KEYS PIRATES: BLACK CAESAR, BLACKBEARD, AND THE CREATION OF A LEGEND
Black Caesar is a famous Florida Keys pirate, right? When this version of his story is told — consider it Black Caesar 1.0 — he is presented as a contemporary of Calico Jack Rackham and Blackbeard himself, the dreaded pirate Edward Teach. One of the tantalizing details of the Black Caesar legend is its connection to the Blackbeard story. If it is to be believed, he ruled the Florida Reef from a lair at Elliott Key, one of nearly 50 islands found north of Key Largo, the largest island in the chain.
Black Caesar is alleged to be a larger-than-life African chieftain, tall and powerfully built, and cunning. Where on the world’s second-largest continent he came from is unknown. When he left Africa is murky, too. How he left his homeland has been reasonably detailed and done so in a myriad of accounts.
When slavers arrived on the African coast, he proved too elusive to be captured. Changing their approach, they dazzled him with colorful silk scarves, jewelry and a ticking watch to lure him aboard their ship. While he was distracted by pretty things and shiny objects, the sailors were able to slip the ship from its mooring and sail off to sea before the chieftain knew what was happening. Finally captured, he was chained along with the rest of the enslaved.
The ship sailed for New World slave markets. While chained on the ship (or to the vessel), he only accepted food and drink from one sailor. When the slaver failed to make the crossing successfully and encountered hurricane conditions, the ship was swept across some of the northernmost coral beds of the Florida Reef. Thrashed and battered against the stony fingers of the reef, the ship was lost. Only the African chieftain and the lone sailor from whom he would accept food or water survived the ordeal. In what must have been a heroic feat, the two managed to secure a longboat and escape to Elliott Key.
Having survived the hurricane and the shipwreck, the two castaways turned to piracy.
Successful in their endeavors, their pirate ranks grew. Because all good things come to an end, the two had a falling-out that was allegedly over a woman. After the chieftain murdered the sailor, Black Caesar abandoned his Elliott Key lair and joined forces with Blackbeard as one of his muscled, blood-thirsty lieutenants.
While little is known about the beginnings of his story, how it ends is relatively clear. He was aboard Blackbeard’s sloop Adventure while it was at anchor off of North Carolina’s Ocracoke Island on the night of Nov. 21, 1718. Early the next morning, Lt. Maynard led British forces to the decks of the Adventure. Blackbeard was cut down in the fight.
In most versions of the story, Black Caesar’s life comes to an end, too, after he is captured and left dangling in the wind at the end of a hangman’s noose.
There are two especially interesting items of note regarding this version of events. First, there was a black man named Caesar aboard the Adventure that day. According to Captain Charles Johnson’s “A General History of the Pyrates,” one member of the Adventure’s crew was identified as Caesar. His name is spelled “Cesar” in the book, he’s listed as a “Common Sailor,” and he is one of at least five slaves captured that day.
In Johnson’s contemporary account of the incident, as the book was published in 1726, he wrote: “Teach (Blackbeard) had little or no Hopes of escaping, and therefore had posted a resolute Fellow, a Negro, whom he had bred up, with a lighted Match, in the Powder-Room, with Commands to blow up when he should give him Orders, which was as soon as the Lieutenant and his Man could have entered, that so he might have destroy’d his Conquerors: and when the Negro found how it went with Black-beard, he could hardly be perswaded from the rash Action by two Prisoners that were in the Hold of the Sloop.”
It is an interesting description of the attack on the Adventure as the “resolute Fellow” is historically considered to be Caesar, spelled Cesar on the King’s documents. The big reveal about the account is that it in no way supports any aspect of the Black Caesar legend as popularly told. Instead, the relatively contemporary version refutes it. The only act of piracy conducted by the man identified as Cesar is that he was put in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In true pirate fashion, a violent event like being hanged was not enough to end the Black Caesar story. Almost 100 years later, Black Caesar 2.0 returned to Elliott Key. That legend will be explored next week.
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