Gabriel Prosser And The Revolution

Throughout the centuries of domination by the Europeans over the captive slaves stolen from Africa, little mention is made about the numerous revolts, insurrections and insurgencies carried out by black men against their enslavers. Black men who frankly didn’t give a damn and whose mantra was.. you will have to kill me before I remain a slave. One such man was named Gabriel Prosser. Prosser was born a slave in 1776 in Henrico County, Virginia. It was the same year that the American colonist told the English in a prelude to all out war, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights..” So England had abolished slave trading in 1807 and abolished slavery in 1833 and I guess upon reading the first sentence of The Declaration of Indepence… they was like #$$@!! please!! Do I got idiot written on my forehead!! A slave built the chair you’re sitting in and put that cup of tea on the table you drinking from!! If you don’t give us our money we going to war!! I realize this interpretation of the cause of the Revolutionary War is controversial and little known, but if you want more proof check out Ken Burns Revolutionary War series. I am also putting a link to the straw that broke the camel’s back when the British imposed the Stamp Tax as a way of recuperating their money. So all this crap about give me liberty or give me death, the British are coming and I only have one life to give is a bunch of “Stepinit,” You don’t want to stepinit.” They just didn’t want to pay England for their defense during the French and Indian War. Anywho, this is the environment that Gabriel was born into.

Imagine you’re a young man and everybody is talking about how they are going to gain their freedom from England, about how England is treading on their liberty and about how all men are endowed by the creator with unalienable rights… and then they look at you and say, “Boy is that field done… dat cotton don’t pull itself up… don’t make me hafta get out dat cat o’ nines and put it on ya azz… and oh yeah.. tell ya sista I’ll be down dere later.” A Grand Master Flash moment crosses your mind.. “Don’t push me… cause I’m close to the edge..” Well, in a few more years they push Prosser over. Living in 18th century America was like being the rabbit without the gun if you was a slave. It meant working in the fields from sunup to sundown, sleeping in a wooden hut on the dirt floor and eating food hardly fit for an animal. It meant you could be wagered in a game of cards, given as a gift, put up as security for a loan or hired out to someone else wherein the master would be paid for your labor. Your word could not be used in a court of law. Slave marriages were not legal and you, your wife or children could be sold for any reason or whim. Slaves were not permitted to congregate unless a white man was present and one of the most peculiar laws I can imagine is that slaves were not allowed to own guns. I mean if you treating folks like that.. you better not give them a gun. Any slave found guilty of arson, inciting rebellion or raping a white women was yesterday’s toast. So even though the law said, “if you were found guilty,” it was more often than not if you were “accused” of any of those crimes than you could count on at least beating and the possibility a long rope and a tall tree in your future. Now these laws along with many others were known as the Slave Codes and later on after the end of slavery.. they were called the Black Codes. So one thing that separated these two racist edicts was that the Slave Codes did not mention the penalty for killing a white man. I believe it’s because they wish a $##@! would. The penalty for killing a white man just didn’t need to be spelled out. Nat Turner was beaten, hanged and then his body was ripped apart. He was stripped of skin and it was boiled. They made lamp shades and pocketbooks out of it. His bones were given as gifts and his fat was used make soap. Today only his skull remains as an artifact being tested at a laboratory in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. His co-conspirators heads were chop off and stuck on poles along major routes as a warning… read co-conspirators also as any free black man somebody had a score to settle with… for instance… “That sure was a keen looking hat we saw you in town with last week Apollo… my Missy mentioned it at the dinner table in front of my PaPa….” You never know what somebody thinking back in those days… So yeah, I guess it was understood… killing a white man was no-no…

Anywho, Prosser was was twenty four in 1800, a full thirty something years before Nat’s demise. In Prosser’s time they was still wiping it with leaves and rags. Although toilet paper was invented sometime in the 15th century, it wouldn’t be until 1857 before it was widely used in America. A man named Joseph Gayetty of New York marketed a “Medicated Paper, for the Water-Closet.” He sold it in packages of 500 sheets for 50 cents. A water closet and a toilet are the same thing. It just meant that you had a toilet that flushed in a separate room. Before then it was a chamber pot and a slave or a window. Anywho, you can imagine the penalty for killing any white person by a slave in Prosser’s time as being very unpleasant. I mean unpleasant as in just putting your brain on a pole without your head cause obviously you out yo mind.. Before we go on let’s take a closer look at Prosser. Prosser was above average intelligence for a black man in his time. He was one of only 5% of the slaves who could read and write in the colonial era. It wasn’t until 1831 when Nat Turner was pushed over the edge and killed sixty people that teaching slaves to read and write became illegal. Virginia was the first to enact the law followed soon after by other southern legislatures. Nat Turner was able to read and write. Although teaching slaves to read and write was illegal, many slave owners disregarded the law. Blacks were often in charge of activities that required those skills. Anywho, Prosser was a blacksmith, a trade taught to him by his father. Skilled trades were often passed through generations in the black family during slavery. Massa Prosser, the slave owner would lend them out to the local iron foundry and they were permitted to keep a share of the wages. Gabriel was free to roam all over Virginia and Henrico County to work for foundries and other plantations. He was married to a slave woman named Nanny and two were not known to have children. He was over six feet tall and was missing two front teeth. The local white people regarded him as “courageous and as being possess of an intellect above his station in life.” Historian Douglas R. Egerton and author of Gabriel’s Rebellion, states: “He was physically big, he was literate, he’s a fighter, he’s a skilled artisan. For all these reasons, he was a natural leader.”

