John Caesar, fugitive slave and convict, was born on the island of Madagascar; the precise date and location of his birth are unknown, as is his birth name. “Caesar” was a common slave name and John Caesar probably got his name after being taken to the Americas as a slave in the late-1770s. Caesar likely fled to British lines during the Revolutionary War in hopes of being emancipated; alternatively, he may have been owned by a Loyalist who returned to England after the cessation of the war.
In 1786, Caesar listed as a servant in a parish near London, was charged with stealing twelve pounds from a residence. Many Black Loyalists, like Caesar, experienced crushing poverty which resulted in petty criminal activity. In March of that same year,in Kent, he was charged with stealing from another residence and sentenced to seven years of service in the British penal colony of New South Wales in Australia. He traveled to New South Wales along with twelve other black convicts on the transport ship Alexander on January 6, 1787. On January 19, 1788, he arrived in Botany Bay.
Caesar’s legal problems followed him to Australia. On April 29, 1789, he was tried for stealing food and had his sentence extended from seven years to life. Two weeks later, Caesar stole a marine’s weapon, a cooking pot, and some rations, fleeing into the bush to avoid capture. He was captured again in June of the same year when he attempted to steal food from the commissary. He was then sentenced to work in chains at Garden Island, notorious for being one of the most inhumane penal colonies in New South Wales.
Caesar displayed good behavior and won the confidence of the penal authorities, who relented to allow him to work without chains. On December 22, 1789, he escaped again, stealing a canoe, a week’s provisions, an iron pot, a musket, and ammunition. He subsisted for a week by stealing food from local Aborigines and robbing gardens, but he lost his musket and could not continue to live in the wild. After being attacked by Aborigines, he surrendered himself to the authorities once again.
On March 6, 1791, Caesar was transported to Norfolk Island, a labor camp known for its harsh living conditions and the brutal treatment of the convicts. Having been pardoned of his crimes by Governor Arthur Phillip before his transfer to Norfolk Island, Caesar enjoyed some freedom here and by July 1791 was granted a plot of land and a hog at Queensborough. In January 1792, he receive an acre of land and was only made to work three days a week. Later that year, he had a daughter with a fellow convict named Ann Power. In 1793, Caesar left Power and their daughter and returned to Port Jackson. In July 1794, he escaped into the bush again and subsisted by pillaging farms and huts on the edge of town, but was captured shortly after.
In 1795, Caesar’s convict work party was attacked at Botany Bay by the Bidgial leader Pemulwuy. This attack was part of a broader guerilla campaign against the colonists. Caesar wounded Pemulwuy by cracking his skull, resulting in his celebration by the colonists. In December 1795, Caesar escaped again for the final time, leading a group of runaways from Port Jackson. While they were on the run, the colony attributed every theft in the colony to Caesar. Governor John Hunter offered a reward of five gallons of rum for his capture, resulting in John Winbow shooting and killing him on February 15, 1796.
Read the full, original biography by Kimberly Cheek in the African American National Biography
“John Caesar” in Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/caesar-john-black-12829
Gillen, Mollie. Founders of Australia: A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet. Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989.
Kimberly, M. Cheek. "Caesar, John." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t0001/e6222 (accessed Thu Sep 05 11:02:03 EDT 2019).
Pybus, Cassandra. Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia’s First Black Settlers. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2006.
Elizabeth Timbs and David Glovsky
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.