On August 30, 1800, Gabriel Prosser, an enslaved African American blacksmith who lived near Richmond, Virginia, planned to mass with well over one hundred of his supporters at a bridge outside Richmond, march on the city, fire and seize it, and proclaim an end to slavery in Virginia. Counting on recruits from as far away as Norfolk, Petersburg, and surrounding rural counties to strike toward Richmond at the same moment, Gabriel hoped to so disrupt and terrify the state that its leading politicians and merchants would choose to sit with him and negotiate an end to slavery rather than continue on with this bloody mayhem. If not abolition, undoubtedly more than enough mayhem would have ensued and forced white Virginians to grapple with the frightening consequences of their brutal labor system. While all the cells of rebels were coordinated, the capricious forces of nature refused to cooperate: Late in the afternoon of August 30, one of the most torrential rainstorms ever witnessed in Virginia broke forth, washing out rivers, bridges, and the hopes of Gabriel and his compatriots. Confused, scattered, and soon informed upon, the rebels were quickly apprehended; many, including Gabriel, were executed as terror gripped the whites of tidewater Virginia.
By the next year a handful of slaves who were inspired by Gabriel hoped to rekindle the rebellion. The locus of this plot shifted to the south of Richmond and was centered among the numerous black boatmen who ferried the agricultural products of south-eastern Virginia down its numerous rivers to Norfolk. Plotting soon spread to north- eastern North Carolina as the boatmen moved word of it down rivers flowing to the Albemarle Sound. But they were no more to realize an end to slavery than was Gabriel. As more and more people along the rivers were alerted to the plot, it became more difficult to coordinate and the chances of discovery by white authorities multiplied. By late 1801, Virginia officials began moving against the conspirators while the cover of the North Carolina action was ruined by Easter, 1802. By the summer, after numerous hangings, an anxious peace was restored.
The details and significance of these key incidents in the history of slavery in the American South are explored in detail in Douglas Egerton’s new book, Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Egerton has so thoroughly combed governmental records, private papers and correspondence, and news-papers for every shred of evidence pertaining to these conspiracies that one leaves this work with a strong sense that he has uncovered it all. Egerton’s excavation of covert slave communication networks-a little understood but vital part of slave culture- employed by Gabriel and the boatmen of the 1801 - 1802 conspiracy is breathtaking. Through a meticulous use of contemporary records, Egerton traces the ventures of such key conspirators as Sam Byrd into Petersburg and as far west as Charlottesville in the piedmont counties to organize slaves for the 1800 uprising. No one has ever delineated the world of the black boatmen who dominated the carrying trade on such rivers as the Appomattox, James, and Roanoke as Egerton has done. He reveals how these mobile laborers formed the most vital link in orchestrating wide- reaching plans of resistance in 1801 and 1802. Moreover, Egerton’s treatment of the much neglected debate over colonization and gradual abolition in the Virginia legislature from 1801 -1805 is the best we have and shows how that debate actually had a greater potential to end slavery than did the more celebrated Virginia debate of 1831 - 1832. Finally, his work is a major new exploration of the ways in which whites and blacks joined forces in specific acts of resistance against slavery in the antebellum South.
Egerton opens with a summary of how the era of the American Revolution undermined the fairly stable world of slavery that had existed in Virginia under the rule of such firm patriarchs as William Byrd, Robert “King” Carter, and Thompson Mason. Volatile tobacco prices plunged in the second half of the century and many concerned planters began shifting to less labor intensive grain production, rendering many slaves superfluous. Owners increasingly looked to manumission and the hiring-out of their slave artisans as ways to dispense of or profit from excess laborers, thus creating a caste of free and nearly free blacks who offered a dangerous example to the tens of thousands of remaining bondsmen. The religious upheaval born in New England in the late 1730’s was firing Virginia by the 1760’s with “New Light” Baptist preachers wandering the countryside, challenging the authority of the Anglican ministry and their gentry patrons. They disregarded racial mores and exhorted mixed groups of blacks and whites about the equality of all before God, welcoming converts from all races and stations into their congregations. The Revolution itself filled the air with talk of universal liberty and fraternal equality and the right to fight for them if they were denied by a tyrannical authority. Despite futile efforts to confine this message to whites alone, slaves too were inspired by these verities and used the social disruptions of the era to plot against bondage and to run away on an unparalleled scale. Indeed, many white patriots in Virginia were finding slavery incongruent with republican virtues and openly questioned its continued existence in the state. By the end of the century, the slaves of Virginia were laxly regulated by their overlords, excited by the vision of revolutionary freedom, and alert to doubts among whites about the viability of bondage.
Egerton’s chief task and triumph has been to describe the social milieu and tensions fostered by these conditions. Since the Revolution the role of towns in the tidewater economy had expanded dramatically. By 1800, Richmond and Petersburg had become bustling commercial centers, and their demand for artisans of various skills soared. Lacking enough white artisans, merchants in these towns turned to neighboring planters whose slave artisans were often underemployed. One such planter was the young and ambitious Thomas Prosser, who in 1798 inherited about fifty slaves from his father. Seeking new ways to profit from them, he allowed a number of them to find employment in and around Richmond as artisans and return a stipulated sum to him. Among them was an energetic young blacksmith named Gabriel.
Egerton vividly re-creates the world of these urban black artisans. Although slaves, they negotiated labor contracts, supplied their own room and board, and largely controlled their leisure time. Their sense of pride in their...
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