Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Slave Gabriel's Insurrection


The Slave Gabriel's Insurrection 

Gabriel's insurrection of 1800 was by no means the most formidable revolt that the Southern states witnessed. In design it certainly did not surpass the scope of the plot of Denmark Vesey twenty-two years later, and in actual achievement it was insignificant when compared not only with Nat Turner's insurrection but even with the uprisings sixty years before. At the last moment in fact a great storm that came up made the attempt to execute the plan a miserable failure. Nevertheless coming as it did so soon after the revolution in Hayti, and giving evidence of young and unselfish leadership, the plot was regarded as of extraordinary significance.
Gabriel himself69 was an intelligent slave only twenty-four years old, and his chief assistant was Jack Bowler, aged twenty-eight. Throughout the summer of 1800 he matured his plan, holding meetings at which a brother named Martin interpreted various texts from Scripture as bearing on the situation of the Negroes. His insurrection was finally set for the first day of September. It was well planned. The rendezvous was to be a brook six miles from Richmond. Under cover of night the force of 1,100 was to march in three columns on the city, then a town of 8,000 inhabitants, the right wing to seize the penitentiary building which had just been converted into an arsenal, while the left took possession of the powder-house. These two columns were to be armed with clubs, and while they were doing their work the central force, armed with muskets, knives, and pikes, was to begin the carnage, none being spared except the French, whom it is significant that the Negroes favored. In Richmond at the time there were not more than four or five hundred men with about thirty muskets; but in the arsenal were several thousand guns, and the powder-house was well stocked. Seizure of the mills was to guarantee the insurrectionists a food supply; and meanwhile in the country districts were the new harvests of corn, and flocks and herds were fat in the fields.
On the day appointed for the uprising Virginia witnessed such a storm as she had not seen in years. Bridges were carried away, and roads and plantations completely submerged. Brook Swamp, the strategic point for the Negroes, was inundated; and the country Negroes could not get into the city, nor could those in the city get out to the place of rendezvous. The force of more than a thousand dwindled to three hundred, and these, almost paralyzed by fear and superstition, were dismissed. Meanwhile a slave who did not wish to see his master killed divulged the plot, and all Richmond was soon in arms.
A troop of United States cavalry was ordered to the city and arrests followed quickly. Three hundred dollars was offered by Governor Monroe for the arrest of Gabriel, and as much more for Jack Bowler. Bowler surrendered, but it took weeks to find Gabriel. Six men were convicted and condemned to be executed on September 12, and five more on September 18. Gabriel was finally captured on September 24 at Norfolk on a vessel that had come from Richmond; he was convicted on October 3 and executed on October 7. He showed no disposition to dissemble as to his own plan; at the same time he said not one word that incriminated anybody else. After him twenty-four more men were executed; then it began to appear that some "mistakes" had been made and the killing ceased. About the time of this uprising some Negroes were also assembled for an outbreak in Suffolk County; there were alarms in Petersburg and in the country near Edenton, N.C.; and as far away as Charleston the excitement was intense.
There were at least three other Negro insurrections of importance in the period 1790-1820. When news came of the uprising of the slaves in Santo Domingo in 1791, the Negroes in Louisiana planned a similar effort.70 They might have succeeded better if they had not disagreed as to the hour of the outbreak, when one of them informed the commandant. As a punishment twenty-three of the slaves were hanged along the banks of the river and their corpses left dangling for days; but three white men who assisted them and who were really the most guilty of all, were simply sent out of the colony. In Camden, S. C, on July 4, 1816, some other Negroes risked all for independence.71 On various pretexts men from the country districts were invited to the town on the appointed night, and different commands were assigned, all except that of commander-in-chief, which position was to be given to him who first forced the gates of the arsenal. Again the plot was divulged by "a favorite and confidential slave," of whom we are told that the state legislature purchased the freedom, settling upon him a pension for life. About six of the leaders were executed. On or about May 1, 1819, there was a plot to destroy the city of Augusta, Ga.72 The insurrectionists were to assemble at Beach Island, proceed to Augusta, set fire to the place, and then destroy the inhabitants. Guards were posted, and a white man who did not answer when hailed was shot and fatally wounded. A Negro named Coot was tried as being at the head of the conspiracy and sentenced to be executed a few days later. Other trials followed his. Not a muscle moved when the verdict was pronounced upon him.
