Key Text: King Caesar; or, The Negro Slaves by John Cartwright Cross

John Cartwright-Cross, King Caesar; or, the Negro Slaves, Barker, London 1801.


John Cartwright Cross’s pantomime (with a score by William Ware) was first performed at the New Royal Circus Theater, St. George’s Fields, London, in September of 1801, and this booklet is its first and only printing other than its inclusion in two editions of Cross’s complete works, (1812). 

King Caesar introduces “Merry Mackendal,” an African healer on a plantation in “Saint Domingo.” After an overseer frames him for theft, beats him for the crime, and pursues Ada, the enslaved African woman he loves, Mackendal becomes a maroon and is transformed in both spirit and name into King Caesar after a maroon gives him a magic elixir to drink. Caesar returns to the plantation with a new vengeance for both slaves and overseers. The pantomime narrates a transformation, since his medicinal “leaf, herb, and root” are early on the subject of the female slaves’ songs, its later effects are deathly.

The 1801 booklet includes a list of characters, song lyrics, and other performance directions as well as a “Prospectus of the Action,” which grounds the melodrama and music in terms of historical events, but the prospectus is a translation of “Makandal, Histoire véritable,” a story about Makandal first published in Mercure de France (1787). Though the addition of the name “King Caesar” is not a part of the French “Histoire véritable,” the French story had already been widely translated and reprinted in English by this time (Faherty, White, and Jaudon 2016). That text’s circulation and the research by Faherty, White, and Jaudon, constitutes one of the digital maps featured in the exhibit.

Andrew McConnell Stott’s book about the legendary English pantomimist, Joseph Grimaldi, says that the author of King Caesar, Cross was a successful “eager impresario,” and notes his courting popular performers and circus families for his productions (Stott 2008). His pieces sometimes include attribution to various composers for accompanying music, most frequently, William Reeve, who also partnered with Thomas Didbin and other well-known writers and producers of the time. Cross’s works were published widely between the 1790s and early 1800s. Though he held a theatrical license under the scrutiny of the British government, he worked in both licensed and unlicensed settings (Moody)[1]. Some of the earliest of Cross’s works are Parnassian trifles. Being a collection of elegiac, pastoral, nautic, and lyric poetry (Minerva Press 1792) and British Fortitude, and Hibernian Friendship; or an Escape from France. A Musical Drama in One Act. (J. Roach 1794). His most noted work, The Purse or, benevolent tar: a musical drama, in one act, opened at the Theatre Royal in London’s Hay-Market in 1794 (Minerva). 

Caesar is not a pirate piece or equestrian show like many playing the same stages of eighteenth-century theatre--works like Philip Astley’s The Pirate; or, The Harlequin Victor, (1800), and Thomas Dibdin’s Kaloc; or, The Slave Pirate, (1800), as well as Cross’s other shows, but Caesar uses the same title conventions, historical content related to slavery and contemporary colonial or military conflict, and clichés of abduction and rescue on horseback or shipdeck employed by nautical theater and equestrianade (Burwick and Powell 2015). Similarly, Jack Helme, a popular actor late in his twenty-year career, played the lead role (Highfill 1982) as well as Black Beard in the same period (Greene 2011). Hugely successful, Caesar was still being performed by January, 1802 and the topic of positive reviews published in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh news (Greene). Cross was the author of at least two hundred fifty of these libretti written for stages in France and England.    

Current scholarship about King Caesar shows the text to be a significant one to this period of slave-trade controversy and rebellion in the Caribbean. Despite Mackendal’s transformation from medicine man to murderer, and with it, an ambivalence toward race and slavery, George Taylor’s The French Revolution and the London Stage (2000) names it among three important anti-slavetrade works between 1799-1801 alongside John Fawcett’s Obi; or, Three-Fingered Jack and Philip Astley’s Kongo Kolo; or, the Mandingo Chief. The work is understood to have been important to abolitionist politics in London.  With this in mind, future research could engage Laurent Dubois and Bernard Camier’s 2007 article, which builds on the work of Jean Fouchard to explore the centrality of St. Domingue theater and its participation in the creation of a “coherent” French Atlantic. King Caesar (first performed in London) shares similarities with two earlier works they note as being performed in St. Domingue. These performances begin much earlier. Their research on these two plays shows that the earliest, Jeannot et Thérèse, a creole version of Rousseau’s Devin du village, was performed contemporary to Makandal’s execution in Le Cap Francais, 1758, and Arlequin mulâtresse sauvé par Macandal was written by a creole playright named Acquaire. 


Kate Simpkins, Auburn University, January 2020. 



