Ocracoke's history & its people

Caesar: the earliest notable black resident of North Carolina

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“The Return of the Pamlico River Pirates.”  Watercolor by Jeffrey Jakub. Image courtesy of Kevin Duffus.

Editor’s note: While the country should not limit its recognition of black Americans to one month a year, we offer this story originally published in the November Ocracoke Observer in observation of Black History Month.

By Connie Leinbach

New research by author-historian Kevin Duffus has revealed that the positive identification of an African-American member of Blackbeard’s crew provides evidence to the infamous pirate’s identity and origin.

Contrary to popular myth, Caesar, who was one of six African-American slaves in Blackbeard’s crew, survived well beyond the rest of the crew, said Duffus, author of “The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate,” which sifts through the myths and facts about arguably the most famous pirate ever.

“Caesar is the earliest notable African-American resident of North Carolina,” said Duffus, who in October was named North Carolina Historian of the Year by the North Carolina Society of Historians.

One of Blackbeard’s trusted mates, Caesar’s own myth has grown through the centuries.

Caesar’s alleged duty aboard the ill-fated Adventure at Ocracoke was to blow up the boat if the pirates were losing the battle with Lt. Robert Maynard.

But Caesar did not execute that command.

“In the popular legend, Caesar was then hanged in Williamsburg, Va.,” Duffus said, “but I have found proof that he was alive a year later in the town of Bath.”

Duffus can prove that Caesar was present in Bath in 1716, two years before Blackbeard’s demise Nov. 22, 1718, on Ocracoke.

A few pirates were hanged in Hampton, Va., but Caesar was not among those.

“I can prove Caesar was alive and well in 1719,” Duffus said.  “It’s remarkable that a black slave can be found in the record to support my theory of who Blackbeard was.”

Caesar and other young men, including Blackbeard, were residents of Bath, and Duffus said Caesar was owned by Blackbeard’s mentor and advisor Tobias Knight.

“I think Caesar was Tobias Knight’s investment in Blackbeard’s enterprises,” Duffus said.

What prompted these young men to take off in July 1716 and become “pirates” was the wreck of a Spanish treasure fleet off the central coast of Florida.

“Eleven Spanish ships were heavily laden with gold,” Duffus said. “There are records of young men who left for Florida and could walk onto the beach and scoop up armfuls of gold.”

Although it’s unknown whether Blackbeard and his crew left for that purpose, Duffus said that the names of the best-known pirates in history are not in the records prior to this wreck.

“Then they start appearing in the record,” he said.

It was, in effect, a gold rush.

“I think their beginnings were innocent, but once acts of piracy were being committed it produced a mob mentality—like looting nowadays,” Duffus said.  “That’s why, when they came back to North Carolina, a number of them tried to live honest lives.”

Duffus makes a case for this in his story behind a water color of Blackbeard and his crew he commissioned titled “The Return of the Pamlico River Pirates” that shows Blackbeard’s hand resting on Caesar’s shoulder.

Duffus writes:

“Until now this historical truth has been eclipsed by the colossal legend of popular culture’s fictional version of Black Beard, leading generations to believe that these men were ruthless, blood thirsty criminals. Many of these men were the sons, or in some instances, slaves, of Pamlico-area plantation owners. These Pamlico River mariners and their slaves, led by the tall, charismatic Edward “Black” Beard, strayed across the boundaries of lawfulness no more than anyone else in colonial America at the time, including Governors, customs officials and ministers. Everyone simply did what they had to do to survive.”

Duffus’s book has been revised with the addition of two chapters devoted to his findings on Caesar. It is available in shops throughout the island.

Those interested in purchasing high-quality, limited-edition prints or posters can contact Duffus at Looking_glass@earthlink.net.

First published in the Ocracoke Observer in November 2014.