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Gabriel Prosser

c. 1775-1800

Nationality - American Occupation - Slave leader Narrative Essay


Gabriel Prosser (ca. 1775-1800) was the African American slave leader of an unsuccessful revolt in Richmond, Va., during the summer of 1800. Gabriel Prosser, the slave of Thomas H. Prosser, was about 25 years old when he came to the attention of Virginia authorities late in August 1800. Little is known of his childhood or family background. He had two brothers and a wife, Nanny, all slaves of Prosser. Gabriel Prosser learned to read and was a serious student of the Bible, where he found inspiration in the accounts of Israel's delivery from slavery. Prosser possessed shrewd judgment, and his master gave him much latitude. He was acknowledged as a leader by many slaves around Richmond. With the help of other slaves, especially Jack Bowler and George Smith, Prosser designed a scheme for a slave revolt. They planned to seize control of Richmond by slaying all whites (except for Methodists, Quakers, and Frenchmen) and then to establish a kingdom of Virginia with Prosser as king. The recent, successful American Revolution and the revolutions in France and Haiti--with their rhetoric of freedom, equality, and brotherhood--supplied examples and inspiration for Prosser's rebellion. In the months preceding the attack Prosser skillfully recruited supporters and organized them into military units. Authorities never discovered how many slaves were involved, but there were undoubtedly several thousand, many armed with swords and pikes made from farm tools by slave blacksmiths. The plan was to strike on the night of Aug. 30, 1800. Men inside Richmond were to set fire to certain buildings to distract whites, and Prosser's force from the country was to seize the armory and government buildings across town. With the firearms thus gained, the rebels would supposedly easily overcome the surprised whites. On the day of the attack the plot was disclosed by two slaves who did not want their masters slain; then Virginia governor James Monroe alerted the militia. That night, as the rebels began congregating outside Richmond, the worst rainstorm in memory flooded roads, washed out bridges, and prevented Prosser's army from assembling. Prosser decided to postpone the attack until the next day, but by then the city was too well defended. The rebels, including Prosser, dispersed.

Some slaves, in order to save their own lives, testified against the ringleaders, about 35 of whom were executed. Prosser himself managed to escape by hiding aboard a riverboat on its way to Norfolk. In Norfolk, however, he was betrayed by other slaves, who claimed the large reward for his capture on September 25. Returned to Richmond, Prosser, like most of the other leaders, refused to confess to the plot or give evidence against other slaves. He was tried and found guilty on Oct. 6, 1800, and executed the next day.

Sources
There is no full-length biography of Gabriel. There are short biographical accounts in Herbert Aptheker, Essays in the History of the American Negro (1945) and in Wilhelmena S. Robinson, Historical Negro Biographies (1968). The best account of his rebellion is in Joseph C. Carroll, Slave Insurrections in the United States, 1800-1865 (1938). Additional information is contained in Herbert Aptheker, American Negro Slave Revolts (1943; new ed. 1969), and in Robert McColley, Slavery and Jeffersonian Virginia (1964). Arna Bontemps, Black Thunder (1936), is a fictionalized treatment of Gabriel and his conspiracy.