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Caesar, John Black (1763–1796)

by Chris Cunneen and Mollie Gillen

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

John Black Caesar (c.1763-1796), convict and bushranger of unknown African parentage, may have been born on Madagascar. He was a servant living in the parish of St Paul, Deptford, England, in 1786. On 13 March that year at Maidstone, Kent, charged with the theft of some £12 from a dwelling house, he was sentenced to transportation for seven years and sent to the hulk Ceres. He embarked on 6 January 1787 in the Alexander, which reached Botany Bay with the First Fleet on 19 January next year. Popularly known as 'Black Caesar', he became known in the colony as a hard worker and a conscientious labourer.

Nevertheless, on 29 April 1789 he was once more tried for theft at the Criminal Court and sentenced to a second term of transportation, this time for life. Fourteen days later he stole arms and escaped into the bush, only to be apprehended on 6 June and sent to work in chains at Garden Island. David Collins declared him at this time to be:

Incorrigibly stubborn . . . his frame was muscular and well calculated for hard labour; but in his intellects he did not very widely differ from a brute; his appetite was ravenous, for he could in any one day devour the full ration for two days . . . He declared while in confinement, that if he should be hanged, he would create a laugh before he was turned off, by playing off some trick upon the executioner.

Later allowed to work without chains, on 22 December Caesar escaped in a stolen canoe, again taking a gun. His efforts to survive in the bush—by robbing settlers' gardens, threatening encamped Aborigines and taking their food—were fruitless, and on 31 January 1790 he returned to camp, having been speared by local Aborigines.

On 4 March Governor Phillip sent Caesar in the Supply to Norfolk Island. There he gained a measure of independence. By 1 July 1791 he was supporting himself on a lot at Queenborough and was issued with a hog. In January next year he was given one acre (0.4 ha) and ordered to work three days a week. His daughter by Ann(e) Power, a convict who had arrived in the Lady Juliana in 1790, was born on 4 March 1792. Caesar returned to Port Jackson in the Kitty twelve months later, leaving behind Ann (who died in 1796) and his daughter. He decamped in July 1794 but was soon back in custody. After severe punishment, he declared exultantly and with contempt (according to Collins): 'all that would not make him better'.

Late in 1795 he was with a party at Botany Bay that was attacked by Aboriginal warriors led by Pemulwuy, whom Caesar wounded. The convict escaped from custody for the last time in December 1795 and led a gang of absconders and vagabonds in the Port Jackson area—becoming Australia's first bushranger. Collins noted that 'every theft that was committed was ascribed to him'. Settlers were warned against supplying him with ammunition and on 29 January 1796 Governor Hunter offered a reward of five gallons of spirits for his capture. On 15 February Caesar was shot by John Wimbow at Liberty Plains (Strathfield) and died after being carried to Thomas Rose's hut. Caesar's daughter, baptized as Mary Ann Fisher Power in 1806, went to Van Diemen's Land in 1813.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (Lond, 1798-1802)
  • M. Gillen, The Founders of Australia (Syd, 1989)
  • History Today, Feb 1987, p 44
  • Sun (Sydney), 5 Apr 1978, p 49.

Citation details

Chris Cunneen and Mollie Gillen, 'Caesar, John Black (1763–1796)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/caesar-john-black-12829/text23095, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 18 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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