Black Caesar

A Town Beneath the Haze

In the two hundred years since the Great Fire and great rebuilding of London, squalor and disintegration had once again set their gnawing jaws upon the place. With William King gone off to sea, Caesar found himself alone among the steam and smoke and excess of human labour. He was hungry and destitute and had no more or less chance of survival than any one of the masses of peasants who, emancipated from the land, had followed the rumour of opportunity to the city. He got a job as a servant and labourer in the parish of Saint Paul, Deptford. Within a year, he was identified in a line up of the staff by Mr Peter Rapier and accused of breaking into the house of Robert Reed the elder and stealing twelve pound four pence. On a Friday morning in March 1786, Justices Gould and Athurst sentenced Caesar to transportation for seven years.

In the prison hold, Caesar’s impressive physique drew the type of deference that is only otherwise gained by a reputation. It was not long before the first of several lackeys was sent through the accumulated hanging stink of the collected bodies to test his potential for allegiance. Although hunger and sickness had reduced the prisoner’s energy for belligerence, Caesar was careful to remain noncommittal and achieved the difficult task of not being an enemy of those who cared to pay him attention.

Meanwhile, in the halls of Westminster, the government grappled with an unwelcome announcement from across the Atlantic: British felons would no longer be accepted on the soil of the newly established United States of America. None too soon, a land in the Pacific was identified as providing a solution. Caesar and his cohorts were loaded onto the slaver Alexander. The First Fleet embarked on 13 May 1787.

Trapped in the gloom of the ship, the convicts turned their heads towards the raised voices of those who had already sailed the high seas. They listened to tales of far-off lands: of lush and everlasting bounty nestled among green massifs and blue rivers; of exotic tastes and strange cultures; of the countless fleshy bowls of desire that could be supped on.

It was indeed a majestic harbour that the Alexander ultimately anchored in, but this was little help to the infant settlement. Temporary huts built from native pine and cabbage tree were deluged by rain, seed rotted or barely sprouted and dysentery filled the sick-tent. No-one had enough to eat.

The Governor and his men moved about, waving their arms over the land. They surveyed, drafted and recorded with pen and ink in pink hand. Caesar sweated, shivered and starved and in April 1789 had his seven years increased to life for stealing four pounds of bread. He was lucky—others had been hanged for same.