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Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802.

Reviewed by Mary Kemp Davis Meredith College

In walking slowly along one of the cross streets just now, I heard a parcel of negroes talking, and hearing Norfolk, cowards, &c., I passed them, and then walked easily back to hear the subject of their discourse, and got near enough to hear them speak of the late alarm in Norfolk, and one observed that the business only required a beginning, and that there never was, or would be, a better time than the present . . . . (H. W. Flournoy, Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts Preserved in the Capitol at Richmond)

In the penultimate chapter of his 1936 novel Black Thunder, Arna Bontemps wrote the following prophetic words about the condemned insurrectionist Gabriel, the prime mover in an aborted slave conspiracy encompassing Richmond and at least ten counties in Virginia: "The sky flushed as they put him in the cart, and suddenly Gabriel thought of others, the ones who were to follow him, the ones who waited in their cells because of his leadership, these and others, others, and still others, a world of others who were to follow." It turns out that Bontemps was doing more than wrenching an affirmative ending out of a slave plot that failed abyssmally - as such things are reckoned by those who confuse the twenty-seven heads in the hangman's noose with the Hydra-headed monster, Freedom. The procession Bontemps prohetically alludes to began forming almost immediately after Gabriel's execution (on 10 Oct. 1800) when another slave named Sancho, a riverman from nearby Amelia County, fomented what has come to be known as the Easter Plot of 1802, a vast conspiracy involving several counties in Virginia and North Carolina. This time, not fewer than twenty-five men paid with their lives, forcing the State once again to compensate owners for liquidating their human capital.

These interlinked conspiracies are the focus of Douglas R. Egerton's meticulously researched study Gabriel's Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Using a daunting array of sources, Egerton reconstructs these two stunning conspiracies - the one already immortalized in Bontemps's well-known historical novel, the other awaiting the breath of life from another creator.

Egerton's study is self-consciously revisionist, challenging the work of prior historians and literary artists (while simultaneously acknowledging his debt to some of these forebears). In researching his twin subject, Egerton consulted manuscript collections, personal papers, twenty contemporary newspapers, and a wealth of previously published primary sources, secondary sources, and public documents. The mother lode was the "voluminous trial records" (x). Research sites included archives and state libraries in Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania; historical societies in Virginia and Wisconsin; the Henrico County (Virginia) Human Services Department; the county courthouse in Woodville, Mississippi; the Library of Congress; and libraries at the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary.

Gabriel's Rebellion is divided into two parts. "Part One: Richmond 1800," is by far the longest section, at seven chapters. Chapters 4-7 recount the maturation and collapse of the conspiracy, through the arrests, trials, and executions of the rebels (some of these were sentenced to transportation). Chapters 1-3 are harder to summarize. In them, Egerton interweaves pertinent information about the post-revolutionary milieu with information about Gabriel himself (not much is known about him, including his birthdate); his parents (another lacuna); his two brothers (Martin and Solomon); the Prosser family which owned him; Brookfield (the name of the Prosser plantation, home to Gabriel and over fifty other slaves); and Nanny (presumably his slave wife, whose origins and life are also shrouded in mystery). Egerton also discusses Gabriel's life as a blacksmith (he worked at Brookfield and in Richmond) and his ominous brushes with the law the year before the conspiracy (he had attacked a white man, and was imprisoned and released). The four remaining chapters constitute "Part Two: Halifax 1802." Chapters 8 and 9 treat the Easter Plot of 1802, and the last two chapters discuss the immediate and long - term effects of the conspiracies and tell the fates of some of the actors. The book also contains a preface, three appendices ("Gabriel's Religion," "The Frenchmen," and "Slaves Executed"), richly detailed notes, and a bibliography.

Egerton attempts to fill a lacuna in Gabriel scholarship. "Despite a wealth of documentation," he explains, "the plot and its tragic aftermath have never been treated in full" (ix). Egerton concludes that "Gabriel's conspiracy was completely urban, the only plot of its kind in southern history" (59). Gabriel "dreamed of overturning the central class relationship in his society, but not that society itself" (30); "he sought not to flee from Virginia but to join it on equal terms" (123). The goal of the conspirators was "to destroy the economic hegemony of the 'merchants,' the only whites [Gabriel] ever identified as his enemies" (x).

The divisive gubernatorial and presidential campaigns of late 1799 and 1800 led Gabriel to believe that a "civil war between Republicans and Federalists" was imminent. He planned to "exploit" the divisions among whites and forge an interracial coalition comprised of several groups: urban slaves, especially slave artisans like himself; agrarian slaves; free blacks; white mechanics, artisans, and laborers; poor, non-slaveholding whites; and white lovers of liberty, especially Quakers, Methodists, and French immigrants (ix, 29-30, 43-49). Egerton believes that Gabriel's failure was not one of logic but of misperception. "Unknown to Gabriel, the typical Virginia Republican was not a rebellious craftsman but an agrarian. The important division in the state was not between merchants and artisans but between the rising [white] business class and the [white] slaveholding planters" (40-41). In other words, the divisions among whites masked their race-based freemasonry and their common dependency on a slave-driven economy.

