DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

 

 

 

 

 

Ghost of the Gallows:

The Historical Record of Black Caesar

By Devin Leigh

 

Abstract:

            This paper provides a detailed case study of an elaborate legend that grew out of a small kernel of historical truth. It scrutinizes the salient primary-sources upon which the legend was based, seeking to determine the extent to which it owes its origin to verifiable fact. While the content of the paper pertains to the specific story of an black slave-turned-pirate who allegedly terrorized the mangrove swamps of south Florida during the early eighteenth century, the greater implications of the paper suggest that constructed narratives and invented traditions, though based in historical truth, say more about the cultural context, aspirations, and self-perceptions of the people who construct and perpetuate them, than they do about the historical subjects that once provided the inspiration for their beginnings. The present study examines the historical basis of the legend in order to lay the groundwork for a followup investigation that will trace the development of the legend throughout the cultural contexts that perpetuated it for nearly three hundred years.

 

 

Introduction:

            This paper is an historical investigation of a particular legend—that of Black Caesar, an eighteenth-century fugitive slave from the West coast of Africa operating as a pirate in American waters—that seeks to uncover the extent to which the legend was based in verifiable truth. On its surface, it is a specific case-study of an obscure American archetype—that of the black pirate—but on its deepest levels, it is a commentary on how historians approach the task of analyzing modern legends that find their basis in a moment of historical truth, no matter how small that moment may be. Determining the historical truth behind the subject of a legend means scrutinizing the primary sources from the time period of that subject, something which this essay seeks to do; but that is only the beginning. A followup study must trace the development of the legend throughout the various contexts that created, reinvented, and perpetuated it, using the knowledge gained from the initial historical analysis as a framework for evaluating what is fabricated and what is real. Only then can we begin to understand the unique reasons that lead people to appropriate, maintain, and shape some historical legends and not others.   

 

What we can know about the historic Black Caesar:

        The legend of Black Caesar refers to the stories of an African slave-turned-pirate who operated in the waters off south Florida during the early eighteenth century. He used the mangrove swamps of Elliot Key as his personal haven until he joined forces with the notorious English pirate Blackbeard, and ultimately died an ignominious death by hanging as a result of this acquaintance. For the purposes of this essay, he should not be confused with the nineteenth century Haitian pirate named Henri Ceasar, who also operated under the moniker “Black Caesar”.

 

        The legend finds historical basis in a collection of stories told by a mysterious British author from the eighteenth century named Captain Charles Johnson. In the first edition of his General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, Johnson refers to an anonymous “Negro” who is widely considered to be Black Caesar.[1] The work is dated during the twilight years of the Golden Age of Piracy (~1700-1730), making it a valuable primary source. Unfortunately, the name “Johnson” is only a pseudonym and the author’s real identity is shrouded in mystery. American scholar John Robert Moore once championed the theory that ‘Charles Johnson’ was a nom de plume of the contemporary English writer, Daniel Defoe—author of the fictional autobiography Robinson Crusoe.[2] This theory prevailed for over fifty years until it was thoroughly debunked by scholars P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owen in their 1988 book, The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe.[3] Since then, the identity of Johnson has once again returned to obscurity and provides no clue to the context or reliability of his sources. 

 

        Johnson provides a colorful biography of the infamous pirate Blackbeard, also known as Edward Teach, in his General History. The biography includes a laconic anecdote pertaining to an anonymous “Negro” in the lower-decks of his ship, the Adventure, during its final engagement with Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert Maynard at Ocracoke Inlet off the coast of North Carolina on November 22nd, 1718. According to Johnson, Blackbeard instructed this “Negro who he had brought up” to detonate a powder keg and destroy the Adventure in the hypothetical event that defeat became inevitable.[4] A near-facsimile of this anecdote was relayed in the unpublished letters of the Virginia Governor, Alexander Spotswood, who commissioned the expedition against Blackbeard.[5] In both cases, the would-be arsonist is cryptically described as an unnamed “Negro.”

