes no sense when you have a racialized class system.
Douglas R. Egerton, Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800-1802
Michael L. Nicholls, Whispers of Rebellion: Narrating Gabriel's Conspiracy
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