The deeper meaning of such events as these could not escape the discerning. More than one patriot had to wonder just whither the country was drifting. Already it was evident that the ultimate problem transcended the mere question of slavery, and many knew that human beings could not always be confined to an artificial status. Throughout the period the slave-trade seemed to flourish without any real check, and it was even accentuated by the return to power of the old royalist houses of Europe after the fall of Napoleon. Meanwhile it was observed that slave labor was driving out of the South the white man of small means, and antagonism between the men of the "up-country" and the seaboard capitalists was brewing. The ordinary social life of the Negro in the South left much to be desired, and conditions were not improved by the rapid increase. As for slavery itself, no one could tell when or where or how the system would end; all only knew that it was developing apace: and meanwhile there was the sinister possibility of the alliance of the Negro and the Indian. Sincere plans of gradual abolition were advanced in the South as well as the North, but in the lower section they seldom got more than a respectful hearing. In his "Dissertation on Slavery, with a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of it in the State of Virginia," St. George Tucker, a professor of law in the University of William and Mary, and one of the judges of the General Court of Virginia, in 1796 advanced a plan by which he figured that after sixty years there would be only one-third as many slaves as at first. At this distance his proposal seems extremely conservative; at the time, however, it was laid on the table by the Virginia House of Delegates, and from the Senate the author received merely "a civil acknowledgment."
Two men of the period—widely different in temper and tone, but both earnest seekers after truth—looked forward to the future with foreboding, one with the eye of the scientist, the other with the vision of the seer. Hezekiah Niles had full sympathy with the groping and striving of the South; but he insisted that slavery must ultimately be abolished throughout the country, that the minds of the slaves should be exalted, and that reasonable encouragement should be given free Negroes.73 Said he: "We are ashamed of the thing we practice;... there is no attribute of heaven that takes part with us, and we know it. And in the contest that must come and will come, there will be a heap of sorrows such as the world has rarely seen."74
On the other hand rose Lorenzo Dow, the foremost itinerant preacher of the time, the first Protestant who expounded the gospel in Alabama and Mississippi, and a reformer who at the very moment that cotton was beginning to be supreme, presumed to tell the South that slavery was wrong.75Everywhere he arrested attention—with his long hair, his harsh voice, and his wild gesticulation startling all conservative hearers. But he was made in the mold of heroes. In his lifetime he traveled not less than two hundred thousand miles, preaching to more people than any other man of his time. Several times he went to Canada, once to the West Indies, and three times to England, everywhere drawing great crowds about him. In A Cry from the Wilderness he more than once clothed his thought in enigmatic garb, but the meaning was always ultimately clear. At this distance, when slavery and the Civil War are alike viewed in the perspective, the words of the oracle are almost uncanny: "In the rest of the Southern states the influence of these Foreigners will be known and felt in its time, and the seeds from the HORY ALLIANCE and the DECAPIGANDI, who have a hand in those grades of Generals, from the Inquisitor to the Vicar General and down...!!! The STRUGGLE will be DREADFUL! the CUP will be BITTER! and when the agony is over, those who survive may see better days! FAREWELL!"

Toussaint L'Ouverture, Louisiana, and the Formal Closing of the Slave-Trade


Toussaint L'Ouverture, Louisiana, and the Formal Closing of the Slave-Trade

When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, it was not long before its general effects were felt in the West Indies. Of special importance was Santo Domingo because of the commercial interests centered there. The eastern end of the island was Spanish, but the western portion was French, and in this latter part was a population of 600,000, of which number 50,000 were French Creoles, 50,000 mulattoes, and 500,000 pure Negroes. All political and social privileges were monopolized by the Creoles, while the Negroes were agricultural laborers and slaves; and between the two groups floated the restless element of the free people of color.
When the General Assembly in France decreed equality of rights to all citizens, the mulattoes of Santo Domingo made a petition for the enjoyment of the same political privileges as the white people—to the unbounded consternation of the latter. They were rewarded with a decree which was so ambiguously worded that it was open to different interpretations and which simply heightened the animosity that for years had been smoldering. A new petition to the Assembly in 1791 primarily for an interpretation brought forth on May 15 the explicit decree that the people of color were to have all the rights and privileges of citizens, provided they had been born of free parents on both sides. The white people were enraged by the decision, turned royalist, and trampled the national cockade underfoot; and throughout the summer armed strife and conflagration were the rule. To add to the confusion the black slaves struck for freedom and on the night of August 23, 1791, drenched the island in blood. In the face of these events the Conventional Assembly rescinded its order, then announced that the original decree must be obeyed, and it sent three commissioners with troops to Santo Domingo, real authority being invested in Santhonax and Polverel.