 

        At the end of this biography, Johnson provides a list of fifteen captured members of Blackbeard's crew who were transported up the James River to Williamsburg, Virginia.[6] The name “Caesar” is among them. As Johnson indicates, thirteen of these fifteen prisoners were convicted of piracy and executed four months later (on March12th, 1719) near Capitol Landing Road in the same town. “Caesar” was one of these condemned souls. The remaining two pirates were pardoned and acquitted. A 1992 excavation inadvertently uncovered the probable location of the eighteenth-century Williamsburg gallows, the spot where “Caesar” and these twelve others allegedly swung to four winds. The gallows were located outside the borders of colonial Williamsburg, about a one-mile tumbrel ride from the jail, and one-hundred feet from the current junction of Capitol Landing Road and Maynard Drive.[7]

 

         Unfortunately, the records of the Virginia trial—likely transferred from Williamsburg to Richmond when the capital moved in 1780—are believed to have been lost forever during an April 1865 fire.[8] Additionally, no contemporary sources on the trial records appear to have been created during the period between their composition and their supposed conflagration 146 years later, and court procedure did not require duplicates to be made. After all, this was before the 1730 establishment of a printing office[9] and such duplication would have been unnecessarily time consuming. Notwithstanding this loss, the depositions of four other executed black pirates—taken during the Virginia trial—did survive because they had been stored in North Carolina, where they were used but disregarded as testimony in the trial of the Secretary of that colony, Tobias Knight, an alleged accomplice of Blackbeard.[10] The depositions suggest that “Caesar” was one of at least five black men condemned at Williamsburg on March 12th, 1719.

 

        But there is no deposition by “Caesar”. This absence, along with the presumption of coercion during the captives’ four month imprisonment, and Knight’s claim that the depositions were made “in hopes of obtaining mercy,” led historian Robert Earl Lee to assert that “Caesar” had refused to testify in court as an act of allegiance to his pirate brethren.[11] This assertion is more an attempt to rationalize a lack of source information than a claim based on evidence, as there is no way to confirm why a deposition by “Caesar” does not exist today, if it ever existed at all; however, the depositions do say something. They say that “Caesar” is not the only suspect of the powder room anecdote. There were more black pirates onboard the Adventure during its final engagement at Ocracoke, and any one of them could have been the “Negro” fire starter.

 

        Thanks to news coverage of the Ocracoke engagement, and firsthand accounts of the skirmish, historians have reason to believe that at least six more black pirates were present on the Adventure at the time of Blackbeard’s last stand, perhaps confirming the evidence of the Virginia depositions. Alexander Spotswood, in a letter to the council of Trade and Plantations, says that a crew of eighteen men was present on the ship, and at least a third of them were “Negroes”.[12] This estimation squares with a report made to the Admiralty by Captain Ellis Brand, a subordinate officer on the Blackbeard expedition.  The report states that eighteen men were on board the pirate ship and six of these eighteen were “Negroes”.[13] This number is further corroborated by contemporary newspaper accounts of the conflict, such as those printed in Virginia and London.[14]

 

        Johnson's execution list refers to "Caesar," but this was likely not the person’s real name; rather, "the name Caesar suggests [that] he had been a slave,"[15] as it was customary for slave dealers to bestow Euro-historic names to the "unnamed" Africans whom they captured and sold. This habit explains the biblical and Eurocentric names of three of the four black pirates who gave depositions against Tobias Knight in Williamsburg (James Black, James White, and Thomas Gates).[16] A bestowed name did not necessarily mean that there was any likeness between the named figure and the suggested namesake—for example, Black Caesar and Julius Caesar. However, it is possible that the name alluded to the fact that Julius Caesar dealt with piracy on the Mediterranean Sea,[17] or that it was an ironical reference to the Roman epithet that denoted imperial status. Lastly, because there is no record of “Caesar” joining up with Blackbeard, it is possible that his name was an appellation acquired while already onboard. In this sense, it is interesting to note that Blackbeard and his crew looted and vengefully burnt a Boston ship called the Protestant Caesar seven months before the skirmish at Ocracoke.[18]

 

          Overall, the combined historical evidence allows scholars to verify six facts related to Black Caesar: that at least six “Negroes” were present on the Adventure at the Ocracoke engagement, one of these “Negroes” was entrusted with the task of burning the ship in the event of defeat, at least five “Negroes” were tried and convicted in Williamsburg four months later in relation to Blackbeard, and a “Caesar” was among them, though “Caesar” was likely not this person’s real name.  As we shall see, the paucity of what we can know surrounding the life and death of Black Caesar sharply contrasts with the magnitude of all that we cannot know.

