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Old 03-23-2015, 05:41 PM
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The Florida Keys has long been home to nefarious and less-than-legal activities. Some of the earliest among these were the activities of pirates, who frequented the Keys due to their strategic location between major Caribbean ports and the US, with an incredibly treacherous reef in between. In the prime pirate years, there was not much necessarily to plunder from the Keys themselves, but they proved to be a good location to hide out and escape the rat race of climbing the pirate ladder for a while.

One of the more famous pirates to hang out in the Florida Keys was a commanding figure known as Black Caesar. Being a pirate, his early history is somewhat shady, but as best as can be made out he was enslaved aboard a ship which encountered a storm during the Middle Passage, and sank near the Florida coast. Nearly all the enslaved people who were shackled below the deck perished, as did most of the crew. However, somehow the man who came to be called "Black Caesar" escaped alive, as did the ship's mate, whom he had befriended. All of the details around this are a bit suspect, given that lore likes to recount Caesar as having been "an African chieftain" which seems romanticized and all the more dubious given that none of the accounts specify where the ship sailed from along the African coast - a detail that would be very easy to identify and verify. In just a span of two months or so, it is also not a given that an enslaved person from a different culture and language would have been able to communicate clearly with the mate (whose nationality is also unidentified), nor that he would have wanted to "befriend" him.

Nonetheless, that's the origin story. So the two managed to make it to shore, and having no other means of survival in a land that was hostile both to people of darker skin as well as to pirates, they found a way to survive by overtaking ships that faltered along the Florida Reef. With each ship they took, they preyed on a bigger one using astounding skill and upgraded. Two landmarks in Biscayne National Park off of Elliott Key are today named for Black Caesar - Caesar's Creek, and Caesar's Rock. When the two needed to hide out for a while, they hid in Caesar's Creek. Then when they were ready to attack, Caesar's strategy was to rope the mast to a big iron ring embedded in a rock, pull the ship sideways parallel to the water so it would not be seen, and then when a ship approached close enough, let fly the rope, appear out of seemingly nowhere, and attack the ship and overtake it.

Black Caesar was apparently quite successful during this time, and amassed a fortune purported to be in the range of $8mil, which in some stories he buried in and around Elliott Key. The ring embedded in the rock was said to have been removed some years ago and shipped to the Smithsonian by an independent sailor.

In the end, as pirates do, Caesar supposedly killed his partner in an argument, and eventually moved on to bigger and better things. By the early 1700s, Black Caesar joined the crew of the infamous Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard. Their excessive plundering of ships off the coast of North Carolina got them in hot water so to speak with the US Navy, and they were ultimately captured in 1718. Blackbeard was killed, and Black Caesar was taken to Williamsburg, VA, where he was taken for trial - quite remarkable at a time when people of color were not considered fully human nor US citizens, and thus were not generally given the right to stand trial or to speak on their own behalf. Perhaps that is why Black Caesar was summarily hanged shortly after the trial began.

This story has quite a few alternate versions, likely because in 1600s-1700s anyone who was Black and also a pirate was often called "Black Caesar" by English speakers. Thus there is a Haitian freedom-fighting Black Caesar, as well as numerous others whohttp://mentalfloss.com/article/58889/9-female-pirates-you-should-knowse lifetimes and locations crossed paths with this Black Caesar.

There are plenty of other stories about him also, as he was a pirate and supposedly given to murder, raping and then killing women, theft, etc. I am not one who understands at all why our culture glorifies and humorizes a line of work that was based in serial killing and torture. It strikes me as particularly odd that people in our society go to see lighthearted movies about such people, and dress their children up like them. We don't normally find it acceptable to dress 5 year olds up like Jeffrey Dahmer or Arthur Shawcross. The Keys have many streets named after famed pirates, including the female among them such as Ann Bonny and Mary Read, as if celebrating them. While the spirit of living on one's own terms does appeal to most Keys residents, as does any kind of tropical lore, really it's not that cool having a street name of a serial rapist and murderer. I personally think the streets named after local trees, fruit, and fish are much better choices!

Black Caesar did leave a legacy here in the Florida Keys though, through his namesake Creek and Rock, and the ring that was still there until a few decades ago. Whatever his true identity and life, his stories will live on as part of the legacy of outlawing it in the Keys.

No one today knows what Black Caesar really looked like, obviously. But this artist's rendition shows how popular he has become as a figure of pirate lore.

There are a lot of sources covering Black Caesar, and the various people who were known by this name, but here are a few articles of interest:
The Legends Of Black Caesar - tribunedigital-sunsentinel
10 Amazing Female Pirates - Listverse
9 Female Pirates You Should Know | Mental Floss
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Old 03-30-2015, 07:34 PM
1,448 posts, read 2,145,931 times
Reputation: 2357
I found this essay by a history student that discusses the historical verifiability of legends surrounding Black Caesar. I don't know that this research is exhaustive of all the primary resources available, and some of the assertions I disagree with - for instance, the idea that Caesar was a given slave name by a slave owner based simply on the fact that it is an English or European name. That ignores the strong likelihood of pirates obtaining nicknames at sea simply by being pirates with reputations (Blackbeard, for instance). I also disagree with the general impression given that simply because something is not verifiable means that it was never true - a large portion of history around the world relies on oral history, and in many cultures there are griots or storytellers whose entire families and lives revolve around the great responsibility of preserving the community's history, and again and again they have proven astoundingly accurate over centuries of information gathered (moreso sometimes that written accounts).

However, for those interested in the story of Black Caesar, I think this essay is really interesting, and pokes much needed holes into the fantastical myths surrounding him. I would say that the fact that his name appears on two separate geographical features on maps from early on of the Keys, and that legends are rather specific and plausible about what he did in and with those two areas, is pretty good reason to consider if this person might have existed locally and in the time period in question. It is interesting to note that in Blackbeard's crew alone at the time of their capture, there were 6 Black pirates in total who were convicted along with the rest of piracy. Given the options that were available to Black men in Europe and the Americas during that time, it is not really surprising that Blackbeard's crew was rather in keeping with the general diversity of pirate crews at that time, and earlier. If you manage to escape slavery in some manner but do not have the money to buy your freedom and establish a secure life as a free person with official papers to that effect (which did not always save you from being forced back into slavery even if you went to all that trouble), it's understandable how a life aboard a pirate ship - which was often far more democratic at least regardless of your skin tone or cultural background - might be appealing.

Here's the paper:
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