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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 313

In Black Thunder, Arna Bontemps offers a fictional account of an 1800 slave revolt in Virginia. In the novel, inspired by Toussaint Louverture's uprising in Haiti, Gabriel leads his fellow slaves against their owner, Thomas Prosser. The cruel owner’s savage murder of an elderly man, Bundy, ignites the outrage. On other plantations, others soon rise up as well; Gabriel and his expanding group of followers decide to proceed to Richmond, where they will take over the arsenal and, with the weapons seized, the entire city.

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The combined forces of nature and men thwart their plan, leading to dreadful retribution. A terrible storm arises on the scheduled night of the attack, rendering roads and rivers impassable. As the weather improves, a would-be leader, Pharaoh, grows envious of Gabriel’s position and betrays the cause. In addition, a house servant, Ben, who had originally claimed to side with the rebels but believes that his relative comforts balance the injustice of enslavement, tells his master of the plot. Much of the revolt just falls apart as the participants return to their respective plantations, but leaders and key participants are caught and imprisoned.

While the focus remains on the black protagonists, Bontemps includes some sympathetic white characters, including abolitionists. Richmond’s French residents, in particular, have been swayed by the democratic revolutionary successes in their own country as well as in the American republic. One white Northerner helps slaves escape from the Southern states.

Even after others give up, Gabriel at first retains hope and, after he knows it is a lost cause, strives to evade capture. Living alone in the woods, he eludes his trackers and sneaks into Richmond. Even as others are executed, he remains at large, becoming an increasingly powerful symbol of resistance. When he is finally captured and hanged, the disloyal Ben is among those watching. Ominous clouds gather, portending future social tempests.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 760

Black Thunder, Arna Bontemps’s second novel, tells the fictionalized story of a historical slave revolt that occurred near Richmond, Virginia. The revolt is led by a twenty-four-year-old slave named Gabriel, who is sometimes assigned the surname of his owner and referred to as Gabriel Prosser. Inspired by Toussaint L’Ouverture’s slave revolt in Haiti, Gabriel develops a simple plan that falls apart as the result of bad weather and betrayal.

The novel begins by telling of the murder of a slave known as Old Bundy, whom Thomas Prosser, in possession of a newly inherited estate, tramples to death with his horse. The senseless brutality of Bundy’s murder incites many local slaves to join Gabriel’s efforts to organize a revolt. One of these recruits is Ben, an older house servant who might otherwise not be attracted to a violent revolt.

Bontemps tells his story from multiple points of view, so that in the beginning, readers share with many of the characters the expectation that something is about to happen. By presenting the discussions between many people, including the slaveholders as well as those who, such as M. Creuzot, oppose slavery, Bontemps puts Gabriel’s attempt at revolution into the larger historical perspective of the international debate over personal liberty and the rights of man during a period when the French Revolution had made many wealthy landowners and aristocrats fearful of social uprisings.

Gabriel’s basic plan is simple. An army of slaves will mass in the woods, sneak into Richmond to arm themselves with weapons from the arsenal there, and take control of the city. On the crucial night, however, an unexpected tempest—the worst in recent memory—intervenes and floods the rivers,...

(The entire section contains 1073 words.)

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