Leader of Gabriel's Rebellion in Virginia, United States (1800)
Gabriel (1776 – October 10, 1800), today commonly known as Gabriel Prosser, was an enslaved African blacksmith who planned a large slave rebellion in the Richmond, Virginia, area in the summer of 1800. Information regarding the revolt was leaked prior to its execution, and he and twenty-five followers were hanged.
Gabriel Prosser's uprising was notable not because of its results—the rebellion was quelled before it could begin—but because of its potential for mass chaos and widespread violence. There were other slave rebellions, but this one "most directly confronted" the Founding Fathers "with the chasm between the ideal of liberty and their messy accommodations to slavery."
Virginia and other state legislatures passed restrictions on free blacks, as well as prohibiting the education, assembly, and hiring out of slaves, to restrict their ability and chances to plan similar rebellions.
In 2002, the City of Richmond passed a resolution in honor of Gabriel on the 202nd anniversary of the planned rebellion. In 2007, Governor Tim Kaine gave Gabriel and his followers an informal pardon, in recognition that his cause, "the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality for all people—has prevailed in the light of history".
Gabriel was born into slavery in 1776 at Brookfield, a large tobacco plantation in Henrico County, Virginia. He and two brothers, Solomon and Martin, were held in bondage by slaveholder Thomas Prosser, the owner of Brookfield. Gabriel was literate. He was one of the rare 5% of enslaved people of the colonial era who were able to learn to read and write.
Gabriel trained as a blacksmith and a carpenter. His brother Solomon, and perhaps his father, was a blacksmith. Gabriel, "hired out" by his enslaver to work in Richmond foundries, was able to keep a portion of the wages that he earned. The bulk of it went to Thomas Prosser. Gabriel traveled freely throughout Richmond and Henrico County to work for plantation and business owners.
Gabriel was married to Nanny, an enslaved woman. They were not known to have had any children. He was described in newspaper articles as having stood "six feet two or three inches high". His long and "bony face, well made", was marred by the loss of his two front teeth and "two or three scars on his head". White people as well as black people regarded the literate young man as "a fellow of great courage and intellect above his rank in life".
In 1799, Gabriel, his brother Soloman, and a man named Jupiter, tried to steal a pig from Absalom Johnson. Gabriel got into a scuffle with Johnson and he bit off part of Johnson's ear. Jupiter was charged with stealing a hog, which was a misdemeanor and Soloman was not charged. It was a capital offense for an enslaved person to assault a white person. He could have been hanged for the assault. Because he was a valuable bondsman for Prosser, the judge sentenced him to jail for one month and had his thumb branded. Gabriel was released from jail when slaveholder Prosser paid a bond for his release and he promised a year of good behavior. Richmond history professor and slave law expert Philip J. Schwarz states that it showed Gabriel's intention "to consciously challenge the system of slave control."See also History of slavery in Virginia § Food.
Historian Douglas R. Egerton and author of Gabriel's Rebellion, states: "He was physically big, he was literate, he's a fighter, he's a skilled artisan. For all these reasons, he was a natural leader."
Background to the Revolt
In Richmond, there were slightly more blacks than whites, with a total population of 5,700 in 1800. Richmond was a slave town, with a community whipping post where slaveholders had punishment meted out in a public square. Enslaved men loaded and moved flatboats of tobacco and other cargo.  Throughout the state in 1800, 39.2% of the total population were slaves; they were concentrated on plantations in the Tidewater region and west of Richmond.
Gabriel, living in Virginia in the late eighteenth century, was influenced by the prevailing themes of liberty expounded by the supporters of the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions. During his lifetime, the number of free people of color had grown markedly in the Upper South. Many slaves were manumitted thanks in part to the efforts of Methodist and Quaker abolitionists.[a] Their number was augmented by free black refugees from the Haitian Revolution, many of whom had been slaveowners themselves. Some Virginia slaveholders were nervous about the sharp increase in the number of free blacks in the slave state.[b]
Historians assert that Prosser became the leader of the planned rebellion because he was a blacksmith, and enslaved people respected and feared blacksmiths because of their ability to forge weapons and their connection to the spirit of iron Ogun. Ogun is the "god of iron," warfare and metalwork in West Africa. In West Africa, blacksmiths are feared and respected because they can forge weapons and they hold the secrets to the mysteries of metal and its spiritual properties. On plantations in Virginia, enslaved blacks continued the West African tradition of holding blacksmiths to a high degree of respect and fear. During the slave trade, Virginia imported blacksmiths from West Africa into the colony and the state. Enslaved and free African-American men in Virginia taught their metalwork skills to their sons.
