This episode was originally intended to be the show’s pilot but is airing out of order because Discovery had hoped that the planned season finale, the Atlantis episode, would have served as a stronger introduction to the series and draw in viewers. Well, that got shot all to hell when viewers tuned out. I am labeling this S01E03 here because the network has renumbered the episodes to follow broadcast order.
As regular readers know, I am not very interested in pirate treasure. So this episode is a rather dull slog for me because Riggle went in search of the alleged booty of Black Caesar, a fictitious and supposedly gigantic African chieftain who became first a slave, and then a pirate captain, and then a member of Blackbeard’s crew. (While no records support his existence, the Encyclopedia Britannica repeated his story uncritically.) According to Florida legend, Black Caesar buried his pirate treasure on Elliot Key, and he is alleged to have kept a prison colony of captured sailors and a massive harem of a hundred kidnapped women on Captiva Island. Legend says he was executed in Virginia in 1718 after being captured following Blackbeard’s death. The story has no historical grounding or records to support it, and Black Caesar in all likelihood never existed. Nevertheless, he supposedly originated the phrase “dead men tell no tales.”
The Black Caesar name also applied to a probably also fictitious and also supposedly gigantic Haitian slave named Henri Caesar who took up the cause of piracy a century later and was also associated with Elliot Key. He, too, supposedly buried treasure on Elliot Key and had a harem on Capitva Island. The treasure has been estimated to be worth $6 million or $18 million depending on which fantasist you read. This one supposedly drank himself into blundering errors, falling captive to the Spanish, and dying in their custody in 1829, burned to death, according to some tales. Or, if you believe another variant, he simply disappeared. Or, maybe the U.S. Navy killed him. All these versions can be found in various accounts. Sometimes, to differentiate, this second Caesar is called “Caesar Le Grande.”
It’s not terribly hard to see the two Caesars’ stories as folkloric variants of one another. There were more. A man named Boe Pent claimed just before his 1915 death to have seen Black Caesar, sometime in the 1820s or 1830s, but this Black Caesar was the African warlord, not the Haitian slave, and was apparently as strong as an ox and both greedy and stupid. It’s pretty clear he was just repeating a hodgepodge of local lore, in a somewhat confused way. And on it goes, one story after another, none with a shred of evidence to support their reality.
There is at least a little bit of truth to the stories, however, if not real Black Caesars. There really were black pirates, for example, and they scandalized the colonial world because pirate society gave them equal rights to white pirates, including an equal share of the booty. Apparently, “Black Caesar” served as a nickname racist white folk applied to any black dude who had a position of authority among pirates, and the stories related above coalesced around the name. A British map of 1774 lists a “Black Caesar’s Creek” in the Florida Keys (it is today’s Caesars Creek), so the story must be at least that old. The legends, however, are full of anachronisms and fanciful details and are quite obviously of later vintage.
Anyway, I have about zero interest in fictitious eighteenth-century pirate treasure and this hour was particularly light on content, so you will forgive me if I summarize the show rather briefly.
Riggle begins by deciding to follow the myth of the second Black Caesar vanishing without a trace, along with the $6 million estimate for the second Caesar’s treasure. Why? He’s clearly not the original Black Caesar, given the 1774 map. (The first Caesar arrives in Segment 3.) Anyway, Riggle simply asserts that Henri Caesar was a real person though the only evidence given is a published version of his fictitious legend. David Sloan, a ghost tour operator, gives Riggle the Wikipedia version of Caesar’s life, but Riggle admits that his team simply used Google to research the story. Riggle meets up with some “professional treasure hunters” in the hope of locating Henri Caesar’s fictitious treasure. This involves diving off the Florida Keys to look for it, though the legend says nothing about the money being underwater—certainly an odd place to bury treasure. Riggle becomes very excited when he finds a coin (actually, a shell) and then freaks out when a shark swims by.
The second segment picks up with more footage of sharks, and Riggle picks up a corroded length of metal that one of the treasure hunters says is a sheath for a sword. Weapons expert Ashley Hlebinsky of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West shows Riggle a lot of weapons, though this is irrelevant to the treasure hunt, while on board a recreation of a sixteenth century Spanish galleon, which is also irrelevant to a supposedly nineteenth century treasure.
After the bottom of the hour reset and recap, Hlebinsky tells Riggle the scabbard is from U.S. Navy issue from the 1860s. Next up, Riggle meets Brad Bertelli, a local journalist and tour guide. I was relieved to see that Bertelli set Riggle straight on the existence of a first Black Caesar and the 1774 map bearing Caesar’s name, which prompts some poor attempts at comedy as Riggle pretends not to know about this while everyone else does. Riggle then decides to go to Elliot Key to hunt the first Black Caesar’s treasure. However, Riggle promptly misunderstands even this very simple story and wrongly asserts that the second Black Caesar went to Elliot Key to bury his treasure where the first Black Caesar happened to live. It doesn’t make much sense, but Riggle is really wedded to the Henri Caesar story for some reason.
Operating under the assumption that Elliot Key’s treasure belongs to the second Black Caesar, Riggle meets with another treasure hunter to probe the waters around Caesar’s Rock and Caesars Creek. Elements of the two Black Caesars’ stories blend together as they fruitlessly search for “treasure” with metal detectors. It’s irresponsible of Discovery to promote what is basically looting of archaeological sites by glamorizing digging random holes in search of gold and historical loot. While they may not have broken any laws (they are only seen collecting from the exposed surface and the ocean floor, though they spoke of digging holes), many viewers will not likely ride the line so closely, and the emphasis on treasure over archaeological context serves, of course, to encourage destructive action.
A brief interstitial chronicled the removal of a Burmese python from the site Riggle was scanning for treasure. The final segment found our hero uncovering a spike “100 years old,” which for some bizarre reason he declares “pretty close” to Henri Caesar’s 200-year-old equipment. Another bit of bad scripted comedy finds one of the treasure hunters from earlier reminding Riggle that there are two Black Caesars. It isn’t funny, and it isn’t well staged. At the end, Riggle found three chunks of metal identified as Spanish coins from the eighteenth century. There is no way to link them to any specific person, so the results are … pointless, once again.
The comedy, it goes without saying, was forced, lazy, obvious, and unfunny.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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