 

What we cannot know about the historical Black Caesar:

          To begin with, historians may never know if the “Caesar” from the execution list and the “Negro” from the powder room were one and the same. The sources examined in this study form the foundation of all that can be verified about the historical figure Black Caesar. There are no references to him remaining from Blackbeard's arrested ship, no trial records, and no primary sources pertaining to the captured pirates from the four-month period between their detainment and execution, though Johnson suggests that they told stories during this time.[19] Alexander Spotswood makes no direct mention of “Caesar” in his Official Letters, despite including his version of the powder room anecdote.[20] Other key players in the Ocracoke engagement—such as Lieutenant Maynard, Captain Brand, and Captain Gordon—are silent on the matter. Based on this evidence, historians cannot be certain that “Caesar” was even on the Adventure at Blackbeard’s last stand. Primary accounts of the Ocracoke engagement reveal that only nine of the fifteen pirates who were tried in Williamsburg were direct captives of the conflict. The other six were rounded up in Bath Town afterward as suspected affiliates of Blackbeard.[21]

 

         Even if “Caesar” was onboard the Adventure during the battle of Ocracoke, there is no way to confirm that he was part of the crew. Both sides of this issue are arguable. Historian Marcus Rediker states that it was not uncommon for Blackbeard to employ black pirates on his seafaring exploits, stating that “60 of Blackbeard’s crew of 100 [pirates] were black” at one time in 1718.[22] Archaeologist David D. Moore and researcher Mike Daniel state that according to depositions made at the trial of Major Stede Bonnet, to whom Blackbeard abandoned his original flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, Blackbeard once left Topsail Inlet with a crew of forty whites and sixty “negroes”.[23] Also, the fact that Blackbeard moored at Ocracoke with such an uncharacteristically small crew—nineteen men when he previously employed hundreds—makes it easy to believe that the captured black men were intimate confidants of Blackbeard.  But the presence of black men aboard a pirate ship does not necessarily denote a multi-racial crew, especially in the case of Blackbeard, who was known to have acquired and harbored contraband slaves with the hopes of selling them to the American colonies for profit.[24]

 

         If “Caesar” was once a slave, as his name suggests, then it is possible that Blackbeard conscripted him from one of the many slave ships he plundered during his two-year career as a pirate. Blackbeard stole sixty-one slaves out of a French slaver from Nantes named La Concorde near the Caribbean Island of St. Vincent in 1717.[25] On another occasion, Blackbeard took approximately fourteen slaves out of the brigantine the Princess while leaving Charleston in the wake of his famous blockade.[26] In both cases, it is unknown whether any of the acquired slaves assimilated with the crew. It is also possible that “Caesar” was acquired from a similar yet undocumented incident. When discussing the black pirates aboard the Adventure at Ocracoke, Arne Bialuschewski argues that “the fact that they were not killed or severely injured in combat indicates that they were not fighting members of the pirate crew.”[27] The “Negro” in the powder room stayed below deck during the fracas, suggesting that he was a slave, rather than a free pirate who fought for his life.

 

          Perhaps most importantly, nothing of Black Caesar’s life prior to his enlistment with Blackbeard can be historically verified. The modern legend states that Caesar was a king stolen from the west coast of Africa and brought to America by way of a slaver that wrecked on the jagged Florida reefs in the late seventeenth century, but no slaver matching those specific circumstances appears in the historical record.[28]  The legend states that Caesar plundered merchant ships from a base-camp on Elliot Key, where he acted as the self-established warden of an ad hoc stone prison compound for over one-hundred women. But the current in-house archaeologist of the Biscayne National Park, Charles Lawson, states that there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that such a stone compound ever existed on Elliot Key.[29] The label “Black Caesar’s Rock” appears on a map of South Florida in the mid-eighteenth century,[30] but there is no way to verify whether it was named after “Caesar” himself. The legend states that Caesar embedded a metal ring in this rock so that he could capsize his boat to enable ambuscade and elude pursuers, but no metal ring exists today, if it existed at all. Black Caesar’s much-talked-about caches of buried treasure have never been found, and a fantastic story of his mixed-race descendants can be traced to a Jim-Crow-era novel entitled Black Caesar’s Clan. Finally, the presence of an equally undocumented homonymous black pirate in the early nineteenth century—fresh off the Haitian revolution—greatly obfuscates all knowledge surrounding the legend of the first. In the end, all we know is that the name “Caesar” somehow appears on a second-hand execution list of unknown authorship. The epithet ‘black’ was likely a sobriquet created sometime later for the purpose of racial identification, as there was no obvious contemporary reason to embed a racial distinction in the name of this particular pirate and not others. But even this is only an assumption.

