In Whispers of Rebellion: Narrating Gabriel’s Conspiracy, Michael L. Nicholls offers a complex contextual history of an important event that never occurred. Free and enslaved African Americans failed to violently overthrow the Virginia government in 1800, but this fact is far less significant to Nicholls than the geographical setting and underlying social connections that gave rise to the plot in the first place. [End Page 239] Whispers of Rebellion is more than a study of a failed rebellion; it is a fine-grained examination of the power of place and the influence of local geography upon interpersonal relationships, kinship ties, communal gatherings, and the circulation of ideas in the early republic.
Unlike Douglas R. Egerton’s Gabriel’s Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802 (1993), which largely explores the plot from the perspective of class and ideology, and James Sidbury’s Ploughshares into Swords: Race, Rebellion, and Identity in Gabriel’s Virginia, 1730–1810 (1997), which focuses on notions of race, identity, and millennial Christianity, Nicholls’s narrative centers on “the Brook, a neighborhood framed by a watershed north of Richmond, and the physical and human connections these men had with other parts of central Virginia” (p. 11). Where the Brook and its tributaries flowed, so too did news, gossip, and other information among African Americans who lived, worked, and socialized in adjoining neighborhoods. Nicholls’s analysis leads to important new insights into how Gabriel and others along the Brook secured additional participants in the planned insurrection. Nicholls writes, “The principal plotters spread their conspiracy not unlike some successful modern cosmetic or vitamin marketing schemes,” in which individuals recruit, then oversee, their own contacts (p. 35).
In six concisely written chapters, Nicholls explains the “face-to-face world” along the Brook, the processes by which the conspirators gained followers, the betrayal of the plot by two enslaved men, the legal proceedings following the exposure of the insurrection, and the official and public responses to the planned rebellion (p. 11). At various points, Nicholls challenges the conclusions of previous scholars, especially Egerton, to demonstrate a clearer chronology and understanding of events leading up to the conspiracy. For example, Nicholls argues that Egerton goes “beyond the evidence” in his now-classic account of the rebellion by portraying the planned insurrection in political terms that reveal “more a historian’s vision than Gabriel’s” (p. 32). In addition, Nicholls contends that Egerton’s retelling of the events privileges “dramatic effect” over facts and draws conclusions [End Page 240] unsupported by available evidence (p. 211). Indeed, Nicholls’s account is an important corrective to past scholars’ narratives and proves most convincing in precisely those instances in which Nicholls acknowledges the ambiguity of existing sources or silences in the historical record.
Most general readers will appreciate Nicholls’s placement of his extensive notes (which, with appendixes, comprise nearly one-third of the text) at the rear of the volume. For scholars interested in Nicholls’s sources, including official communications, private letters, court testimony, and newspapers, the notes may occasionally convey fine points of even greater interest than those contained in the corresponding main text. Frequently, a single note runs half a page and contains source citations, explanations of the differences between Nicholls’s account and those of other scholars, as well as discussions of contingencies and hypotheses.
Until new evidence comes to light concerning the conspiracy itself or the lives of the central actors of the plot, Whispers of Rebellion will stand as the definitive account of Gabriel’s rebellion—an event that did not come to fruition but nonetheless influenced racial dynamics in the early republic, the passage of race-based restrictive law in Virginia, and the subsequent creation of the American Colonization Society.
Ted Maris-Wolf teaches history at the University of Louisiana, Lafayette. He is the author of forthcoming articles in Slavery & Abolition and The Journal of the Civil War Era. He is currently revising a manuscript on race, law, and liberty in...