How a famed African medicine man convinced U.S. lawmakers to free him from slavery and add lifetime stipend

December 04, 2019 at 04:00 pm | History

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Associate Editor

December 04, 2019 at 04:00 pm | History

Photo: RaceBaitr

Acquired as a slave under unknown circumstances by a South Carolina resident named John Norman, Cesar’s knowledge in traditional African medicine endeared him to many people in the southern United States in the 1700s.

During this period, there were not enough physicians and those available were not even trusted by locals. People preferred to rely on the healing wisdom of slaves and other Africans to treat their relatives and friends, according to accounts.

Having expert knowledge of the African healing tradition, Cesar’s healing prowess reached the doorsteps of legislators in South Carolina such that they went as far as freeing him from slavery and awarding him a lifetime stipend.

But this was after Cesar had struck a deal with state officials; he told them he would divulge the knowledge of his cures if they granted him freedom, and they willingly accepted that.

Born around 1682, Cesar is believed to have come from anywhere in Africa and the Caribbean due to his wealth of knowledge about the healing traditions in those areas.

Other sources say he was born into slavery in the Carolinas and probably raised by African midwives who had in-depth knowledge of traditional African medicine.

Moving into Norman’s household, Cesar began curing other slaves and even members of his slaveowner’s home as well as other plantation owners who were poisoned by their slaves.

Also well-known for curing the effects of poisons and snakebites, South Carolina officials expressed readiness to grant him freedom from slavery in exchange for his knowledge.

But they first had to be certain of the effectiveness of his herbal remedies, thus, South Carolina legislators appointed a committee to investigate Cesar’s claims.

According to accounts, “several prominent witnesses testified to the efficacy of Caesar’s cure, including Dr. William Miles and Henry Middleton. Caesar’s master, John Norman, stated that his slave had ‘done many Services in a physical Way, and in particular had frequently cured the Bite of Rattle Snakes, and [Norman] never knew him to fail in any one Attempt.'”

Convinced, South Carolina legislators came to an agreement in the Commons House and granted Cesar, who was then around 67, his freedom.

They also offered him “an annual annuity of £100 currency for the remainder of his life. Norman was granted £500 in compensation,” writes South Carolina Encyclopedia.

In exchange for his freedom, Cesar revealed his medical recipe which was published in the May 7–14, 1750, issue of the South-Carolina Gazette. It read:

“The Negro CAESAR’s Cure for Poison. Take the roots of Plantane and wild Hoare-hound, fresh or dried, three ounces, boil them together in two quarts of water to one quart, and strain it; of this decoction let the patient take one third part three mornings fasting successively, from which if he finds any relief, it must be continued, ’till he is perfectly recovered: On the contrary, if he finds no alteration after the third dose, it is a sign that the patient has not been poisoned at all, or that it has been with such poison as Caesar’s antidotes will not remedy, so may leave off the decoction.

“CAESAR’s Cure for the bite of a Rattle-snake. Take of the roots of Plantane or Hoare-hound (in summer roots and branches together) a sufficient quantity, bruise them in a mortar, and squeeze out the juice, of which give, as soon as possible, one large spoonful; if he is swells, you must force it down his throat: This generally will cure; but if the patient finds no relief in an hour after, you may give another spoonful, which never fails.”

Cesar’s “cure-all” remedy was so popular that the South Carolina Gazette had to reprint his recipe the following year.

Due to high demand for his cures, other publications from across North America and England contained Cesar’s medical recipes.

It is said that at the time of his death in 1754, he was the first African American to have his medical findings appear in print.

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