Tuesday, September 10, 2019
September 10, 2019: Slave Rebellions: Gabriel’s Rebellion
[On September 9, 1739, enslaved African Americans began a brief but bloody rebellion in South Carolina. So this week on the 280th anniversary I’ll AmericanStudy Stono and other rebellions and contexts, leading up to a weekend post on cultural representations of such revolts.]
On how a thwarted 1800 revolt both echoes and diverges from familiar tropes.
Although it was discovered and more than 25 of its intended participants executed before it began, in many other ways the Virginia slave revolt planned in August 1800 by a twenty-something enslaved man named Gabriel (often known as Gabriel Prosser, after the last name of the Richmond-area family that owned him and his two brothers) closely parallels the Stono Rebellion and many other such histories. It was led by a striking individual, a talented and literate young man who was described by contemporaries as “a fellow of great courage and intellect above his rank in life.” It pulled together enslaved people from a number of neighboring plantations, with a plan to march together toward a future of freedom and opportunity far different from the world of chattel slavery. And in its aftermath, the fears it inspired contributed to a number of repressive legal and social responses, including an 1806 law passed by the Virginia Assembly that required free African Americans to leave Virginia within a year or face potential re-enslavement.
Yet as historian Douglas Egerton has uncovered and discussed at length in his magisterial book Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 & 1802 (1993), there are many specific aspects of Gabriel’s rebellion that diverge from those broadly familiar tropes and reveal significant cultural and historical contexts for turn of the 19th century Virginia and America. Many of those have to do with Gabriel himself, and particularly with his (by the summer of 1800) longstanding and well-established status as a skilled blacksmith for hire. That category of enslaved person will be familiar to anyone who has read Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, as Douglass was similarly hired out by his owner during his time in Baltimore. And it’s important to be clear that this was still very much a form of slavery, as it was the owners/plantations that chiefly benefitted from the work and wages, not the enslaved laborers. Yet nonetheless, this side of Gabriel’s life and identity reminds us of a fundamental truth captured by works like Mechal Sobel’s The World They Made Together: that 18th and 19th century Virginia, and America, were literally and figuratively constructed by both individuals like Gabriel and the intersections of all the cultures and communities present in this evolving society.
Gabriel’s experiences in that role no doubt contributed to his evolving visions of both his own life and his society, and thus to his plans for rebellion and social change (according to Egerton, after his rebellion succeeded he planned to “drink and dine with the merchants of” Richmond). Another factor, and an even more complex and (at least in this context) under-remembered one, is the fraught relationship between France and the era’s political systems. Egerton discovered evidence of white co-conspirators (whom Gabriel had likely met during his work as a blacksmith), at least one of whom was a French national. Not coincidentally, part of Gabriel’s plan involved kidnapping Virginia Governor James Monroe, a friend and ally of Vice President Thomas Jefferson in his Democratic-Republican Party. By late August 1800 the highly contested presidential campaign between Jefferson and Adams was in full swing, and much of Jefferson’s support came from Southern planters and farmers. Fears of both slave revolts and of French radicals could well have undermined or splintered Jefferson’s coalition, which would help explain why (again, according to Egerton) evidence of the French co-conspirator’s activities was never produced in court proceedings. Far too complex contexts to address adequately in a few sentences, but a reminder that every slave rebellion, including Gabriel’s, is far more multi-layered than overarching tropes or tropes might suggest.
Next rebellion tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?