Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802

Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802

Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802

Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802

Synopsis

Gabriel's Rebellion tells the dramatic story of what was perhaps the most extensive slave conspiracy in the history of the American South. Douglas Egerton illuminates the complex motivations that underlay two related Virginia slave revolts: the first, in 1800, led by the slave known as Gabriel; and the second, called the 'Easter Plot,' instigated in 1802 by one of his followers. Although Gabriel has frequently been portrayed as a messianic, Samson-like figure, Egerton shows that he was a literate and highly skilled blacksmith whose primary goal was to destroy the economic hegemony of the 'merchants,' the only whites he ever identified as his enemies. According to Egerton, the social, political, and economic disorder of the Revolutionary era weakened some of the harsh controls that held slavery in place during colonial times. Emboldened by these conditions, a small number of literate slaves- most of them highly skilled artisans- planned an armed insurrection aimed at destroying slavery in Virginia. The intricate scheme failed, as did the Easter Plot that stemmed from it, and Gabriel and many of his followers were hanged. By placing the revolts within the broader context of the volatile political currents of the day, Egerton challenges the conventional understanding of race, class, and politics in the early days of the American republic.

Excerpt

The spring of 1800 found Richmond, Virginia, a feverish tribute to partisan politics; the April elections for the General Assembly were crucial for both Federalists and Republicans in the upcoming presidential contest. The accompanying unrest, discord, and rumors of impending disunion inspired a young slave named Gabriel to conceive of what was perhaps the most extensive slave conspiracy in southern history. Most of his contemporaries, white as well as black, believed that his plan stood a good chance of succeeding. Had it done so, it might have changed not only the course of American race relations but also the course of American political history.

It is peculiar, therefore, that Gabriel's conspiracy has been either ignored or misunderstood by historians. Despite a wealth of documentation, the plot and its tragic aftermath have never been treated in full. True, Gabriel typically receives a perfunctory mention in most American history textbooks, although many identify him as Gabriel Prosser, thus giving him the surname of his owner, Thomas Henry Prosser (which no extant contemporary document does). Far too many scholars identify him as a free man, although his tenuous ties to his master make this error somewhat understandable. One writer has even insisted that Gabriel must have been Haitian, although the Virginia census of 1783 clearly places the then-seven-year-old boy on the Prosser plantation nearly a decade before Saint Domingue exploded into revolution. But of all the myths surrounding the events of 1800, surely the most durable is the erroneous idea that Gabriel was a messianic figure, an early national Nat Turner who wore his hair long in imitation of his biblical hero, Samson.

Several fictional treatments have attempted to rescue the slave rebel from the Samson legend, but in the process they have led readers and audiences into yet new myths. Arna Bontemps's vivid 1936 novel, Black Thunder, depicted Gabriel as a meek, apolitical bondman driven to revolt only by his master's cruel murder of an elderly slave. Thirty-two years later, Clifford Mason's powerful play Gabriel: The Story of a Slave Rebellion, placed the Virginia revolutionary in a generic plantation setting. By day, Mason's Gabriel was a common laborer in "Charlie" Prosser's cotton . . .

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