Continuing our article in last month’s newsletter: And now we may turn to our first bushranger, and be edified to find that he bore one of the most famous names in all history — that of Caesar.
John Caesar was a powerfully built West Indian Negro, who had come to the Colony in the First Fleet, on March 14, 1785, he had been convicted at ‘Maidstone and Sentenced to Seven Years’ Penal Servitude and Transportation, but the nature of the crime with which he was charged is not known.
He was probably confined in the hulks in the Thames during the two years which elapsed between his conviction and the sailing of the fleet at the beginning of 1787. Amongst his fellow prisoners, he was very naturally referred to as “Julius Caesar.” Later on, in the records of early New South Wales, he is almost invariably styled “Black” Caesar.
But we must get back to our interesting bushranger, and his connection with the island. It is strange and singular that this picturesque little territory, so long the headquarters of Australia’s first line of defence, should have been the starting place of all her bushranging records.
Although there is no evidence that Garden Island was ever put to the same use as a place of confinement as Pinchgut it would seem that a few convicts were sent there to work in the vegetable gardens planted for the benefit of the crew of H.M.S. Sirius. They laboured in irons, and some roughly constructed huts were erected for their accommodation.
Caesar was one of them, and it is curious to note that even then the White Australia sentiment was in evidence, for, on account of his colour, none of his fellow convicts were willing to “hut” with him.
This gave the big Negro the direct offence, and he presently cleared out, taking with him a musket, ammunition, some provisions, and an iron pot. This Latter article was a serious loss to the little community, for cooking-pots were at a premium.
It was some time in April, 1789, that Caesar made his first escape from the island. He was re-captured in May, after having eked out an existence for two-and-a-half weeks by robbing at night the huts and tents of the little hamlet at the head of Sydney Cove.
It is most likely to Caesar that Captain David Collins, the Judge-Advocate, refers when he writes in his “New South Wales”: “One of them had absconded and lived in the woods for nineteen days, existing by what he was able to procure by nocturnal thefts among the huts and stocks of individuals. His visits for this purpose were so frequent and daring, that at length it became absolutely necessary to proclaim him an outlaw, as well as to declare that no person must harbour him after such proclamation.”
George Barrington, the famous pickpocket, in his book about the colony — The History of New South Wales, including Botany Bay, Port Jackson, Parramatta, Sydney, and all its Dependencies — has something to say of Caesar’s escape and capture on this occasion.
“The latter end of May,” he writes, “several convicts reported they had seen the body of a white man in a cove at a distance; a muster was called, but no one was found absent but a black named Caesar, who had absconded from the service of an officer, and taken with him a gun, an iron pot, and some provisions.
“In the course of a short time, however, he was caught, and as the idea of death seemed to have no effect on his mind, the Governor ordered him to be kept at work on Garden Island in fetters.”
While on the island he was reputed to be the hardest worker amongst the convicts there employed, using his great strength towards getting a remission of his sentence—but one day he again took it into his head to abscond.
He stole a canoe and a supply of provisions. This time he became a bushranger in earnest, and his exploits kept the settlement in a constant simmer of excitement. One day it was the vegetable garden on Garden Island that he plundered, or the Commissariat Stores at Sydney Cove.
On the next he would be raiding the hut of some settler between Sydney and Parramatta. He seemed to be ubiquitous.
However, this period of liberty only lasted a month, and when he was again captured — in March, 1790 — he was banished to Norfolk Island, going there in H.M.S. Sirius on the occasion when she was wrecked. He seems to have been kept at the island for four or five years, for Barrington’s next mention of him is in December, 1795.
“Caesar again fled to the woods,” he says, “and lived by plundering the settlers by night. However, one good action he committed, which was killing a native that wounded Collins (a semi-civilised Aboriginal) who lived in the Settlement.”
He was still at liberty in January, 1796.
“Caesar,” writes Barrington, “who was still in the wilds, and several others, were reputed to have been seen in arms, and as some of the settlers were suspected of supplying him with ammunition, they were informed, that in case it should be proved, they would be implicated in the consequences of the robberies.”
So eminent had our first bushranger become in his new profession that, on January 29, 1796, he figured as the principal subject of a “Government and General Order” issued by Governor Hunter. Here it is:—
GOVERNMENT AND GENERAL ORDER.
29th, January, 1796.
Countersign — ‘Royal George.’