During the spring and summer of 1800, Gabriel began to plan a revolt that intended to end slavery in Virginia. Plans were made with enslaved people over 10 counties and the cities of Richmond, Norfolk, and Petersburg, Virginia.
He and his brothers, as well as other blacksmiths, turned scythe blades into as many as twelve dozen swords. Musket balls and 50 spears were created. They intended to steal muskets from a tavern. Hundreds of slaves from central Virginia[c] expected to march into Richmond and take control of the Virginia State Armory and the Virginia State Capitol. The plan was to hold Virginia's Governor James Monroe hostage so that they could negotiate for their freedom.
But on August 30, 1800, the planned day of attack, heavy rain flooded the streets of Richmond and the creeks in central Virginia. In addition, two slaves told their owner, Mosby Sheppard, about the plans. Sheppard warned Governor Monroe, who called out the state militia. They patrolled the area and began picking up conspirators. Gabriel escaped downriver to Norfolk, but he was spotted and betrayed there by another slave named Will "Billy" King. More than 70 enslaved men were arrested by law enforcement for conspiracy and insurrection.
Gabriel was returned to Richmond for questioning, but he did not submit. The trial was heard by five justices in courts of oyer and terminer, rather than a jury. A recruit, Ben Woolfolk, testified that Gabriel intended on writing the words 'death or liberty' on a silk flag, referring to Patrick Henry's Give me liberty, or give me death! speech of 1775. One of the enslaved men reportedly said "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."
Gabriel, his two brothers, and 23 other slaves were hanged. One individual committed suicide before his arraignment. Eight enslaved men were moved or sold outside of Virginia. Thirteen were found guilty, but were pardoned by the governor. Twenty five were acquitted. Two men received their freedom for informing their slaveholder of the plot.
The rebellion was reported in newspapers across the country. James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson were concerned about the optics of having so many people executed. Jefferson said, "the other states & the world at large will forever condemn us if we indulge in a principle of revenge." The Federalists argued that the rebellion occurred as a result of the Democratic-Republican Party's support of the French Revolution.
Fears of a slave revolt regularly swept major slaveholding communities. After the rebellion, many slaveholders greatly restricted the slaves' ability to travel after a second conspiracy was discovered in 1802 among enslaved boatmen along the Appomattox and Roanoke Rivers. New laws were enacted to restrict free blacks and slaves. The Virginia Assembly in 1802 made it illegal for blacks, whether free or enslaved, to obtain and pilot or navigate a boat. Two years later, they were unable to meet in groups after their work was done or on Sundays. In 1808, state legislators banned hiring out of slaves and required freed blacks to leave the state within 12 months or face re-enslavement. The growing population of free blacks had to petition the legislature to stay in the state.
The historian Douglas Egerton offered a new perspective on Gabriel in his book Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1802 (1993). He based this on extensive primary research from surviving contemporary documents. Egerton concluded that Gabriel would have been stimulated and challenged at the foundries by interacting with co-workers of European, African and mixed descent. They hoped Thomas Jefferson's Republicans would liberate them from domination by the wealthy Federalist merchants of the city.
The internal dynamics of Jefferson's and Monroe's party in the 1800 elections were complex. A significant part of the Republican base were major planters and colleagues of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Egerton believes that any sign that white radicals, and particularly Frenchmen, had supported Gabriel's plan could have cost Jefferson the presidential election of 1800. Slaveholders feared such violent excesses as those related to the French Revolution after 1789 and the rebellion of slaves in Saint-Domingue. Egerton believed that Gabriel planned to take Governor Monroe hostage to negotiate an end to slavery. Then he planned to "drink and dine with the merchants of the city".
Gabriel's rebellion served as an important example of slaves' taking action to gain freedom.
In 2002, the City of Richmond adopted a resolution to commemorate the 202nd anniversary "of the execution of the patriot and freedom fighter, Gabriel, whose death stands as a symbol for the determination and struggle of slaves to obtain freedom, justice and equality as promised by the fundamental principles of democratic governments of the Commonwealth of Virginia and the United States of America".
The Spring Park Historic Site in Henrico County commemorates Gabriel.
In 2004, the Virginia Board of Historic Resources approved a marker at the spot where Gabriel was hanged on October 10, 1800. It is between 15th and 16th streets, on the north side of East Broad Street. The state worked with individuals from a group called the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality.
In the fall of 2006, the Virginia State Conference of the NAACP requested Gov. Tim Kaine pardon Gabriel in recognition of his contributions to the civil rights struggle of African Americans and all peoples.
On August 30, 2007, Governor Kaine informally pardoned Gabriel and his co-conspirators. Kaine said that Gabriel's motivation had been "his devotion to the ideals of the American revolution—it was worth risking death to secure liberty". Kaine noted that "Gabriel's cause—the end of slavery and the furtherance of equality of all people—has prevailed in the light of history", and added that "it is important to acknowledge that history favorably regards Gabriel's cause while consigning legions who sought to keep him and others in chains to be forgotten".
