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John Caesar

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.

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Online Resources

“John Caesar” in Australian Dictionary of Biography: http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/caesar-john-black-12829

Bibliography

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.

Adapted by

Elizabeth Timbs and David Glovsky

Contributing Institutions

Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.

Key Events

c. 1763

John Caesar born on the island of Madagascar. Very little is known about his birth or his early life. In fact, John Caesar was not his real name; Caesar was a common slave name and he was likely given this name while enslaved in colonial America.

1786

Caesar charged with stealing £12 from a residence in the parish of St. Paul at Deptford. Later in the same year, Caesar steals from another residence and is sentenced to the British penal colony of New South Wales in Australia for seven years

January 6, 1787

Caesar is one of twelve convicts transported to Australia on the convict transport ship, Alexander.

April 29, 1789

Caesar is tried for stealing food and his sentence is extended to transportation for life. Soon after, he flees into the bush to avoid capture where he remains on the run until June 6, 1789. He is transferred to Garden Island after this incident, one of the worst penal colonies in New South Wales.

December 22, 1789

Caesar escapes for the second time, remaining in the wilderness only for a week until being attacked by local Aborigines and returning to camp.

March 6, 1971

Caesar transported to Norfolk Island, another harsh penal camp. During his time here, he gains more freedom in the form of land and a reduced workload.

March 1792

Caesar and fellow convict Ann Power welcome a daughter, Mary Ann Fisher Power. Caesar would later leave Power and their daughter, escaping into the woods again before being captured by British forces.

1795

When Pemulwuy attacks a work party at Botany Bay, Caesar fends off the infamous leader, cracking his skull in the process.

December 1795

Caesar escapes for the last time, taking a number of other convicts with him. Colonial officials offer hefty rewards for his capture and on February 15, 1796, Caesar is shot and killed by John Winbow.