Black Caesar: The Former Slave turned Pirate

I haven’t posted about one of my passions for a while now and that is pirates, so I hope this will be of interest to you. The lives of many pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy in the years leading up to 1726 have been surrounded by myth and legend. Black Caesar, a former slave turned pirate, who was part of Blackbeard’s crew is no different. Whilst little is known about his life, I hope this post can give a sense of what is known about such a fascinating character and what better time to do so than for Black History Month.

Engraving of Henry Morgan’s crew showing a black crewmember, from Frederick Whymper’s “The Sea: its stirring story of adventure, peril & heroism” (1887), The British Library

It has been estimated that of the around 10,000 pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy, up to a third of them were black.[1] To reflect this, maritime historian, Ken Kinkor listed a number of various pirate captains and the ratio of black crewmembers they had on board their ships.

  • Samuel Bellamy (1717) – more than 27 out of 180 men
  • Edward England (1718) – less than 50 out of 180 men
  • Edward Lowther (1724) – 9 out of 23 men
  • Blackbeard (1717) – 60 out of 100; (1718) – 5 out 14
  • Oliver La Bouche (1719) – 32 out of 64 men[2]

Yet, in the collective conscious of what makes a pirate, this number is not necessarily thought of. Most of them would have been runaways, possibly cimarrons who had escaped their Spanish captors, or had chosen to join when a slave ship or plantation was raided.[3]

Considering the appalling treatment that black people had to face during this time, it is easy to see why they would turn pirate. Unlike on the mainland, they had a chance to some sort of equality, although this very much depended on the ship they sailed on, particularly in terms of being allowed to vote and have an equal share in any treasure. In such circumstances, this meant they were very much active members. On other ships, they would have still been mistreated and expected to take on the worst of the tasks on board. In the case of capture, there was certainly no equality in the treatment of black pirates. If caught, the punishment was usually to be sold back into slavery, whilst white pirates were hung.[4]

Gribble, Bernard Finnigan; A Fight with Pirates on the High Seas; Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-fight-with-pirates-on-the-high-seas-59160

Black Caesar was definitely a proactive member of the pirating community, but how he went on to become a member of the most famous pirate’s crew is a little hazy. According to most accounts, he had originally been an African chieftain, known for his strength and cunning. He had managed to avoid being caught by slavers until he was lured onto a ship that offered him treasure.[5] Once he’d found out his fate, he refused to eat and drink but befriended a sailor who took pity on him and provided him with sustenance.

When the ship was off the coast of Florida, the pair escaped on a rowing boat and sought a life of robbery instead. They pretended to be shipwrecked, luring ships to rescue them and then stealing from them. This venture brought them great riches and they were able to take on more crew. However, the pair supposedly fell out over a woman they had captured.[6] It was after this that Caesar chosen to join Blackbeard’s crew, although the details of how they met are unknown.

Blackbeard must have put a lot of trust in Caesar as during the famous pirates final battle against Lieutenant Robert Maynard in November 1718, Caesar was ordered to stand in the powder room with a lit match so he could blow up the ship if the pirates were overwhelmed.[7] He was just about to carry out his orders when to prisoners, although some other accounts called them guests who had slept in the powder room overnight, stopped him. He was then taken prisoner and went on trial along with the other survivors of Blackbeard’s crew at Williamsburg, Virgina. Caesar was captured along with five other black pirates, but he was the only one who didn’t give evidence against his fellow crewmembers.[8] The others probably did so in the hope that they would be granted mercy. This meant that Caesar was hung with the rest of the crew, although some accounts to say he was pardoned instead.[9]

Blackbeard and Maynard Fighting, 17th Century, scanned by Szilas from The Pirates by Douglas Botting, Time-Life Books 1978, Wikimedia Commons

Whatever the fate of Black Caesar may have been, he serves as an example that black pirates were certainly not always passive in the pirate community. Whilst this idea may be easily thought as the majority of known black pirates are not named, it is not fair to make this assumption when the facts are not necessarily reported and the circumstances are often lost with time. What Black Caesar shows that black pirates were definitely fully functioning and trusted members of the crews they served with.


[1] Melissa Petruzzello, ‘Black Pirates and the Tale of Black Caesar’, Encyclopedia Britannica, 18 Sep. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/story/black-pirates-and-the-tale-of-black-caesar

[2] Kinkor, Kenneth J., ‘Black Men Under the Black Flag’ in Bandits at Sea: A Pirates Reader (New York: New York University, 2001), pp. 195-210

[3] Cindy Vallar, ‘Black Pirates’, Pirates and Privateers, http://www.cindyvallar.com/blackpirates.html; Melissa Petruzzello, ‘Black Pirates and the Tale of Black Caesar’

[4] Melissa Petruzzello, ‘Black Pirates and the Tale of Black Caesar’

[5] Ibid; Cindy Vallar, ‘Black Pirates’; ‘Black Caesar’, Crime Museum, Washington, https://www.crimemuseum.org/crime-library/international-crimes/black-caesar/

[6] Cindy Vallar, ‘Black Pirates’

[7] Ibid; Robert E. Lee, Blackbeard the Pirate: A Reappraisal of His Life and Times, Sixteenth Edition, (Winston-Salam, North Carolina: John F. Blair, 2011), p. 122

[8] Cindy Vallar, ‘Black Pirates’; Robert E. Lee, Blackbeard the Pirate, p. 153

[9] Cindy Vallar, ‘Black Pirates’

2 thoughts on “Black Caesar: The Former Slave turned Pirate

  1. Cool! I knew about Toussaint Louverture and the liberation of Haiti, but not that much about black pirates – thanks for this post. There’s a lot of ruthlessness in pirate history, on all sides gruesome.
    Following your blog now, expect more comments in future…

    Like

    1. Glad you enjoyed. Yes, it would seem that a high percentage of pirate crews had black crew members, but Black Caesar is one of the only ones we know the name and possible back story. Thank you for the follow, hope you enjoy other posts.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s