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Slavery -- The Peculiar Institution



Getting the Feel of Slavery 200 Years Later

Slavery makes me sick. I never could understand it. How could one human own another? Does that make any sense at all? The concept of slavery goes against what I have always been taught: to respect other people.

I wonder what I would have done if I had been a slave? Would I have escaped and started a new life in the north? Or would I have escaped and helped out the Underground Railroad? Maybe I would have killed my way out of slavery?

Some African American Slaves in Virginia after a long hard day
The truth is, I really cannot completely answer those questions without actually being a slave and feeling what they felt. Some acted violently, some sneaked away from slavery by swimming through ponds and swamps, some educated themselves politically to free themselves and their people, and a few planned for a big escape and got caught before they had a chance to execute it.

What if you were a Slave?

Put yourself in the shoes of a slave around the year 1800. How would you like to be told what to do all the time? You begin work before dawn and perform backbreaking labor all day in the fields. You are told what to eat, when to eat and even how to eat. Your master controls any free time you have. You always hear stories about the North and how you could live freely if you escaped and traveled up there. Freedom is always on your mind. You wonder what it means to be free. Whatever the word "freedom" means, you know you want it and that no matter what it takes, you are going to get it!


Teddy and I spent the night at Pocahontas State Park, south of Richmond, Virginia.

I tried to imagine what it would be like to be a slave. The closest experience I have had to living without freedom was when I was in junior high school. My dad told me I couldn't go out one night, and I became enraged! How could he do this to me? I started planning ways to escape from the house, but I ended up staying home.

Now that I look back on that situation, I realize my dad was just looking out for me because he loved me and was concerned. In fact, I'm actually glad that he did what he did. And I have a lot of respect for him for putting up with me for all these years!

A drawing of Gabriel at the Brookfield Plantation
My point is, the closest I could come to thinking about what it would be to be enslaved doesn't even begin to compare to what it was REALLY like for slaves who lived on plantations 200 years ago. During those times, a slave had to do what he had to do to survive. Here's what an African American slave named Gabriel decided to do.

Gabriel's Story

Gabriel was born in 1776 -- the same year the United States was officially "born" -- on the Brookfield plantation near Richmond, Virginia. Gabriel's master, Thomas Prosser, gave him a limited education so he could travel around to different plantations doing blacksmith work and trading. This would prove to be very economical move for Prosser, because he would be making all of the money off of Gabriel's work (Gabriel had to give his money to his master). Even so, Gabriel enjoyed his work because he could travel to other plantations and meet other slaves. He also realized that he was in a position to coordinate a massive uprising that might have meant freedom for those involved. It was just a matter of getting all the slaves organized and together on the same day. As Gabriel traveled to all the other plantations to work and trade, he began to talk to slaves and plan out a battle for their freedom.

Gabriel's Battle Plan

Nick feeding a hog at an old plantation!
Gabriel's uprising was set for the night of August 30, 1800. Slaves from Caroline, Hanover and northern Henrico were to meet after having gathered weapons along the way. Once their army assembled, Gabriel's men would kill the plantation owners in the neighborhood to ensure the secrecy of the plot. The forces would then proceed to Richmond, where they expected to meet fellow troops from Petersburg.

As a united group, they would divide with separate missions. One band would secure Mayo's Bridge and set fire to Rocketts, a warehouse district in Richmond, as a diversion. A second band would capture the state capitol. They would then kidnap Governor Monroe and force him to accept their demands. When the word of the uprising had been circulated, other slaves, white artisans, freemen, religious supporters and French sympathizers would join the rebels as they hoisted the white flag of freedom.

This was Gabriel's dream and he really believed that they could do it if everyone participated. His hopes were high and he held meetings every so often get ready. What would happen next would not be apart of Gabriel's plans to free the slaves.

The Lost Cause

On the night of the planned rebellion, floods caused by a massive thunderstorm made roads and bridges impassable. The rebel leaders tried to reschedule the rebellion for the next evening, but it was too late. Two slaves from Meadow Farm, Tom and Pharaoh, informed their owner, Mosby Sheppard, of the plot. Sheppard notified Governor Monroe, who called out the militia to protect the state capitol.

Nick at the Henrico courthouse, where Gabriel went to court
Gabriel escaped down the Chickahominy River to Norfolk. On September 23, 1800, he was caught, arrested and imprisoned at the newly built penitentiary. The Henrico Court tried and convicted Gabriel and more than twenty other rebels for conspiracy. Gabriel was the last of twenty-six men to be executed in the gallows on October 10, 1800.

Gabriel's Legacy

Gabriel's plan did not free the slaves, but it did strike fear through the plantation owners and government officials. It really scared the government that a group of rebel slaves would dare to kidnap the Governor and take the capitol. This act of conspiracy by Gabriel and his followers sure changed things in Virginia, but not for the good of the slaves. The local militia in Virginia increased its surveillance on them. Authorities restricted their travel and communication even more than before. Abolition societies ceased operations in Virginia. Free blacks had to leave the state within six months or risk re-enslavement. The entire state of Virginia was scared. One good thing about Gabriel's plan was that it gave blacks and slaves a sense of hope: even thought Gabriel's battle wasn't won, another one might be! Perhaps freedom was within their grasp!

Learning From a Terrible Past

Nick and Teddy on the search for Gabriel's plantation
No matter how hard we try, we will never be able to completely know what we would do if we were in the situation the slaves were in. All we can do is learn from what history has left behind. We have to realize that all of the sacrifices made by the slaves and the brave abolitionist helped to end slavery. The next time you think that you're in a bad situation, think about the African Americans and all of the struggles that they went through as slaves.


Please email me at: nick@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Rebecca - The unluckiest lottery winner
Irene - The real scoop on Spielburg's "Amistad"
Teddy - The murder and mayhem that was Nat Turner's rebellion
MAD - America's shame: A death penalty that includes teens