On June 20, 1793, at Cape François trouble was renewed by a quarrel between a mulatto and a white officer in the marines. The seamen came ashore and loaned their assistance to the white people, and the Negroes now joined forces with the mulattoes. In the battle of two days that followed the arsenal was taken and plundered, thousands were killed in the streets, and more than half of the town was burned. The French commissioners were the unhappy witnesses of the scene, but they were practically helpless, having only about a thousand troops. Santhonax, however, issued a proclamation offering freedom to all slaves who were willing to range themselves under the banner of the Republic. This was the first proclamation for the freeing of slaves in Santo Domingo, and as a result of it many of the Negroes came in and were enfranchised.
Soon after this proclamation Polverel left his colleague at the Cape and went to Port au Prince, the capital of the West. Here things were quiet and the cultivation of the crops was going forward as usual. The slaves were soon unsettled, however, by the news of what was being done elsewhere, and Polverel was convinced that emancipation could not be delayed and that for the safety of the planters themselves it was necessary to extend it to the whole island. In September (1793) he set in circulation from Aux Cayes a proclamation to this effect, and at the same time he exhorted all the planters in the vicinity who concurred in his work to register their names. This almost all of them did, as they were convinced of the need of measures for their personal safety; and on February 4, 1794, the Conventional Assembly in Paris formally approved all that had been done by decreeing the abolition of slavery in all the colonies of France.
All the while the Spanish and the English had been looking on with interest and had even come to the French part of the island as if to aid in the restoration of order. Among the former, at first in charge of a little royalist band, was the Negro, Toussaint, later called L'Ouverture. He was then a man in the prime of life, forty-eight years old, and already his experience had given him the wisdom that was needed to bring peace in Santo Domingo. In April, 1794, impressed by the decree of the Assembly, he returned to the jurisdiction of France and took service under the Republic. In 1796 he became a general of brigade; in 1797 general-in-chief, with the military command of the whole colony.
He at once compelled the surrender of the English who had invaded his country. With the aid of a commercial agreement with the United States, he next starved out the garrison of his rival, the mulatto Rigaud, whom he forced to consent to leave the country. He then imprisoned Roume, the agent of the Directory, and assumed civil as well as military authority. He also seized the Spanish part of the island, which had been ceded to France some years before but had not been actually surrendered. He then, in May, 1801, gave to Santo Domingo a constitution by which he not only assumed power for life but gave to himself the right of naming his successor; and all the while he was awakening the admiration of the world by his bravery, his moderation, and his genuine instinct for government.
Across the ocean, however, a jealous man was watching with interest the career of the "gilded African." None knew better than Napoleon that it was because he did not trust France that Toussaint had sought the friendship of the United States, and none read better than he the logic of events. As Adams says, "Bonaparte's acts as well as his professions showed that he was bent on crushing democratic ideas, and that he regarded St. Domingo as an outpost of American republicanism, although Toussaint had made a rule as arbitrary as that of Bonaparte himself.... By a strange confusion of events, Toussaint L'Ouverture, because he was a Negro, became the champion of republican principles, with which he had nothing but the instinct of personal freedom in common. Toussaint's government was less republican than that of Bonaparte; he was doing by necessity in St. Domingo what Bonaparte was doing by choice in France."66
This was the man to whom the United States ultimately owes the purchase of Louisiana. On October 1, 1801, Bonaparte gave orders to General Le Clerc for a great expedition against Santo Domingo. In January, 1802, Le Clerc appeared and war followed. In the course of this, Toussaint—who was ordinarily so wise and who certainly knew that from Napoleon he had most to fear—made the great mistake of his life and permitted himself to be led into a conference on a French vessel. He was betrayed and taken to France, where within the year he died of pneumonia in the dungeon of Joux. Immediately there was a proclamation annulling the decree of 1794 giving freedom to the slaves. Bonaparte, however, had not estimated the force of Toussaint's work, and to assist the Negroes in their struggle now came a stalwart ally, yellow fever. By the end of the summer only one-seventh of Le Clerc's army remained, and he himself died in November. At once Bonaparte planned a new expedition. While he was arranging for the leadership of this, however, the European war broke out again. Meanwhile the treaty for the retrocession of the territory of Louisiana had not yet received the signature of the Spanish king, because Godoy, the Spanish representative, would not permit the signature to be affixed until all the conditions were fulfilled; and toward the end of 1802 the civil officer at New Orleans closed the Mississippi to the United States. Jefferson, at length moved by the plea of the South, sent a special envoy, no less a man than James Monroe, to France to negotiate the purchase; Bonaparte, disgusted by the failure of his Egyptian expedition and his project for reaching India, and especially by his failure in Santo Domingo, in need also of ready money, listened to the offer; and the people of the United States—who within the last few years have witnessed the spoliation of Hayti—have not yet realized how much they owe to the courage of 500,000 Haytian Negroes who refused to be slaves.
