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"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Gabriel's Rebellion of 1800

I passed by a field [near Richmond] in which several poor slaves had lately been executed, on the charge of having an intention to rise against their masters. A lawyer who was present at their trials at Richmond, informed me that on one of them being asked, what he had to say to the court in his defence, he replied, in a manly tone of voice: " 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 by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice to their cause: and I beg, as a favour, that I may be immediately led to execution. I know that you have pre-determined to shed my blood, why then all this mockery of a trial?" ~ British visitor, quoted in American Negro Slave Revolts by Herbert Aptheker

Gabriel, the leader of the most widespread slave rebellion in American history, was a blacksmith owned by Thomas Prosser of Richmond, Virginia. He was born in 1776 in Henrico County and some sources state that his birthday is observed on July 12. He was often was hired out to work away from Prosser's plantation and thus was able to travel freely and meet other slaves, freed black men, and white workers.

Inspired by the Haitian Revolution and taking advantage of political unrest in Richmond, he began planning a revolt in the early spring of 1800. With the help of his brothers Solomon and Martin and other leaders, an estimated 10,000 men -- including some freed blacks and working-class whites -- were recruited to participate in the insurrection planned for the night of August 30. They believed they would be joined by more whites and the nearby Catawba Indian tribe, as well as having support from the French. Their plan was to seize Capitol Square in Richmond and hold Governor James Monroe hostage. Other towns in neighboring counties would be taken as well.

The leaders gathered on August 30 but torrential rains made roads and bridges impassible, forcing plans to be delayed until the next night. However, they had already been betrayed by two slaves whose master immediately informed Governor Monroe of the plot. Monroe sent patrols through the fields and called out 650 state militiamen. Gabriel escaped to Norfork but was captured on September 14. In all, 65 men stood trial and 26 were hanged including Gabriel and his brothers.

The impact of the revolt was felt primarily in the restrictions imposed in its aftermath. Travel and education were severely restricted, and slaves being hired out was banned in 1808. Laws were passed forcing freed slaves to leave the state or risk reenslavement.

On August 30, 2007 Governor Tim Kane informally pardoned Gabriel, saying that his motivation had been "his devotion to the ideals of the American revolution — it was worth risking death to secure liberty."

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