For readers of Black Thunder, the most surprising aspect of Egerton's reconstruction of Gabriel's conspiracy is its emphasis on the urban world of highly skilled, often literate, dangerously mobile slaves. Bontemps's Gabriel was an illiterate coachman whose primary base of operation was the Richmond countryside - although he, like the historical Gabriel, numbered town recruits, slave and free, among his followers (Gen'l John and Mingo are representative). Egerton reconnects Gabriel to his true occupation (blacksmithing) and explodes the myth that his conspiracy was fundamentally agrarian, an emphasis that is even more pronounced in Clifford Mason's 1968 play Gabriel: The Story of a Slave Rebellion (Egerton x). Egerton argues that "Gabriel routinely hired out away from Brookfield" (53). although "the documentary record does not reveal just what sort of arrangement Gabriel worked out with his new owner..." (25) - a reference to Gabriel's acquisition by the almost-twenty-three-year-old Thomas Henry Prosser after his father, Thomas Prosser, died on October 7, 1798. Gabriel used a network of slave and free black recruiters with a profile similar to his own to canvass nearby counties. In this lay the seeds of Gabriel's failure. He and his inner circle "failed to persuade the rural slaves to join their ranks" (59).

One would think that the executions of twenty-seven conspirators involved in Gabriel's conspiracy would have terrorized even the most stalwart rebel into submission. However, as early as the fall of 1801, Sancho, a conspirator attached to the Petersburg wing of Gabriel's conspiracy who had managed to escape the earlier dragnet, began planning a conspiracy even bolder than Gabriel's. (Ironically, Sancho's master thought that Sancho was "a docile and loyal slave" [123-24].) The Easter Plot, so-called because it was to take place either on Good Friday or Easter Monday, matured in the border counties of Halifax and Charlotte County in southern Virginia. It spread as far east as Norfolk, Virginia, and as far south as Halifax, Hertford, Bertie, and Martin counties in northeastern North Carolina.

Egerton's reconstruction of this lesser known conspiracy takes up two chapters. This time, Egerton illuminates the wonderfully mobile world of maritime slaves and free blacks, who "monopolized" maritime occupations at the dawn of the nineteenth century (102). Sancho was a ferryman who operated his master's ferry on the Roanoke River, quite a distance from Amelia County, where his master lived. He was among a large group of slaves, many of whom were literate, whose occupations required them to live apart from their owners. The waterways proved a blessing and a curse: They gave the slave and free black organizers quick access to a wider geographic region and simultaneously encouraged the rise of more autonomous leaders (127). Too many hands in the pot spoil even a witch's brew, and the Easter Plot was no exception. Before it was betrayed, the plot had grown so fragmented and unwieldly that it spintered into "three semiautonomous schemes" (ix).

Egerton's reconstruction of Gabriel's and Sancho's plots, as minutely detailed and engrossing as it is, makes it all too apparent how little we know about slave plots, even when there is a wealth of documentary evidence. It is not simply that some documents seized in Gabriel's conspiracy were "rushed... to the governor, from whose office most of them simply disappeared" (103). More important for me is the almost total invisibility of the female slave. Only one female slave stood trial for participating in either conspiracy, the slave Phebe from Halifax County, Virginia, who was acquitted for her alleged role in the Easter Plot. Of course, no one expects Egerton to manufacture other Phebes if none existed. I wish, however, that the author had been more open to alternative explanations of the absent female - whether slave, free black, or white.

Egerton places Nanny "on the periphery of an increasingly urban conspiracy" (53). Her status is emblematic of women in general in this book. Nonetheless, the conspirators moved in a world filled with women. For example, Egerton himself theorizes that Gabriel may have frequented some of the Richmond taverns where both black and white women worked (these taverns were the haunts of black and white laborers and artisans, the type of people that Gabriel and his inner circle supposedly recruited). Interestingly, Gabriel's master owned one such establishment, a "bustling" tavern on the outskirts of Richmond, along with a "handsome" town-home (23). For some reason, Egerton does not speculate about the makeup of Prosser's tavern employees or imply that Gabriel could have formed useful female relationships here. The authorities at least entertained the possibility of collusion between the male conspirators and certain females (not necessarily slaves). Egerton notes, for example, that "several rebels had built stable unions with white women, a not-uncommon relationship among the urban working class" (78). Thus, when two conspirators were "swept up" at Whitlock's Mill (during Gabriel's conspiracy)," 'two white women' who lived with them" were swept up as well.

By extension, it is simply not credible that these widespread plots matured without the knowledge and support of a vast number of black females - whether these were "wives," girlfriends, mothers, sisters, daughters, or acquaintances. To assume that slave women in particular had no appreciable role in either conspiracy or to attribute their absence from or neglect in the documentary record to patriarchalism or West African retentions (53, 70, 177) is, for me, a scholarly evasion. Egerton's reconstruction is distinguished by its liberal use of plausible, often brilliant, conjecture. The exercise of a little more historical "imagination" or inference regarding the women who dart in and out of his pages might have illuminated the shadowy role of female conspirators as well. Bontemps's Juba, the peripheral free black courtesan named Melody, and the slave women who lived at the fictional Prosser and Sheppard plantations were a start, intimating that "the business only required a beginning ...."
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Author:Davis, Mary Kemp
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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