Caesar was an enslaved African man who made a name for himself as a gifted healer in colonial South Carolina during the mid-18th century. His expertise proved to be particularly valuable when he discovered an antidote for poisons and rattlesnake bites. This discovery led to Doctor Caesar’s freedom, as he was able to negotiate his release from slavery in exchange for revealing his antidote.
There is little information available about Caesar’s early life. It is unclear whether he was born in South Carolina or if he was brought to the colony as a slave from Africa. What is known is that he spent much of his life in bondage, owned by a man named John Norman of Beech Hill plantation in St. Paul’s Parish, South Carolina.
Caesar had a deep knowledge of medicinal plants and was adept at using them to cure various ailments. He was particularly skilled at treating snake bites, a common danger in the South Carolina wilderness.
Caesar’s reputation as a healer soon spread, and he became known throughout the region as a miracle worker. He was in high demand, and many plantation owners came to rely on him to cure their enslaved workers and family members.
When Caesar’s abilities were brought to the attention of the legislature, they immediately saw an opportunity to exploit his knowledge for their own benefit. Caesar, who was roughly 67 years old at the time, was summoned before the committee and asked on what conditions he would reveal his antidotes. In response, Caesar proposed that he would share his secrets provided that he was granted his freedom and a reasonable income.
Despite the inherent power imbalance, Caesar was able to negotiate his freedom and a modest income, demonstrating his intelligence and resourcefulness. However, it is important to note that Caesar was still enslaved until the legislature granted his freedom and that his family members were still held in bondage.
After his emancipation in the late spring of 1750, the text of Caesar’s traditional medicine cure for poisons and snakebites circulated beyond South Carolina. It was reprinted in newspapers, almanacs, and journals in the American colonies and in Britain, earning him worldwide recognition for his medical knowledge. Shortly after the publication of his cures, South Carolina’s provincial government issued a payment of £100 to Caesar, the first instalment of his promised lifetime annuity.
At the same time, however, the legislature also amended the draconian act for governing enslaved people within the colony. The revised law, which was ratified on May 17th, 1751, restricted the actions of enslaved healers like Caesar by disallowing them from giving medicine to other slaves without the direction of a white person.
After Caesar was freed from slavery, he lived a relatively unknown life. He was in his late sixties or late seventies and in poor health at the time. However, his last will and testament, which he drafted in early 1754, sheds some light on his personal life. In the will, he referred to himself as “Doctor Caesar of South Carolina in St. Paul’s Parish Practitioner of Phisick” and instructed his executors to sell his belongings and use the money to support his wife, Lilly, and their daughter, Hannah, who were still enslaved by John Norman. Caesar’s exact date of death is unclear, but it is believed to have occurred in 1754.
Today, Caesar’s story serves as a reminder of the many contributions that enslaved African Americans made to the American society, despite the obstacles they faced.