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Whispers of Rebellion

Whispers of Rebellion: Narrating Gabriel's Conspiracy

Michael L. Nicholls
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 264
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  • Book Info
    Whispers of Rebellion
    Book Description:

    An ambitious but abortive plan to revolt that ended in the conviction and hanging of over two dozen men, Gabriel's Conspiracy of 1800 sought nothing less than to capture the capital city of Richmond and end slavery in Virginia.Whispers of Rebelliondraws on recent scholarship and extensive archival material to provide the clearest view yet of this fascinating chapter in the history of slavery-and to question much about the case that has been accepted as fact.

    In his examination of the slave Gabriel and his group of insurgents, Michael Nicholls focuses on the neighborhood of the Brook, north of Richmond, as the plot's locus, revealing the area's economic and familial ties, the geographic proximity of the key conspirators, and how their contacts allowed their plan to spread across three counties and into the cities of Richmond and Petersburg.

    Nicholls explores underdocumented aspects of the conspiracy, such as the participants' recruitment and motives, showing them to be less ideologically driven than previously supposed. The author also looks at the state's swift and brutal response, and argues persuasively that, rather than the coalition between blacks and whites that has been described in other accounts, the participants were all slaves or free blacks, suffering under an oppressive white population and willing to die for their freedom.

    eISBN: 978-0-8139-3206-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations and Short Titles
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    On Saturday morning, 30 August 1800, two slaves revealed the existence of a scheme to seize Richmond, Virginia, that very night and destroy slavery. They identified one “Gabriel,” a slave blacksmith, as its leader. But the uprising never occurred. That evening, a tremendous “gust,” marked by a massive downpour, flooded roads and bridges and prevented any rendezvous by the potential insurrectionists. Consequently, neither the geographical extent of the plot nor the number of insurgents in the conspiracy was revealed. In fact, the initial task for Republican governor James Monroe, beyond sending out some patrols, was to determine if the conspiracy...

  6. 1 The Brook and the Road
    (pp. 13-29)

    Two geographical features dominate Gabriel’s Conspiracy. One is a waterway known as the Brook. The other is the stage road that crossed it, called Brook Road. In 1800, Brook Road headed north out of Richmond and in about five or six miles reached the Brook, which rose northwest of the capital city of Virginia. Once called variations of Ufnam Brook, and today known as Upham Brook, it generally descended in an easterly direction. It emptied into the Chickahominy River, the northern boundary of Henrico County, not far from the Meadow Bridges, which sat six miles or so north and a...

  7. 2 Are You a True Man?
    (pp. 30-51)

    For three or four months, the cell of conspirators built and spread their plot around the Brook and up and down the Road. They gathered recruits; pilfered tools to be reshaped into weapons; pooled their monies, probably gathered from tips, market sales, and found and stolen coins; and purchased liquor for recruiting and powder for guns. And they did this without attracting the attention of private citizens or public authorities. Only a few records hint at when specific meetings, trips, and conversations took place. Even when the talk turned earnest remains unknown. The criminal informations filed by the Commonwealth’s attorney...

  8. 3 The Deluge
    (pp. 52-70)

    The plotters recruited an unknown number of men, perhaps hundreds, approaching them individually or grouped at barbecues, fish fries, and church or religious assemblies, in dram shops and plantation quarters, around blacksmith forges, and along the road. They also gathered in the shade of bridges and adjacent to springs, where rum and sugar and water were mixed and passed around. During these communions, Gabriel and the men in the web of connections stretching out from the Brook, but strung primarily north and south along the Brook Road, presented their plan and built their conspiracy with the minds and limbs and...

  9. 4 Revenge or Justice?
    (pp. 71-92)

    When the captured men arrived at the penitentiary, they were examined by Gervas Storrs and Joseph Selden and if thought complicit in the plot were transferred to the jail to await trial. From there, they stepped the short distance to the Henrico County courthouse to stand individually before the bar as both person and property. As they did so, the trial testimony began to reveal the nature and extent of the whispers and boasts, some rough numbers of those involved, and the subplots and plans, though never completely nor perfectly, because the law of conspiracy did not demand that. The...

  10. 5 Putting a Period
    (pp. 93-116)

    With Gabriel in custody, a new phase in the public’s response to the intended insurrection emerged. As the editor of theArgusexpressed it from his vantage point in Richmond, “A period is put to the anxiety and perturbation which for several weeks past has convulsed the public mind by the capture and safe commitment of GABRIEL.” TheVirginia Gazettegave a brief description of the presentation of Gabriel to the governor, and reported that the captive “denied the charge of being first in exciting the insurrection” but admitted that “he was to have had the chief command.” The paper...

  11. 6 Politics and Policies
    (pp. 117-140)

    Between 11 September 1800, when Solomon stood before the Henrico Court, and 1 December, when Watt appeared, the Commonwealth of Virginia had prosecuted seventy-two men for conspiracy and insurrection. The overwhelming number came from the neighborhood of the Brook and through the personal ties of the men residing there. Deputy sheriffs hanged twenty-five men in Richmond or Henrico, and one in Dinwiddie County. Another man committed suicide in Gloucester before he could be indicted or tried. Eight of the convicted men would be sold to slave traders to be transported from Virginia, forever banned from the state and facing execution...

  12. Afterword
    (pp. 141-150)

    The suppression of the conspiracy disrupted and devastated lives along the Brook. For about five weeks, patrols regularly stalked the area. By mid-October, twenty-two men from the neighborhood had been executed; four of them, plus Michael from Chesterfield, were hanged near Prosser’s Tavern to terrorize the inhabitants. The state kept records only of their deaths, taking no notice of the interment of the hanged men, no matter where they died. Last rites or proper burials by their families and friends may not have taken place; indeed, such gatherings might have been feared and dispersed. Perhaps the costs of interment were...

  13. Appendix A. The Geography of Conspiracy
    (pp. 151-155)
  14. Appendix B. Men Tried for Conspiracy and Insurrection
    (pp. 156-159)
  15. Appendix C. Alleged Participants Not Prosecuted
    (pp. 160-167)
  16. Appendix D. Slave Witnesses at Trials
    (pp. 168-170)
  17. Notes
    (pp. 171-230)
  18. Index
    (pp. 231-248)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 249-250)