Monday, June 26, 2006

Freedom or Death: The Prosser Rebellion of 1800

One can only imagine the patriotic climate in America between the years of 1776 and 1800. 1776 was, of course, the year that America won its Independence from England in the Revolutionary war. America was now free! Crispus Attucks was now dead. Now, it’s time to build. America was finally free from the grips of British rule. Yes, freedom was the word of the day. Freedom for all citizens! Well, freedom as long as you were not of African descent. Gabriel Prosser was born that same year of 1776, a slave to Thomas Prosser on the Brookfield Plantation in Henrico County, Virginia. Gabriel was of African descent. In fact, he was an African born under the American system of slavery!

However, it seems that his owner, Thomas Prosser, was somewhat of a "liberal" master and allowed the young Gabriel to be educated. Yes, Gabriel learned to read and write. Prosser also allowed the young and growing Gabriel to learn the trade of Black Smith. This skill would be a benefit to Gabriel because this allowed him to be hired out to different plantations for work. Gabriel worked and he learned. He learned and he worked. He began to hear that there were black people in other parts of the world who were also oppressed as he was. He heard of a man named Toussaint L'Overture, who led the Haitian people to Independence in 1790 after defeating the French. Gabriel also heard of the French Revolution that followed. He saw that people all over the world were fighting and dying for freedom at any cost. Gabriel Prosser began to think about freedom.

The year is now 1800 and Gabriel is 24 years old. It was time for freedom! He began to talk to other slaves and he spoke to them about revolution. He spoke of Toussaint and what he did in Haiti. Gabriel urged them all to join with him to take back their God given rights as men. His support grew. They were mostly slaves, but some were also freeman, white artisans, religious supporters, and French sympathizers. Gabriel soon had his army, which included the support of over 1,000 slaves.

The Plan

The event was planned for August 30, 1800. Slaves from adjoining counties would all meet just north of Brook Bridge on Brook Turnpike. They would immediately kill all plantation owners in the area to secure the secrecy of their plot. The rebels would then proceed towards Richmond and meet in Petersburg. The plan was to take over the capital city of Richmond, kidnap Governor James Monroe, and persuade him to accept their demands.

The rebels set out on their mission on August 30th, but torrential thunderstorms and downpours washed out key bridges and delayed their plan of attack for one day. The delay proved to be costly for Gabriel and his band of slaves. 27 of the alleged co-conspirators were captured, tried, and hung. Governor, James Monroe soon put out a description of Prosser and a reward offer:

"...Gabriel is a Negro of a brown complexion about 6 feet 3 or 4 inches high, a bony face, well made, and very active, has two or three scars on his head, his hair is very short...He can read and write, and perhaps will forge himself a pass, or certificate of his freedom..."

Reward Proclamation
September 9, 1800
James Monroe, Governor
The young general, Gabriel Prosser, was captured and executed on October 10, 1800 at the city gallows. His adopted battle cry of “liberty or death” forged him a place in black history. It was the battle cry which led Toussaint's army in 1790. Ironically, it was also the battle cry of Virginia’s first governor, Patrick Henry, as he addressed an audience in Richmond at the Virginia Revolutionary Convention, March 23, 1775. Today, there are no statues or memorials dedicated to Gabriel Prosser in Richmond, VA. He is said to have planned the first mass black insurrection against the United States government. In the end, Gabriel was one of the greatest patriots of African descent. In fact, he was an African born under the American system of slavery. He died trying to free himself from that system. Gabriel Prosser spoke of revolution and now he is finally free!
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