The Gabriel Rebellion is a revolt organized in the summer of 1800 by a man whom many call Gabriel Prosser. His last name was derived from his master, Thomas Prosser. The main objective of the revolt was to fight for the freedom of black slaves held within the state of Virginia. However, the revolt did not materialize because word spread around before the plan could be executed. Immediately after the governor got wind of the revolt, security was beefed up around Richmond where the uprising had been planned to start. Nonetheless, the rebellion had an impact on the treatment of slaves in Virginia. For instance, the unrestricted movement of slaves within the state was banned along with the practice of hiring out slaves. The government also enacted a law that prohibited freed slaves from staying within the state boundaries for more than twelve months. Taking everything into account, although the Gabriel Rebellion did not materialize, it did change the manner in which slaves were treated and hastened their emancipation.
Gabriel the Organizer
Gabriel Prosser, the man behind the rebellion, was a literate blacksmith who could be hired out to other slave-owners because of his expertise (Ford 49). As a result, he was free to move around compared to other slaves. History accounts of Gabriel Prosser paint a picture of a man who would readily cause trouble any day. It is alleged that he had bit the ear of a white farmer whom he had gotten into a scuffle with, and organized another low key revolt that is not widely publicized. However, the rebellion was the end of the road for him because the state searched for him in connection with planning the revolt and eventually executed him after trial.
Before the rebellion, Richmond, Virginia was the center stage for partisan politics. Both the republicans and the federalists were making preparations to drum up support for their candidates ahead of the upcoming General Assembly elections that normally preceded the presidential election. An aura of tension rent the air amid rumors of disunion. There was a bit of unrest as the political temperatures went up in Virginia. Gabriel took advantage of that unrest to conceive the most elaborate slave conspiracy in South America.
The plan was that all the followers would meet first and divide into three groups. The conspirators had realized that their plan would not succeed without guns, so one of the groups was charged with the responsibility of seizing weapons while another group would attempt to capture the governor.
The first column would slip through the streets while the residents slept and set fire to warehouses in the southeastern end of town. When White townsmen, awakened by the fireball, rushed to fight the fire, the other two columns would enter Richmond’s west end. One would seize the guns in the state armory while the other would occupy the executive mansion and take Governor James Monroe hostage. (Sidbury 6).
However, there was a problem; the conspiracy was stillborn because it was quelled before it could begin. Some of the conspirators leaked the information to their masters, with the promise that they would be released for collaborating with the authorities. In the end, the information leaked reached the governor, who mobilized armed militias to take charge of security in the areas where the conspirators wanted to strike. Consequently, the revolt ended before it could begin. Nonetheless, the ensuing events changed manner in which black slaves were treated in the American South.
Demographics of the State before Rebellion
Before going into details about the changes that took place, it is good to understand the demographics of American South up to the point of the rebellion. By the time of the revolution, slaves made up more than forty percent of the population of Virginia. Some of them were freed slaves who opted to remain within the state. Most of the slaves conglomerated around West of Richmond and Tidewater area. Gabriel was able to plan the revolt with relative ease because of the relaxed rules that allowed slaves to move from one plantation to another and from one city to another. A large portion of the slaves conspiring with Gabriel could be hired out, and this allowed them to travel around. The ease of movement allowed them to recruit more conspirators. They carefully selected the people to recruit, recruiting only those people that were not so close to their masters. However, they did not realize that some of the literate conspirators could turn around and sell them out.
Changes after Rebellion
One of the notable changes made after the rebellion was that slave owners restricted the movement of their slaves. The argument was that slaves would be inclined to rebel if they were not controlled. The Virginia Assembly also passed a law that prohibited the hiring out of slaves. The law also required the freed slaves to leave the state within twelve months; otherwise, they would be enslaved. All these changes were meant to ensure that the slaves were kept as busy as possible, and the freed ones would not stay long in Virginia for the fear that they would influence other slaves into rebelling. The high concentration of slaves within Virginia was a cause of worry to many slave owners, and the new law addressed that concern perfectly.
Rebellion Hastens Emancipation
Nevertheless, one thing was clear: the state had to hasten efforts to end slavery. The rebellion opened doors for gradual emancipation of the freed slaves, with the condition that the freed slaves would be resettled elsewhere. Those who stood against slavery argued that such revolts would always arise as long as the state did not give slaves fair treatment. Coming on the heels of yet another revolution, the Haitian revolution, it was now clear the discontent among the enslaved community could not be toned down without doing something that would appease the slaves. Therefore, the state picked a cue from the rebellion, and in the coming years the emancipation of slaves would take place gradually.
Looking at the rebellion in retrospect, the chances of success were ominously odd. The state had largely been under the control of the white majority.
Throughout most of its history, the state maintained a substantial White majority, and Whites always commanded virtually all the firearms. They maintained control – at least in theory – over communications and transportation, and they held a monopoly over governmental and most social institutions. (Sidbury 59).
Given such circumstances, the rebellion was doomed to fail right from the start. After the failure of the rebellion, some slaves went into hiding but the unlucky ones were rounded up by the militias mobilized by Governor James Monroe. The betrayers assisted in giving finer details to assist in arresting all the conspirators. Later, the governor ordered trials to start, and the authorities executed many of the slaves. On one hand, it must be understood that the conspirators were fighting for their freedom while, on the other hand, the betrayers wanted to buy their freedom out of slavery. In the end, the betrayers got their freedom, but at the expense of their comrades.
In conclusion, the Gabriel rebellion was doomed to fail, given the fact that the state was under the control of the White majority. Nonetheless, although Gabriel and his fellow conspirators did not succeed in executing their plan, the rebellion changed the manner in which slaves were treated within the state; most importantly, the rebellion opened the sealing for the gradual emancipation of slaves.
Ford, Lacy K. Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.
Sidbury, James. Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730-1810. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.