Wednesday, August 29, 2007

August 30

Two hundred and seven years ago, an enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel launched a conspiracy that -- had it not been foiled by weather and betrayal -- would have amounted to the largest slave rebellion in American history. Gabriel "Prosser," as he was known, believed himself to be a liberator of the oppressed; as such, his readings of the Bible convinced him that God would favor his efforts to lead an army of his fellow bondsmen against the city of Richmond, Virginia. With the help of a small group of co-consirators, Gabriel devoted months during the summer of 1800 to gathering comrades and weapons. They devised a plan to capture Virginia's governor, James Monroe, and use him as leverage to sever the state from the union and proclaim an independent, slavery-free republic with Gabriel himself as ruler.

The plan collapsed in spectacular fashion on August 30, the night chosen for the uprising, when torrential rains washed out key bridges and roads. As rumors of a slave insurrection caused eastern Virginia's white population to cower in their homes, the lure of financial reward drew several of Gabriel's army into the eager embrace of local militias. The plot foiled, Gabriel and the leaders of the rebellion scattered into the countryside, where they were hunted and captured over the next several weeks. Gabriel himself was delivered to authorities in mid-September after taking refuge aboard a schooner owned by a former slave overseer who -- having since altered his views of the peculiar institution -- agreed to take Gabriel to freedom. Unfortunately for the rebel leader, he was betrayed in Norfolk by a fellow slave named Billy, who -- believing he would earn $300 for his troubles -- ultimately received a mere $50 for the information that led to Gabriel's capture.

After a brief trial, Gabriel dangled from the gallows on October 10, 1800. All told, nearly three dozen slaves lost their lives in the aftermath of the failed revolt. The commonwealth of Virginia spent about $9000 compensating the owners of the dead.

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