Gabriel was all set to lead a revolt in Richmond, Virginia that was aimed at destroying slavery when disaster struck. A violent rainstorm washed out bridges and flooded roads on the day set for what would be one of the first major slave rebellions in U.S. history. Historians say that but for the rainstorm and betrayal by other enslaved people, Gabriel might have succeeded with his army of about 1,000 slaves.
The son of an African-born mother, Gabriel was born enslaved in 1776 on a plantation north of Richmond owned by Thomas Prosser. Not too much is known about his parents but what is known is that Gabriel had two older brothers. He was among the few enslaved people who could read. Gabriel also trained as a blacksmith and was unusually large. In his 20s, he was “six feet two or three inches high”. He had a bony face with “two or three scars on his head”.
When Prosser died in 1798, his son Thomas Henry Prosser, who was also in his 20s, took over the plantation. Thomas Henry was cruel, according to historians. He often hired out some of his skilled slaves, including Gabriel for extra income; this practice was common in Virginia at the time.
Thanks to this practice, Gabriel spent several days each month working in downtown Richmond, enabling him to have some amount of freedom and money. He worked in and around Richmond alongside other hired slaves, free Blacks, and White laborers. In the process, he got to know about the successful slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) and was exposed to working-class talk of a truly egalitarian society, according to a report by PBS.
In September 1799, Gabriel stole a pig from a plantation owner and was caught by a white overseer. Gabriel fought with the white overseer and bit off part of his ear. Gabriel was found guilty of maiming a White man and was nearly executed. He was spared but with a brand burned into his hand. His owner also had to pay a bond with a promise that Gabriel would not cause any more trouble.
But Gabriel did the exact opposite when he began influencing other enslaved men and women to rise and fight for their rights. He began laying plans for a slave insurrection aimed at seizing control of Richmond by killing all of the Whites (except the Methodists, Quakers and Frenchmen) and then establishing a Kingdom of Virginia with himself as monarch, according to BlackPast.
The revolt was to begin on the night of Saturday, August 30, 1800, with Gabriel and his fellow rebels taking up arms and killing Thomas Henry before joining other rebels in other parts of Richmond. The rebels would at the end of the day take the governor, James Monroe, hostage until they could convince him that all the enslaved people in Virginia should be set free.
Months before the revolt, Gabriel recruited his army which spread across 11 Virginia counties, as stated by a Washington Post report. They held meetings in blacksmith shops and slave cabins gathering weapons such as swords and pikes made from farm tools by blacksmiths. Gabriel’s followers included a few white workers, and they all believed that Gabriel’s plan would succeed.
But the rainstorm did not make it possible for the revolt to begin at the appointed time. As Gabriel tried to let his followers know that the rebellion had been postponed to the following night, two enslaved men betrayed him when they told their owner of the plan.
Governor Monroe was alerted, and by the time the storm had cleared the following morning, white patrols joined by the state militia had captured many of Gabriel’s men and detained them. Gabriel escaped and in the following weeks, around 10 of his followers were tried and hanged, including Gabriel’s two older brothers. All in all, 26 people were sentenced to death.
On September 23, Gabriel was again betrayed by another enslaved man, who told authorities that Gabriel was on a ship on the James River. Authorities arrested Gabriel in Norfolk and hanged him on October 10, 1800, at the age of 24.
Even though Gabriel’s slave revolt was unsuccessful, it is documented that it remains one of the half-dozen most important insurrection plots in the history of North American slavery.
“Most of his contemporaries, white as well as black, believed that his plan stood a good chance of succeeding,” historian Douglas R. Egerton wrote. “Had it done so, it might have changed not only the course of American race relations but also the course of American political history.”