Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Pemulwuy & Black Caesar
In the first desperate years of the settlement at Sydney, two men supplied much of the excitement. One was the powerful Aboriginal guerrilla leader Pemulwuy, who waged a campaign of resistance to the British interlopers. The other was a tall, well-built convict known as Black Caesar, one of the 12 prisoners of African origin who had arrived on the First Fleet, and a frequent and unrepentant absconder from captivity.
Pemulwuy first stepped into history in 1790 when he fatally speared Governor Arthur Phillip’s game-shooter, a trespasser on tribal land and ill-treater of Aboriginals. Phillip responded by ordering Pemulwuy’s capture and summary execution, along with those of six other men in his clan. The result was a fiasco. No Aboriginal would guide the reprisal expedition and the soldiers had no stomach for the job. Pemulwuy, meanwhile, mobilised other Eora clans to starve out the newcomers by burning their maize crops, killing their livestock and plundering their possessions.
Hunger was soon pressing hard on the new settlement. One of those who felt it most keenly was the convict Caesar.
Caesar’s exact origins are uncertain, although his roots clearly lay in the African slave trade. “Caesar” was a common slave name and it seems likely that he arrived in England in the aftermath of the American Revolution. He was possibly a runaway who had joined the British side during the war, rewarded with his freedom and passage to England. He may have belonged to a refugee Loyalist who took him to England as a household chattel. In March 1786, he was convicted in the Kent Assizes of stealing 4s 4d and sentenced to transportation for seven years.
“Muscular and well calculated to hard labour”, according to Lieutenant-Governor David Collins, Caesar was the hardest-working man in the colony, but also “incorrigibly stubborn”. Refusing to toil on starvation rations, he was soon notorious for escaping, stealing food and robbing Aboriginals at musket-point. The exploits of Black Caesar became the talk of the settlement. Only hunger and the wounds inflicted by irate Aboriginals forced him back into custody.
At Botany Bay in December 1795, Caesar’s work party was attacked by Pemulwuy and his warriors. With his commanding height and physical strength, Caesar managed to crack Pemulwuy’s skull. News of the savage’s death was well received but short-lived. Pemulwuy recovered and continued to fight.
Black Caesar bolted for a fifth time, formed a gang and became Australia’s first bushranger. In 1802, Pemulwuy was ambushed, shot and decapitated. His head was sent to Sir Joseph Banks in England in a barrel of spirits. Prince William and Christopher Pyne are keen that it be found.