What Were the Earliest Rebellions by African Americans?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Despite reports to the contrary, African-American slaves had a history of revolt.

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The slaves fought off the English for more than a week before the colonists rallied and killed most of the rebels, although some very likely reached Fort Mose. Even after Colonial forces crushed the Stono uprising, outbreaks occurred, including the very next year, when South Carolina executed at least 50 additional rebel slaves.

2. The New York City Conspiracy of 1741. With about 1,700 blacks living in a city of some 7,000 whites appearing determined to grind every person of African descent under their heel, some form of revenge seemed inevitable. In early 1741, Fort George in New York burned to the ground. Fires erupted elsewhere in the city—four in one day—and in New Jersey and on Long Island. Several white people claimed they had heard slaves bragging about setting the fires and threatening worse. They concluded that a revolt had been planned by secret black societies and gangs, inspired by a conspiracy of priests and their Catholic minions—white, black, brown, free and slave.

Certainly there were coherent ethnic groups who might have led a resistance, among them the Papa, from the Slave Coast near Whydah (Ouidah) in Benin; the Igbo, from the area around the Niger River; and the Malagasy, from Madagascar. Another identifiable and suspect group was known among the conspirators as the "Cuba People," "negroes and mulattoes" captured in the early spring of 1740 in Cuba. They had probably been brought to New York from Havana, the greatest port of the Spanish West Indies and home to a free black population. Having been "free men in their own country," they rightly felt unjustly enslaved in New York.

A 16-year-old Irish indentured servant, under arrest for theft, claimed knowledge of a plot by the city's slaves—in league with a few whites—to kill white men, seize white women and incinerate the city. In the investigation that followed, 30 black men, two white men and two white women were executed. Seventy people of African descent were exiled to far-flung places like Newfoundland, Madeira, Saint-Domingue (which at independence from the French in 1804 was renamed Haiti) and Curaçao. Before the end of the summer of 1741, 17 blacks would be hanged and 13 more sent to the stake, becoming ghastly illuminations of white fears ignited by the institution of slavery they so zealously defended.

3. Gabriel's Conspiracy, 1800. Born prophetically in 1776 on the Prosser plantation, just 6 miles north of Richmond, Va., and home (to use the term loosely) to 53 slaves, a slave named Gabriel would hatch a plot, with freedom as its goal, that was emblematic of the era in which he lived.

A skilled blacksmith who stood more than 6 feet tall and dressed in fine clothes when he was away from the forge, Gabriel cut an imposing figure. But what distinguished him more than his physical bearing was his ability to read and write: Only 5 percent of Southern slaves were literate.

Other slaves looked up to men like Gabriel, and Gabriel himself found inspiration in the French and Saint-Domingue revolutions of 1789. He imbibed the political fervor of the era and concluded, albeit erroneously, that Jeffersonian democratic ideology encompassed the interests of black slaves and white workingmen alike, who, united, could oppose the oppressive Federalist merchant class.

Spurred on by two liberty-minded French soldiers he met in a tavern, Gabriel began to formulate a plan, enlisting his brother Solomon and another servant on the Prosser plantation in his fight for freedom. Word quickly spread to Richmond, other nearby towns and plantations and well beyond to Petersburg and Norfolk, via free and enslaved blacks who worked the waterways. Gabriel took a tremendous risk in letting so many black people learn of his plans: It was necessary as a means of attracting supporters, but it also exposed him to the possibility of betrayal.

Regardless, Gabriel persevered, aiming to rally at least 1,000 slaves to his banner of "Death or Liberty," an inversion of the famed cry of the slaveholding revolutionary Patrick Henry. With incredible daring—and naivete—Gabriel determined to march to Richmond, take the armory and hold Gov. James Monroe hostage until the merchant class bent to the rebels' demands of equal rights for all. He planned his uprising for Aug. 30 and publicized it well.

But on that day, one of the worst thunderstorms in recent memory pummeled Virginia, washing away roads and making travel all but impossible. Undeterred, Gabriel believed that only a small band was necessary to carry out the plan. But many of his followers lost faith, and he was betrayed by a slave named Pharoah, who feared retribution if the plot failed.