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The Other “Faithful Servant”: Uncertainty and Trust during Gabriel’s Conspiracy in Virginia, 1800

Sebastian Jobs

Pages 355 - 376



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Gabriel’s failed insurrection conspiracy of 1800 is one of the most widely studied slave uprisings in U.S. history. When analyzing slave resistance, historians often assume an automatic sense of freedom-driven solidarity among enslaved people, but the documents we have about Gabriel and his co-conspirators show that trust played an important role in setting up the rebellion. This article focuses on trust as a performance that enabled enslaved people to act out shifting roles before, during, and after the conspiracy. By invoking the rhetoric of masculinity and by practicing everyday social activities (e. g., drinking alcohol), they created a sphere of common solidarity. At the same time, mutual trust had to be acted out by Black informers in order to lend credence to their testimony. They acted as go-betweens and played a major role in foiling the insurrection. The ambiguous function of trust relations helps us to understand how slave insurrections such as Gabriel’s were not merely political but also complex social and cultural events—power served trust as much as trust served power.

Keywords: slave rebellion; trust; Gabriel’s Conspiracy; masculinity; resistance

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