Surfing the Spectacle

Liberty or Death

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet,
As to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?
Forbid it, Almighty God.
I know not what course others may take; but as for me,
Give me liberty or give me death!


This is a portrait of Patrick Henry. Those are his words above the portrait. He spoke them in an old church in Richmond, Virginia, a mile or two away from where SurfingtheSpectacle resides. Henry was an orator, a statesman, a patriot who spoke of freedom with tremendous passion.

It was the age enlightenment, of reason, of revolt. With the French Revolution and the American Revolution, ideas of freedom, equality and brotherhood spread through the land. These kind of grand notions might get a man thinking.

Especially if he were a slave.

Gabriel was a slave. In the year of 1776, he was born as someone else’s property. But he made sure he died his own man. No one ever made a portrait of him.


Gabriel wanted liberty; they gave him death. It was early October when they hanged him. You can go to the place he was killed. It’s now a parking lot.

The story goes that Gabriel had worked as a blacksmith, and his master hired him out from time to time. This gave him some mobility. He could talk and drink with Richmond’s slaves, free negroes and working class whites. They all wanted change. There was talk of injustice, of revolution. Ten years before in Haiti, the rule of the slave masters had been overturned. Why couldn’t it happen here?

Now was their time. Gabriel was strong, educated, persuasive. A natural leader. He slowly hatched a plan, gathered his forces and amassed weapons. His hope was to take over the city in bloody fashion, kidnap the Governor of Virginia and begin to negotiate a new order of racial and economic equality.

In 1800, he led what is considered the first major slave rebellion in American history. Thousands of slaves were in on the plan. But the night of the revolt, a ferocious storm ensued, washing out roads and bridges. The plan was delayed a day, but in that time, all was lost. It’s said that two slaves informed on the rest, and the state militia came together to hunt down all the leaders of the rebellion.


This is a portrait of James Monroe. Before he became the 5th American president, he was the Governor of Virginia. He was the one that called out the militia to quash the slave revolt. When Gabriel was in chains, Monroe questioned him.

It must have been extremely awkward for many of the founding fathers, daring to fight for liberty, expressing it in the most eloquent and forceful ways, and then going home to their estates and their family wealth, all of it utterly dependent upon slave labor. Yes, extremely awkward.


According to Governor Monroe, the interrogation proved uneventful. Gabriel “resolved to say but little on the subject of the conspiracy.” Nor did his companions betray a word about the rebellion. The accused slaves carried themselves with a dignity that white observers found frightening.

One of the accused made these remarks during the trial:

“I have nothing more to offer than what General Washington would have had to offer, had he been taken by the British and put to trial by them. I have adventured my life in endeavouring to obtain the liberty of my countrymen, and am a willing sacrifice to their cause. And I beg, as a favour, that I may be immediately led to execution. I know that you have pre-determined to shed my blood, why then all this mockery of a trial?”

On October 10, 1800, Gabriel and other slaves were hanged in the city gallows.

A week before the execution, very close by in Southhampton, Virginia, a boy was born into the world. He was black, a slave. He would also have something to say about liberty and death.

His name was Nat Turner.


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