Parole — Hotham
The many robberies which have lately been committed render it necessary that some steps should be taken to put a stop to a practice so destructive of the happiness and comfort of the industrious. And as it is well known that a fellow known by the name of Black Caesar has absented himself some time past from his work, and has carried with him a musquet, notice is hereby given that whoever shall secure this man Black Caesar and bring him in with his arms shall receive as a reward five gallons of spirits.
The Governor thinks it further necessary to inform those settlers or people employed in shooting who may have been occasionally supplied with powder and shot, that if it shall be discovered hereafter that they have so abused the confidence placed in them as to supply these common plunderers with any part of their ammunition, steps will be taken immediately for their punishment, as they will be considered accomplices in the robberies committed by those whom they have supplied.
Captain Collins states that some attempt was made to trace the muskets issued, but that it met with little success.
A further Order of Governor Hunter’s provided for the registration of arms.
“Some few settlers, who valued their arms as necessary to their defence against the natives and against thieves, hastened to the office for their certificates; but of between two and three hundred stands of arms which belonged to the Crown not fifty were accounted for.”
Collins also mentions that Caesar was by way of being something of a scapegoat. Every loss of property was set against his account, and it seems quite likely that he was blamed for many robberies that he had nothing at all to do with.
Notwithstanding the reward offered for apprehending Black Caesar, he remained at large; and scarcely a morning arrived without a complaint being made to the Magistrate of a loss of property supposed to have been occasioned by him. In fact, every theft that was committed was ascribed to him or some of the vagabonds who were in the woods, the number of whom at this time amounted to six or eight.”
Our first bushranger had unquestionably founded an industry!
But the end was at hand. Writing in February, 1796. Collins records the finish of this pioneer.
“On the 15th,” he says, “a criminal court had met for the trial of two prisoners for a burglary, when information was received that Black Caesar had that morning been shot by one Wimbow. This man and another, allured by the reward, had been for some days in quest of him.
Finding his haunt, they concealed themselves all night at the edge of a brush, which they had perceived him enter in the dusk of the evening. In the morning he came out; when, looking round him and seeing his danger, he presented his musket; but before he could pull the trigger Wimbow fired and shot him, and he died in a few hours.
“Thus ended a man who certainly, during his life, could never have been estimated at more than one remove above the brute, and who had given more trouble than any other convict in the settlement.”
In Barrington’s version of the affair, he tells us that his captors took the badly wounded negro to the hut of a man named Rose, one of the settlers in the district of Liberty Plains, where he died.
Roughly, the district of Liberty Plains, originally peopled by free settlers who arrived in Sydney on the transport Bellona at the beginning of 1793, lay in the area now occupied by the Sydney suburbs of Strathfield and Homebush.
It adjoined Concord, which had mainly been allotted to noncommissioned officers of the New South Wales Corps — then very industriously earning its famous nickname of “Rum Corps.”
A considerable time afterwards, the Bankstown district also had the name “Liberty Plains” bestowed upon it, but it was somewhere between the Parramatta River near Concord and the Parramatta-road that Black Caesar’s doom overtook him on that summer morning in 1796.
The reward collected by Mr Wimbow and his mate does not seem an excessive one, but in 1796 five gallons of rum meant a good deal, quite apart from its “kick and bite.”
Hardly a single commodity in the settlement could be purchased without its use as a medium of exchange, and although Governor Hunter was doing everything he could to combat the rum traffic there was literally nothing else he could offer, save the promise of a free pardon to a convict, as an inducement towards the capture or killing of such an outlaw as Black Caesar.
The Governor had been compelled to admit himself that, as currency, rum had its peculiar advantages.
“Much work,” he wrote in one of his despatches home, “will be done by labourers and artificers and others for a small reward in this article which money would not purchase.”
It is one of the most curious facts about early Sydney that the only criminal ever gibbeted upon Pinchgut was hanged there in chains because he had killed one of his companions for the sake of obtaining half-a-bottle of rum which his victim had in his possession!
The price of bushrangers rose considerably during the ninety years of the industry’s continuance as an Australian institution.
Caesar was slain for five gallons of spirits – about £2/10/- worth of rum at current prices in 1796 – Whilst the rewards offering for the apprehension of the Kellys when they met their end at Glenrowan in 1880 totalled £8000.
(part of an article written by J.H.M. Abbott, novelist and poet.)