Arna Bontemps wrote Black Thunder (1936), a historical novel based on Gabriel's Rebellion.
Gigi Amateau wrote Come August, Come Freedom: The Bellows, The Gallows, and The Black General Gabriel (2012), an historical fiction novel based on Gabriel's Rebellion.
In Roots, Alex Haley's historical fiction, the rebellion is heard of by the book's characters.
In Sally Hemings, Barbara Chase-Riboud's 1979 novel about Hemings's relationship with Thomas Jefferson, Monroe writes Jefferson asking his advice on what to do about the insurrectionists still in jail after "(m)ore than thirty-five" had been executed. Hemings intercedes on their behalf, telling Jefferson, "I think there has been enough hanging", and suggests they be exiled instead. Although it is not made explicit in the novel, it is implied that Jefferson followed her suggestion and advised Monroe accordingly. At the end of the chapter, Hemings says, "I heard that the last of Gabriel's rebels had been reprieved and banished from Virginia by James Monroe. I had not pleaded in vain."
"Gabriel, the Musical" was produced at Firehouse Theatre in Richmond Virginia September 8, 2022 through October 2, 2022. With libretto by Jerold Solomon, Foster Solomon and Ron Klipp and Music & Lyrics by Ron Klipp, the musical tells a semi-fictionalized account of thee development of Gabriel's conspiracy and its aftermath on the conspirators, the local government, and the nation. The production was funded in part by a 2020 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (grant 1861109-28-20).
Tim Barry, a singer/songwriter from Richmond, wrote and performed "Prosser's Gabriel" for the album 28th & Stonewall. It chronicles the events of Gabriel's life, focusing on the attempted revolution.
Gabriel is mentioned in Public Enemy's song "Prophets of Rage".
^The percentage of free blacks as part of the black population rose from less than 1 percent in 1782 to more than 10 percent by 1810. By that time, free blacks in Virginia numbered 30,466 or 7.2 percent of the total black population. By 1810 nearly three-quarters of Delaware's black population were free.
^They were uneasy as well by the violent aftermath of the French Revolution and the uprising of slaves in the 1790s in Saint Domingue. In 1792 France granted social equality to free people of color, and in 1793 French Revolutionary commissioners in Saint-Domingue granted freedom to all the slaves. Whites and free people of color, some of whom were also slaveholders, emigrated as refugees to the US during the years of upheaval, now known as the Haitian Revolution. They added to the population of free people of color in Charleston, Richmond and New Orleans. In addition, slaveholders brought thousands of ethnic African slaves with them, especially adding to the African population of New Orleans. In 1804, the black and mulatto revolutionaries succeeded in gaining freedom, declaring the colony the independent black nation of Haiti.
^No reliable numbers existed regarding slave and free black conspirators; most likely, the number of men actively involved numbered only several hundred.
^'[the] song subverts...by exaggerating the reward and by foregrounding the extent of state repression aimed at a single man. This emphasizes White fear of slaves’ potential power to ruin the state, rather than accenting the majesty of White power. This, then, was a song slaves could sing in front of Whites. It appeared to focus on exactly what authorities hoped slaves would remember about the conspiracy, but it did not accept a White version of the story. The song reversed the meaning...turning it into a tale of White anxiety rather than White power.'
^Although elsewhere in his fiction Marryat sometimes invents lyrics to songs, this is unlikely to be the case with the shanty about Gabriel. It refers to a rebellion which occurred over thirty years earlier and contains details which Marryat, as an Englishman, was unlikely to have known. Furthermore he had sailed to North America in 1837, noting in his diary his interest in the shanties he repeatedly heard: '‘The seamen, as usual lightened their labour with the song and chorus...The one they sung was particularly musical, though not refined; and the chorus of ‘Oh! Sally Brown’, was given with great emphasis by the whole crew between every line of the song'.
^In the book the shanty is sung by an African American sailor. It refers to its subject as "General" Gabriel, and claims a bounty of £1000 was put on his head. After being betrayed and captured he is heavily loaded with chains and "a troop of light horse" is appointed to guard him. He is taken before the governor, whose name is slightingly alluded to ("Monroe he set up for go[ver]nor"). The whole country turns out to see him. Gabriel makes a last speech in which he proclaims his own "right name" and that he is "here today and gone tomorrow / I did not come for to stay for e[v]er". He is taken to the gallows in a wagon drawn by four grey horses. Commenting with heavy irony that the execution was a "Very sad loss to Major Prosser" the verse concludes by describing Gabriel as the man "who almost ruined old Virginny".