- Part of the pirate fantasy is this idea of a life of total freedom at sea, but how free were the pirates who did not fit the historically-represented European captain that we see at the center of most stories?
Let's take a look at freedom through the lens of one of the most famous pirates ever, Black Caesar.
You may have heard of the adventures of the larger-than-life African chieftain who blundered alongside Blackbeard.
Even though there was an actual Black Caesar, there were dozens of other pirates of African descent referred to as Black Caesar.
I'm Captain Joel Cook, yes, the Captain Joel Cook, and this is Rogue History.
[whimsical music] Very little of what historians know about Black Caesar is concrete and grounded in evidence.
We know that Black Caesar was born somewhere in Africa, most likely West Africa.
He was lured onto a slave ship, where he established an alliance with a sailor of unknown origins.
Together they took over the ship and eventually joined Blackbeard's crew aboard the Queen Anne's Revenge.
- 18th century vessels are incredibly complex and it takes a lot of training to be able to be skilled in knowing how to work a vessel.
He picked up the skills to be an adept and well-known maritime man, and I think that is a testament to his success.
- According to the "General History of Pyrates", Blackbeard took Black Caesar under his wing as a sort of mentor-mentee relationship, sort of like Obiwan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, but instead of a spaceship, it was on a pirate ship.
And then in 1718, when Blackbeard's pirate ship ended up in a final standoff against the British Royal Navy off the coast of North Carolina, Blackbeard, who was killed in that battle, entrusted Black Caesar to blow up the Queen Anne's Revenge so it would never be under English control.
- Nope, not you, Caesar.
[indistinct] war to happen.
I want you to stay here, ignite the powder.
It might take me, but a ship under my command?
- Knowing that your crew member was willing to blow up a ship and destroy not only himself, but the vessel, all of the men, all of the booty, in order to ensure that the ship does not get confiscated, that is trust.
That is, indeed, I think, a strong bond.
- Before he could blow up the ship, the injured Black Caesar, along with 17 other men, was captured and tried for piracy in Virginia and in December 1718, he was hanged.
It's tragic considering the circumstances that led him to become a pirate.
At the same time, it's familiar ending to a lot of pirate stories.
but if you were to look up Black Caesar on Google, or maybe Ask Jeeves, if you're old school like me, you'll notice repetitive and speculative language around his story.
Vague and stereotypical references to him being "a tribal chief in Africa" and his "huge size", "immense strength", and "keen intelligence", a lot of "supposedly"s and "according to legend"s and "it is said"s. It is said by whom?
- The way pirates and privateers would write about people of African descent was to refer to them by their color and they would refer to them interchangeably.
Rarely, if ever, did they identify them by name and so often when we're kind of piecing together the images of Black pirates and figures like Black Caesar, we're kind of creating composites or pulling from different sources of information to create an image that is often based on fragmentary details.
- Basically, most Black pirates were never seen worthy of being named in the records, so we don't know Black Caesar's birthdate, birthplace, or birth name.
As a result, we don't know for sure if the details that surround him belong to him or a different unnamed Black pirate.
And, of course, this leads to the question of, who are all these other Black Caesars?
There's a few we definitely know about, like Henri Cesar.
Born into slavery on a French plantation in Haiti, he was part of the Haitian Revolution.
In 1805, he captured a Spanish ship and his pirating career began, attacking small villages and lone vessels near Cuba and The Bahamas.
Some say he was captured in Key West and burned to death and some say he escaped with $6 million in treasure that is still hidden around Florida.
Jeeves, book me a flight to Florida.
Then there's John Black Caesar, an African-born man convicted of theft and piratical acts in the late 18th century.
He was brought to Australia on a prison ship, but he escaped and was known as one of the country's first bushrangers, thieves hiding in the wilderness and rebelling against European settlers.
But it makes me wonder, why the name Caesar?
Why is that the name that was used to describe men of African ancestry?
- In Ancient Greece, they practiced slavery as a form of socioeconomic setup.
So at the same time, it's both the name of royalty but it's also at one time the name that marks or identifies or associates that individual with a system that has enslaved him.
What I find kind of interesting and almost a little sad is the trial record of Blackbeard's crew, Caesar is the only man who doesn't have a last name.
That's indicative of his identity as a formerly enslaved man.
- Unfortunately, we don't have many written firsthand accounts of history from enslaved people.
Most of the historical records we have are from the perspective of well off European men who often wanted to make themselves the hero of the story.
- They're trying to bolster or burnish their own reputations and so a lot of that involves them talking about them as the good guy, as the hero, as the brave one.
- "My Wondrous Journey: A Life At Sea"?
- Fan fiction.
Captain Bonnet, can't stop imagining him in all different scenarios, all totally made up.
- And so they weren't really trying to give anyone credit, but certainly they were not giving credit to men of African descent, no matter how much they relied on their expertise.
- So it stands to reason the Blackbeard's story of taking Black Caesar on as a mentee may have been an attempt to make himself sound better.
Looking deeper at the question of freedom, how many Black pirates joined crews out of their own free will and how many were captured?
How many saw that as the only possible alternative to slavery?
Is that even being given a choice?
- Some of us thrive on danger, don't we?
- Yeah, yeah.
Yeah, but look, me and Jim, we don't do this because we like it.
We do it because we don't have any other choice.
- It's a common feel good story, an enslaved person against all odds breaking the bonds of slavery and escaping to an exciting, adventurous life where their destiny is in their own hands.
But unfortunately, even at sea, enslaved and freed Black people suffered in many of the same ways that they did on land.
- So they had their reasons and piracy had its appeal, but it also had its dangers and risks that they wouldn't necessarily be able to live any freer than they did on land.
Maybe they had some more mobility, but did they necessarily have their freedom?
- Black Caesar isn't just a story of a famous pirate.
It's the story of many, many unknown men of African descent who wanted a chance at freedom.
At the time, the man we referred to as Black Caesar had no way of knowing how history would look back at him, what he would represent, and the countless people he would be a stand-in for, but isn't that what makes legends?
Legends aren't born saying, "hello, I'm a legend!"
They often don't even know that they're going to be legends as they're facing their fate.
So legends are made by how we tell their stories.
It's up to us to decide who is a legend and what parts of history are legendary.
♪ Fifteen men on a dead man's chest ♪ ♪ Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum ♪ ♪ Drink and the devil had done for the rest.
♪ ♪ Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum ♪