The life of Caesario Rodorigo

Register of baptisms and burials for West Meon (1801) [67M81/PR6]

Earlier this month we shared details of our ongoing work to collate a list of historic sources that evidence Black lives in Hampshire’s extensive collections. The list of almost 300 documents, films and audio recordings evidences the lives of communities and individuals whose life journeys brought them to Hampshire.

The list is a work in progress, but it will be possible to obtain it on request for research purposes later this year. This month we are sharing two documents from it, the first is here.

Caesario Rodorigo

Historic documents can often raise more questions than answers and tracing the lives of Black Britons often requires interpreting gaps where documentation is scarce or unhelpful. There are occasions where more information is available, and we can seek to highlight these stories to gain a fuller understanding of Black lives in the region – the case of John Elton is a good example.

The West Meon burial register for 1801 provides a lengthy entry for John Elton, a Black man and native of Madagascar who was ‘rescued’ from slavery in 1761 by Captain William Brereton.

The entry is as follows:

“John Elton – a Black [man] (Caesario Rodorigo a native of Madagasca[r], was taken prisoner with his master a French officer at the Island of Diego Rois in the Indian seas by Captain William Brereton 1761, who rescued him from slavery & brought him to England under whose protection he has lived near forty years. He was christened at his own request by Jonathan Ras[h]leigh Rector of Wykeham [Wickham] Hants, by the name of John Elton & at the age of about 56 years he died in Captn Brereton’s service on Good Friday 3rd April 1801 in the Parish of Westmeon & was buried on the Monday following at 8 o’clock in the morning)”

Burial of John Elton, 6th April 1801

Over time place names often change, and this is particularly true of locations that have been subject to colonisation by European nations. The East Indies have a complex colonial history, and Caesario Rodorigo’s life story is bound up with this complicated tangle of power struggles which makes tracing his life’s journey more challenging.

Rodorigo is described as a native of Madagascar, and we know that at some time before 1761 he was brought to the island of Diego Rois, as an enslaved person under a French master. The name of the island appears to have changed over time – there is no current record of a place of this name – but mentions of it can be found in a number of seventeenth century publications:

‘The Trade of the Coast of Africa […] 5. Fort Dauphin, and many other Fortresses in the Island of Madagascar, call’d by them the Dauphin Island. The Islands of St Mari, Bourbon and Diego Rois[…].

Morden, Robert (1688) Geography rectified; or, a description of the world in all its kingdoms, provinces, countries, … their … names, … customs, etc. Illustrated, enlarged, etc (London) p. 257

This quote indicates the proximity of Diego Rois to Madagascar:

‘The Islands of Diego Rois, and according to the Portuguese, Diego Rodrigue, or Rodrigo, lieth in the Altitude of twenty Degrees, two and twenty Miles from Madagascar in the East, and not inhabited.’

Ogilby, John (1670) Africa: Being an accurate description of Africa. (London, Tho. Johnson) p.716

The French had established Fort-Dauphin on nearby Madagascar in 1642 with their influence further spreading to the surrounding islands in the century that followed. It is noted that the French colonized the Mascarene islands in the eighteenth century, during the course of which they enslaved many indigenous people. In writing this blog post we haven’t been able to identify the current name of the island Diego Rois (we’d welcome any further knowledge on this – it is possible it is modern day Rodrigues as this bears a resemblance to the Portuguese nomenclature though further away), but it is clear that it was very close to Madagascar.

We have plotted some of the key locations in Rodorigo’s life on an interactive Google map

Rodorigo most likely came into contact with Brereton during an engagement between the French and the British as part of the Seven Years War and likely around August 1761 when Brereton made the journey from Pondicherry (India) to Rodrigues, Mauritius (a 3949km journey). The burial register uses the term ‘rescued’ to infer that Brereton’s removal of Rodorigo from the French master was welcome and that he was somehow ‘saved’ by the Englishman. In fact, Rodorigo was removed a further 9,000km from his Madagascan home to Winchester, England.

The burial register further tells us that Rodorigo lived under the ‘protection’ of Brereton for almost forty years and was later ‘christened at his own request’ taking an anglicized name.  We know that Rodorigo was in the service of Brereton for the remainder of his life, but we have no way of knowing on what terms this occurred or how much free will he was able to exercise in making this epic journey across the globe.

If we subscribe to the ‘rescue’ narrative memorialized in the West Meon burial register entry, we could position Brereton as Rodorigo’s saviour – liberating him from a wicked French master. However, it is an unfortunate truth that many Black individuals are noted in such records as ‘servants’ when in many cases they are likely to have been forcibly enslaved. Unpacking records such as this burial register gives the opportunity to explore some of the potential events in the life of Caesario Rodorigo. However, we can never know how he would tell his story, in his own words, nor how far the records made by white men reflect the British colonial narrative at the expense of the men, women and children whose lives were turned upside down by slavery.


Seven Years’ War | Definition, Summary, Timeline, Causes, Effects, Maps, Significance, & Facts | Britannica

William Brereton – more than Nelson

Madagascar – History | Britannica


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