In the late 18th and 19th centuries, bushrangers rose to fame in Australia.
At a period when Australia was a group of colonies in search of an identity, these bushrangers were “any of the bandits of Australian bush, who harassed settlers, miners and Aborigines of the frontier.”
From 1795 when John ‘Black’ Caesar became the first bushranger until the 1850s, the bushrangers were largely escaped convicts.
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To date, many still wonder if bushrangers were just heartless and violent offenders or victims of their circumstances.
The latter could have been the case of Caesar, a giant black man who “robs people because he claims not to have enough to eat.”
Believed to have been born in the West Indies in 1770, Caesar fled to England to escape plantation slavery. He, however, soon found himself transported to Australia on the First Fleet where he once more faced a life of slavery.
Said to be a huge man, varying accounts state that the small rations of the colony compelled him to engage in petty theft in order to sustain himself.
As David Collins, the colony’s Judge-Advocate wrote in July 1789:
“This man was always reputed the hardest working convict in the colony; his frame was muscular and well calculated for hard labour; but in his intellects he did not very widely differ from a brute; his appetite was ravenous, for he would in any one day devour the full rations for two days. To gratify this appetite he was compelled to steal from others, and all his thefts were directed to that purpose.”
Three years prior, Caesar had been caught stealing 12 pounds, and his sentence was transportation on Alexander, a ship of the First Fleet to the penal colony of New South Wales for seven years. He left England on January 6, 1787.
But due to the lack of food in the new colony, Caesar ended up being tried for theft again on April 29, 1789. Two weeks later, the man described as “an incorrigibly stubborn black,” escaped to the bush with some provisions, an iron pot, and a soldier’s musket. He soon began to steal food on the outskirts of the settlement to survive when game for food became scarce in the bush.
This would continue for weeks until the night of June 6 when he was caught by a convict while trying to steal food from the house of the colony’s assistant commissary for stores.
The then-Governor Arthur Philip believed that Caesar would make a good laborer, hence he sent him to Garden Island, where he was to work in iron belts but be provided with extra vegetables in addition to his normal rations.
Being in his best behavior, Caesar was, in due course, allowed to work without iron belts but he took advantage of this and escaped again on December 22, 1789. This time, he escaped by stealing a small rowing boat that belonged to an employee on the island, as well as some food and a musket.
He continued to engage in garden robberies and taking the food of Aboriginals by scaring them with his gun. But he ran out of luck when he lost his gun; the natives speared him in several parts of his body. Wounded, Caesar gave himself up to justice after about two weeks of his escape from Garden Island.
For handing himself over to authorities, Caesar was pardoned and sent as a servant to Norfolk Island on March 4 onboard a ship that had about 116 male and 60 female convicts as well as 27 children.
As a pardoned convict, Caesar was allowed to marry. He had a relationship with Ann Poor, a convict and the two had a child in 1792.
Caesar would abandon his wife and child the following year, and return to Port Jackson. There, he escaped again but was soon back in custody and punished severely.
Caesar was, however, not the only one causing so much trouble in the colony as authorities were also after Pemulwy, an aborigine who was leading guerrilla warfare of resistance.
When Caesar managed to seriously wound Pemulwy after the latter and his party of Aboriginals attacked him in 1795, the black man thought to be notorious was now hailed a hero throughout the colony.
But the praises were short-lived as Caesar escaped from custody once more in December that year and led a gang of fellow escapees in the bush surrounding Port Jackson, becoming Australia’s first bushranger. A reward of five gallons of spirits was offered for his successful capture while he and his runaways continued to commit daring robberies.
On February 15, 1796, Caesar was shot by a free settler and died from his wounds four hours later.
Once described by the colony’s Judge-Advocate Collins as having ‘given more trouble than any other convict in the settlement’, varying accounts state that Caesar’s bushranging activities were not filled with much violence.
One cannot say the same for those who came after him, however.