Eighteenth-century theater, Italian opera, Circusiana; Equestrianade; harlequinade; maroon; aquatic play; nautical play; pirate play; Le Mercure de France; theatrical licensing; (il)legitimate theatre; Acquaire



[1]  For more on licensing in eighteenth-century theater, see secondary bibliography.


Works Cited

Burwick, Frederic and Manushag N. Powell. British Pirates in Print and Performance. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015.

Camier, Bernard, et Laurent Dubois. “Voltaire et Zaïre, ou le théâtre des Lumières dans l'aire atlantique française.” Revue d’histoire moderne & contemporaine, 54-4, no. 4 (2007): 39-69.

Cross, J. C.(John Cartwright). British Fortitude, and Hibernian Friendship; or an Escape from France. A Musical Drama in One Act. by J. C. Cross. As Performed With. London: British Library, 1794. EBSCOhost,

Cross, J. C.(John Cartwright). Parnassian Trifles. Being a Collection of Elegiac, Pastoral, Nautic, and Lyric Poetry. By J. Cross, Author of the Dialogue of the Divertisement, &c. London: British Library, 1792. EBSCOhost,

Cross, J. C.(John Cartwright). The Dramatic Works of J.C. Cross, Stage Manager of the Surrey Theatre Containing a Complete Collection of the Most Favorite Ballets, Spectacles, Melo-Drames, &c. Performed at the above Theatre. The second edition, in two vols. ed., Printed for Thomas Tegg, London, 1812.

Dubois, Laurent. Avengers of the New World: The Story of the Haitian Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Dubois, Laurent. “Gendered Freedom: Citoyennes and War in the Revolutionary French Caribbean.” Gender, War and Politics. War, Culture and Society, 1750–1850. Hagemann K., Mettele G., Rendall J., eds. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2010.

Faherty, Duncan, Edward White, and Toni Wall Jaudon, eds. “Account of a Remarkable Conspiracy Formed by a Negro in the Island of St. Domingo,” 2016. CUNY Grad Center. Just Teach One.

Greene, John C. Theatre in Dublin, 1745-1820: A Calendar of Performances. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2011, 3806. 

Highfill, Phillip H., Kalman A. Burnim, and Edward A. Langhans. A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982, 246. See reproduction of engraving. The entry lists the engraving of Helme as an item in Harvard Theatre Collection. “Jack Helme as Black Beard,  engraving by C. Tomkins after I.F. Roberts.” 

Innes, Joanna. “The local acts of a national parliament: parliament's role in sanctioning local action in eighteenth-century Britain.” Parliamentary History 17.1 (1998): 23. 

Kassler, Michael. Music Entries at Stationers’ Hall, 1710–1818: From Lists Prepared for William Hawes, D.W. Krummel and Alan Tyson and from Other Sources. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Moody, Jane. Illegitimate Theatre in London, 1770- 1840. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Stott, Andrew McConnell. The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain’s Greatest Comedian. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2008.


Secondary Bibliography

Colman, George. The Africans. 1808.

Conolly, L.W. “English Drama and the Slave-Trade." ESC: English Studies in Canada 4, no. 4 (1978): 393-412. doi:10.1353/esc.1978.0035.

Donohue, Joseph.“Burletta and the Early Nineteenth-Century English Theatre.” Nineteenth Century Theatre: Nct, I, i, 1973. 

Gibbs, Jenna. “Toussaint, Gabriel, and Three Finger'd Jack:" Courageous Chiefs" and the" Sacred Standard of Liberty" on the Atlantic Stage." Early American Studies (2015): 626-660.

Lennox, Lord William Pitt. Plays, Players and Playhouses at Home and Abroad: With Anecdotes of the Drama and the Stage. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1881, 86.

Milhous, Judith, Gabriella Dideriksen, and Robert D. Hume. Italian Opera in Late Eighteenth Century London: Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. For more on licensing and the politics of legitimate theatre. 

Sanderson, James, Helme, John Pilbrow, Herbert, and J C. Cross. The Pirate's Glee: Sung by Mr. Helme, Mr. Pilbrow, & Mr. Herbert at the Royal Circus in Black Beard. London: Printed by Longman and Broderip, 1798. Musical score.

Taylor, George. The French Revolution and the London Stage, 1789-1805. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Van Kooy, Dana, and Jeffrey N. Cox. "Melodramatic Slaves." Modern Drama 55.4 (2012): 459-475.

Worrall, D. The Politics of Romantic Theatricality, 1787-1832: The Road to the Stage. New York: Springer, 2007.