So what triggered Gabriel.. what pushed him over the edge? I have been trying to find the answer to that question for weeks. My money is on he suffered some indignity on one of his trips. “Boy I told Miss De’ French Wooman that all you nigra’s got tails… and we cut em off after you born.. aint that right boy? I said ain’t that right boy!!” “Yes, Massa Hungtoalredy” Anywho, history doesn’t say what triggered him, only his objectives, to overtake the capital and convince Governor James Monroe to support more political, social, and economic equality between members of society. Now I don’t know what he expected to accomplish because James Monroe owned dozens of slaves. Besides slaves, Prosser also wanted to enlist the help of other members of society such as freemen, religious supporters and French sympathizers. Plans were made and he counted on support from slaves all over Virginia, which in 1800 wasn’t that big. It did make some difference that 39% of the total population of Virginia were slaves and a significant portion of the other members of the population were free men of color. With the plan in hands they begin to get to work. Being a blacksmith and knowing other blacksmiths including his brothers, they turned farm implements into swords… well only twelve swords, but they heart was in the right place… they also made musket balls and planned on stealing the muskets guns from a local tavern… gawd bless their hearts. He expected hundreds of slaves from the surrounding areas to march into Richmond and take control of the armory and capital, grab Monroe and hold him as a hostage in bargaining for their freedom. I know it sounds like pie in the sky, but in colonial times it was possible… but not probable. On the day of the planned attack it rained, turning the roads into a mud soaked quagmire. But that was not the reason it failed…

Two slaves had put the mouth on him… They told their owner Massa Mosby Sheppard, about the nigra who planned on taking Massa Monroe hostage. “Massa dat boy danks me and youse equal.. I told dat boy he outta his noggin and dat if he didn’t start acting wid sincerity in his heart to his earthly massa’s… I was gonna put da mouth on him!!” Massa: “You did good boy, tomorrow you can sit on the steps of the big house!!” “Massa can I sit on da top step!!” Massa: “Now don’t you get fancy pants on me boy!! But you can sit on the “second” step from the bottom..” “Oh Massa!!” You know the type… Anyway, Sheppard warned Monroe and he sent out the state militia. They began picking up people on the roads coming to the capital. Gabriel got away but was betrayed by another slave named Will “Billy” King. “Boy you see that stick over there on the ground that looks like a hotdog? Well it ain’t a hotdog… where is he!!” They picked up more than seventy men. Gabriel was sent to Richmond to stand trial in front of a judge as opposed to a jury. Someone testified that Gabriel had intended to write the words liberty or death on a silk flag had the insurrection had been successful. Another said that he would take the same punishment as George Washington had he surrendered to the British. They obliged him and took him out and shot him. Gabriel, his two brothers, and 23 other slaves were hanged. One individual committed suicide before his arraignment. Eight enslaved men were moved or sold outside of Virginia. Thirteen were found guilty, but were pardoned by the governor. Twenty five were acquitted. The two who told Sheppard about the plot were granted their freedom. Fears of a slave revolt regularly swept through large slaveholding communities. New laws were enacted to restrict free blacks and slaves. The Virginia Assembly in 1802 made it illegal for blacks, whether free or enslaved, to obtain a pilot’s boat license or to navigate a boat. Two years later, they were unable to meet in groups after their work was done or on Sundays without a white man present. In 1808, state legislators banned the hiring out of slaves and required freed blacks to leave the state within 12 months or face re-enslavement. Sometime later free blacks petition the legislature to stay in the state. The petitions were not taken as a whole, by that I mean there were not statewide petitions. Independent petitioners usually lost and were ordered to leave at night… okay they wasn’t ordered to leave at night but you should probably have your wagon packed and ready to go once you leave the courthouse. Well that’s the story of Gabriel Prosser and the Slave Insurrection of 1800. I hope you enjoyed it and will come back to read more from Hill1News.

One hundred thirty years later...

Child: Momma we studied about a man named Gabriel Prosser in school today..
Momma: Thats nice honey. This family owes a lot to that man.
Child: On a count that he fought for our freedom?
Momma: Well if it wasn’t for him your great great granddaddy would not have been freed.
Child: Tell me more mamma!!
Mamma: Well your great great granddaddy was proud man..with sincerity in his heart.. Oh who is that at the door?
Mailman: We have a special delivery for a Mrs Carson…
Mamma: I was expecting that.. Ben go take your school clothes off and get ready for supper…


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