- Whispers of Rebellion: Narrating Gabriel’s Conspiracy
Prosser's Gabriel, Gabriel Prosser, Slave revolts, Slavery, Virginia
Compared with other slave conspiracies and rebellions around the Americas, the Virginia plot orchestrated by the blacksmith Gabriel in the summer of 1800 generated but a modest collection of documents for later generations to interpret. Unlike Nat Turner, Gabriel evidently did not speak at length to a court-appointed attorney. Nor did the many blacks and whites familiar with the proceedings and participants write lengthy accounts in later years, as was the case with the Vesey affair. (Most of the relevant documents, however, will soon be published by the historian Philip J. Schwarz and the University of Virginia Press.) As a result, scholars can interpret these meager documents in a variety of ways, teasing out tantalizing references that may hold clues to the dreams and goals of the conspirators.
The latest scholar to explore the events of that contentious year is Michael L. Nicholls, a professor emeritus at Utah State University and the author of a number of articles on the early national Chesapeake. Where James Sidbury emphasized that some of Gabriel’s men regarded themselves as God’s chosen people, and this reviewer suggested that the enslaved smithy and his chief lieutenants drew inspiration from artisan republicanism, Nicholls shifts his story away from Richmond and into the area around the Prosser plantation and Upham Brook. Although the presidential election of 1800 and its implications for Virginia here receive an early cameo, Nicholls is far more interested in re-creating life around the plantation blacksmith shop. Gabriel’s brother Solomon was also a blacksmith, and, unlike earlier writers who tend to dismiss the importance of their older brother Martin, Nicholls demonstrates that as Martin had a son named Frank who labored in neighboring Goochland County as a blacksmith. So it is possible that their elder sibling “once wielded a hammer too” (26). Unfortunately, Nicholls is no more successful than previous scholars in discovering the owner of Gabriel’s wife Nanny or [End Page 725] her fate and even whether she bore him any children; she remains a shadowy figure in this study as in others, as perhaps she always will. Nicholls argues that her presence at Brookfield on the eve of the intended rising indicates that she was “fully aware and supportive of the enterprise,” and he is probably correct. Yet he does not effectively challenge those writers who highlighted “the maleness” of the conspiracy (44) by elaborating on this point.
By situating the conspiracy around the brook, Nicholls loses the larger Atlantic rhythms of the age of revolution, particularly the impact of the 1791 uprising in Saint Domingue and the gradual emancipation of blacks in northern states. (Prosser’s fiancé was from New York, and her father’s slaves promptly tried to run away upon arriving in Virginia.) But he also gains a good deal by downsizing his story, and Nicholls skillfully draws rural life along the Stage Road as it meandered north from Richmond. Influenced by Anthony E. Kaye’s groundbreaking scholarship on slave localities, Nicholls shows how the interconnected lives of the whites and blacks who gathered at Gregory’s Tavern to talk business or at Young’s Spring to drink grog shaped the conspiracy. Those environs, ironically, also shaped the aftermath, since some of the rebels were hanged at Prosser’s Tavern rather than in the city, “to serve as a deterrent to any slaves still contemplating rebellion” (100). Despite his best efforts to keep the focus on the countryside, Nicholls eventually returns the story to Richmond, as capturing the ill-guarded capital and magazine meant the difference between success and failure when it came to the rebels bargaining for their freedom and an end to slavery in Virginia.
In his 2007 Journal of the Early Republic essay, “Neighborhoods and Nat Turner: The Making of a Slave Rebel and the Unmaking of a Slave Rebellion,” Kaye suggested that Turner’s leadership faltered once the rebels moved beyond his plantation district, and...