Black Caesar

Black Caesar, the Irrepressible

To Jorge Luis Borges

He was known by the name Black Caesar. He lived the last years of his life among the dirt tracks and rough huts of the British settlement on the east coast of Australia. While the details of his life are sketchy, I have found it best not to rely on the biographic compactions provided in the many colourful books on Australia’s bushrangers. History is full of tales about the first and the foremost. It is clear that Caesar, celebrated as the first of the colony’s bushrangers, deserves a more detailed tribute than is currently catalogued. In telling this story, a version of his story, I am indebted to that formidable tome of journals, despatches and criminal court proceedings, Sydney Cove, which was complied some years ago now by Mr J. Cobley.

The Outset

Caesar was born in 1764 on a highland plateau in Madagascar. A strong boy of African blood and slave parents, he was owned by one of the four warring Madagascan kings. At ten years of age he was woken early and bustled down to the coast where he was sold to the French in exchange for guns and ammunition.

The French shipped him to the West Indies, that archipelago positioned like flecks of gold between the two gleaming nuggets of the Americas. He was bought by Joseph Tascher de La Pagerie and put to work on Martinique, otherwise known as the Island of Flowers. It is unlikely that La Pagerie, despite his family’s wealth and influence, would have made it into the annals of history if it were not for his daughter Josephine, who became Empress Josephine, consort of Napoleon, that other contemporary Caesar.

We do not know if our Caesar ever laid eyes on the pretty and fateful child, but we do know that he shared with Josephine’s second husband at least one of the traits accorded to the name: he had the type of determination that would, ultimately, provoke others to pursue him and defeat him.

The Allure of the Far Shore

Caesar adapted to plantation life; he withstood the diseases of the tropics and grew to a formidable size. He spent his days in chains and sugar cane, reserving his energy as much as possible. Waiting for what? He was not sure.

Deliverance arrived in the form of William King, a young man who had risen quickly to the position of 1st lieutenant on account of his good looks and charming disposition. King’s captain invited him on a four-day sojourn at La Pagerie’s plantation. While touring the property, King took an instant liking to Caesar’s powerful body and disarming relaxedness, which stood out against all the odds.

With the youthful determination of one who has glimpsed a reflection of his own beauty and cannot help but turn back for more, King conspired to meet Caesar. Caesar took full advantage of King’s attention and support of the empire’s abolitionist activities. It was agreed: King would assist Caesar to stow away on his ship.

Early the following morning, in the hour that is hardest to stay awake if you are a guard who has been drinking rum through the night, Caesar bent down and gathered up the chain between his legs. Crouched over and cradling the chain to keep it quiet, Caesar moved slowly towards his dozing overseer. When he was close enough to smell the rum, he dropped the chain and swung his right fist between the overseer’s collar and earlobe.

He struck the man a second time before running as fast as he could to reach the arms of the young lieutenant, who was waiting eager and sweaty with anticipation, at the edge of La Pagerie’s land.