Gabriel Prosser was the leader of an unsuccessful slave revolt in Richmond, Virginia in 1800. Born into slavery around 1775, Gabriel Prosser was owned by Thomas H. Prosser of Henrico County, Virginia. Little is known of Prosser’s life before the revolt that catapulted him into notoriety. Prosser’s two brothers, Solomon and Martin and his wife, Nanny, were all owned by Thomas Prosser and all participated in the insurrection.
Gabriel Prosser at the time of the insurrection was twenty-four years old, six feet two inches, literate, and a blacksmith by trade. He was described by a contemporary as “a fellow of courage and intellect above his rank in life.” With the help of other slaves including Jack Bowler and George Smith, Prosser devised a plan to seize 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.
Prosser and the other revolt leaders were probably influenced by the American Revolution and more recently the French and Haitian Revolutions with their rhetoric of freedom, equality, and brotherhood. In the months prior to the revolt Prosser recruited hundreds of supporters and organized them into military units. Although Virginia authorities never determined the extent of the revolt, they estimated that several thousand planned to participate including many who were to be armed with swords and pikes made from farm tools by slave blacksmiths.
Prosser planned to initiate the insurrection on the night of August 30, 1800. However, earlier in the day two slaves who wanted to protect their masters betrayed the plot to Virginia authorities. Governor James Monroe alerted the militia. A rainstorm delayed the uprising by 24 hours, preventing Prosser’s army from assembling outside Richmond and providing the militia crucial time to prepare a defense of the city. Realizing their plan had been discovered, Prosser and many of his followers dispersed into the countryside. About 35 leaders were captured and executed but Prosser escaped to Norfolk where he was betrayed by fellow slaves who claimed the reward for his capture on September 25. Prosser was returned to Richmond and tried for his role in the abortive uprising. He was found guilty on October 6, 1800, and executed the following day.
Words by: WILSON EDWARD REED