The slavery question in the new territory was a critical one. It was on account of it that the Federalists had opposed the acquisition; the American Convention endeavored to secure a provision like that of the Northwest Ordinance; and the Yearly Meeting of the Society of Friends in Philadelphia in 1805 prayed "that effectual measures may be adopted by Congress to prevent the introduction of slavery into any of the territories of the United States." Nevertheless the whole territory without regard to latitude was thrown open to the system March 2, 1805.
In spite of this victory for slavery, however, the general force of the events in Hayti was such as to make more certain the formal closing of the slave-trade at the end of the twenty-year period for which the Constitution had permitted it to run. The conscience of the North had been profoundly stirred, and in the far South was the ever-present fear of a reproduction of the events in Hayti. The agitation in England moreover was at last about to bear fruit in the act of 1807 forbidding the slave-trade. In America it seems from the first to have been an understood thing, especially by the Southern representatives, that even if such an act passed it would be only irregularly enforced, and the debates were concerned rather with the disposal of illegally imported Africans and with the punishment of those concerned in the importation than with the proper limitation of the traffic by water.67 On March 2, 1807, the act was passed forbidding the slave-trade after the close of the year. In course of time it came very near to being a dead letter, as may be seen from presidential messages, reports of cabinet officers, letters of collectors of revenue, letters of district attorneys, reports of committees of Congress, reports of naval commanders, statements on the floor of Congress, the testimony of eye-witnesses, and the complaints of home and foreign anti-slavery societies. Fernandina and Galveston were only two of the most notorious ports for smuggling. A regular chain of posts was established from the head of St. Mary's River to the upper country, and through the Indian nation, by means of which the Negroes were transferred to every part of the country.68 If dealers wished to form a caravan they would give an Indian alarm, so that the woods might be less frequented, and if pursued in Georgia they would escape into Florida. One small schooner contained one hundred and thirty souls. "They were almost packed into a small space, between a floor laid over the water-casks and the deck—not near three feet—insufficient for them to sit upright—and so close that chafing against each other their bones pierced the skin and became galled and ulcerated by the motion of the vessel." Many American vessels were engaged in the trade under Spanish colors, and the traffic to Africa was pursued with uncommon vigor at Havana, the crews of vessels being made up of men of all nations, who were tempted by the high wages to be earned. Evidently officials were negligent in the discharge of their duty, but even if offenders were apprehended it did not necessarily follow that they would receive effective punishment. President Madison in his message of December 5, 1810, said, "It appears that American citizens are instrumental in carrying on a traffic in enslaved Africans, equally in violation of the laws of humanity, and in defiance of those of their own country"; and on January 7, 1819, the Register of the Treasury made to the House the amazing report that "it doth not appear, from an examination of the records of this office, and particularly of the accounts (to the date of their last settlement) of the collectors of the customs, and of the several marshals of the United States, that any forfeitures had been incurred under the said act." A supplementary and compromising and ineffective act of 1818 sought to concentrate efforts against smuggling by encouraging informers; and one of the following year that authorized the President to "make such regulations and arrangements as he may deem expedient for the safe keeping, support, and removal beyond the limits of the United States" of recaptured Africans, and that bore somewhat more fruit, was in large measure due to the colonization movement and of importance in connection with the founding of Liberia.
Thus, while the formal closing of the slave-trade might seem to be a great step forward, the laxness with which the decree was enforced places it definitely in the period of reaction.