 

Conclusion:

            Historical analysis of the available primary-source documentation from the lifetime of “Caesars” has revealed extreme incongruity between the historical record and the modern-day legend, suggesting that once people believed that “Caesar” was the “Negro whom Blackbeard had brought up,” it became necessary to account for that upbringing with an origin story that entirely ignored the limits of primary-source documentation and logical inference, and instead spoke to the unique cultural contexts, aspirations, and self-perceptions of the people who continued to create, reinvent, and perpetuate it for the next three-hundred years. The next stage of this study must leave the historical period of its subject—Black Caesar—and trace the development of the legend from the early-eighteenth century gallows to the modern day, asking why people decided to create their own Black Caesar, rather than the one that history gave them.

 

 


Notes

[1] Charles Johnson, A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2010), 52.

[2] John Robert Moore, Defoe in the Pillory and Other Studies (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1939).

[3] P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens, The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

[4] Johnson, 52.

[5] Alexander Spotswood, “America and the West Indies: December 1718, 22-31,” Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, Volume 30: 1717-1718, ed. Cecil Headlan (1930): 424-446.

[6] Johnson, 56.

[7] Joe B. Jones and Charles M. Downing, Phase III Data Recovery for Mitigation of Adverse Effects to Site 44WB66 Associated with the VNG Mechanicsville to Kingsmill Lateral Pipeline, City of Williamsburg, Virginia. Prepared for Virginia Natural Gas, Inc. Technical Report Series No. 18. (Williamsburg: College of William & Mary, 1992). 

[8] Robert E. Lee, Blackbeard: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times (Charlotte: Heritage Printers, 1974) 216-219.

[9] Gail S. Terry and John M. Hemphill, “The Wheels of Government and the Machinery of Justice: the

Workings of Virginia’s Colonial Capitol.” Virginia Cavalcade 38, no. 2 (1988): 63.

[10] Lee, 153.

[11] Ibid, 153.

[12] Ibid, 114.

[13] David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates (New York: Random House, 1996), 196.

[14] Arthur L. Cooke, “British Newspaper Accounts of Blackbeard’s Death,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 61, no. 3 (1953): 304-307.

[15] Cassandra Pybus. “Black Caesar: Our First Bushranger…” Arena Magazine 57, (2002): 32.

[16] Lee, 153.

    Johnson, 56.

[17] Plutarch, The Complete Collection of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives Comparisons, ed. Charles River Editors (Amazon Digital Services, 2011).

[18] Johnson, 44.

[19] Ibid, 55.

[20] Spotswood, 424-446.

[21] Lee, 126.

[22] Rediker, Marcus, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston: Beacon Press, 2004) 54.

[23] David D. Moore and Mike Daniel, “Blackbeard's Capture of the Nantaise Slave Ship La Concorde: A Brief Analysis of the Documentary Evidence.” Tributaries, Vol. 11 (October): 27.

[24] Spotswood, 424-446.

[25] Moore and Daniel, 21.

[26] Ibid, 21.

[27] Arne Bialuschewski, "Pirates, Black Sailors and Seafaring Slaves in the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1715-1726" Journal of Caribbean Studies 45, no. 2 (2011): 147.

[28] The legend is an amalgamation of twentieth-century folkloric histories and internet sources that can be found in the bibliography of this paper under the heading “Sources of the legend”.

[29] Charles Lawson, resident archaeologist of the Biscayne National Park, phone conversation, November, 4th, 2011.

[30] Dean Love. "Pirates and Legends,” Florida Keys Magazine. (1st quarter, 1981): 10-14.

 

 

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Bibliography

Sources of the legend: (selected)


Cross, James. Blackbeard, or, the Captive Princess: a Serio-comic Ballet of Action in   Two Acts. London: J. Duncombe, 1798.

 

Love, Dean. "Pirates and Legends". Florida Keys Magazine. (1st quarter, 1981): 10-14.

 

McCarthy, Kevin M. Twenty Florida Pirates. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, 1994.

 

“St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum.” The Pirate Museum. Accessed September 28th 2011.

http://thepiratemuseum.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=95:black-caesar&catid=46:notable-pirates&Itemid=199


Terhune, Albert Payson. Black Caesar’s Clan: A Florida Mystery Story. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1922.


True, David O. "Pirates and Treasure Trove of South Florida". Tequesta: The Journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida (1947): 3-13.

 

Woodman, Jim. Key Biscayne, the Romance of Cape Florida. United States: Jim Woodman, 1972.

 

All Other Cited Material:


Bialuschewski, Arne. “Pirates, Black Sailors and Seafaring Slaves in the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1716-1726.”  Journal of Caribbean Studies 45, no. 2 (2011): 146-158.

 

Cooke, Arthur L. “British Newspaper Accounts of Blackbeard’s Death.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 61, no. 3 (1953): 304-307.

 

Cordingly, David.  Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life among the Pirates. New York: Random House, 1996.

 

Furbank, P.N. and W.R. Owens. The Canonisation of Daniel Defoe. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

 

Green, Bartholomew. “The Boston Newsletter, Monday Feb 23rd-Monday Mar 2nd, 1719.” In The Golden Age: History and Interpretation, 1660-1730. Cambridge: Pickering and Chalto Limited, 2007.

 

Johnson, Charles.  A General History of the Robberies & Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates. Guilford, Connecticut: Lyons Press, 2010.

 

Jones, Joe B., and Charles M. Downing.  Phase III Data Recovery for Mitigation of Adverse Effects to Site44WB66 Associated with the VNG Mechanicsville to Kingsmill Lateral Pipeline, City of Williamsburg, Virginia.  Prepared for Virginia Natural Gas, Inc.  Technical Report Series No. 18.  Williamsburg: College of William & Mary, 1992. 

 

Lee, R.E. Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times. Charlotte: Heritage Printers, 1974.

 

Love, Dean. "Pirates and Legends". Florida Keys Magazine. (1st quarter, 1981): 10-14.

 

Moore, David D. and Mike Daniel.  “Blackbeard's Capture of the Nantaise Slave Ship La Concorde: A Brief Analysis of the Documentary Evidence.” Tributaries, Vol. 11 (October): 14-31.

 

Moore, Robert John. Defoe in the Pillory and Other Studies. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1939.

 

Plutarch. The Complete Collection of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives Comparisons. ed. Charles River Editors. Amazon Digital Services, 2011.

 

Pybus, Cassandra. “Black Caesar, Our First Bushranger.” Arena Magazine , Vol. 57 (2002): 30-34.

 

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

 

Spotswood, Alexander. “America and West Indies: December 1718, 22-31,” in Calendar of State Papers Colonial, America and West Indies, Volume 30: 1717-1718. Ed. Cecil Headlan (1930): 424-446.

 

Spotswood, Alexander. “Feb 14th, 1719 Letter to Lord Cartwright, proprietor of North and South Carolina.” In The Official Letters of Alexander Spotswood, Lieutenant Governor of the Colony of Virginia, 1710-1722. Richman, VA: the Virginia Historical Society, New Series, vol. I, II, 1882-1885.

 

Terhune, Albert Payson. Black Caesar’s Clan: A Florida Mystery Story. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1922.

 

Terry, S. Gail and John M. Hemphill. “The Wheels of Government and the Machinery of Justice: the Workings of Virginia’s Colonial Capitol.” Virginia Cavalcade 38, no. 2 (1988): 56-65. 

 

 

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.