This edited article about treasure hunters originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 741 published on 27 March 1976.
She was a Spanish ship, laden with treasure chests, and she was sailing from South America to Cadiz. Apart from the fact that she was carrying a fortune in her holds, the voyage should have been an uneventful one, barring the usual hazards that sailors have to face when they take to the high seas. But her captain was a worried man.
It was the year of 1804, and war had broken out between Britain and Spain, and the British ships, acting swiftly, had moved in and blockaded the Spanish Ports. The captain was therefore in a quandary. Should he try and break through the blockade, or should he make for the West Indies and safety?
He opted to sail for the West Indies, a decision which was to cost him his life.
As it happened, the crew had no desire to go to the West Indies, and they promptly mutinied. Finding themselves off the barren and uninhabited Salvage Island lying 150 miles (about 240 km.) south of Madeira in the mid-Atlantic, they put in at the main island. Taking the captain ashore with them, they killed him in cold blood, and then buried his body together with the boxes of gold in a long and narrow trench in the sands.
The grisly task completed, the crew set off again, heading for the Spanish Main, where they intended to destroy the ship by fire in some secluded bay. Afterwards, with some of the treasure money they had kept, they planned to buy a small vessel, and, sailing under English colours, make their way back to Salvage Island to collect the treasure.
Instead, retribution overtook them in the shape of a fierce storm, and they were shipwrecked off St. Thomas. Only two of the crew managed to reach the shore, where one of them died almost immediately. The other was taken to hospital, where he told the whole grim story to a Finnish sailor, before he also died.
It is stories like this on which treasure hunters thrive, and this was no exception. In due course the Finnish sailor met a man by the name of Hercules Robinson, the captain of a British man-of-war, and told him of the gold which was supposed to be buried on Salvage Island. Convinced that the story was a true one, Robinson informed the British Admiralty, and managed to persuade them to mount an expedition to search the island. It was in this manner a treasure hunt started, which was to last on and off for the next 86 years.
Captain Robinson was given command of H.M.S. Prometheus, and being a not-unappreciative man, he took the Finnish sailor along with him on the condition that he would receive a reward only if the treasure was found. The rest of the crew, however, were not let into the secret of their mission.
Reaching the island in due course, Robinson took his men ashore, armed with shovels. They were, he informed them blandly, looking for the grave of a murdered sailor. Waving an airy hand at the acres of sand confronting them, he told them to start digging, and to encourage them, offered a reward of twenty pounds for the first man to discover the body.
The sailors dug for days until the beach was pitted in every likely spot above the water-line, but nothing was found. Depressed, but still convinced that the gold was buried somewhere on the island, Robinson took his sailors back to the ship and weighing anchor, sailed back to England.
The years went by, but Captain Robinson was never able to dismiss from his mind the story of the buried gold. As with so many treasure hunters it became an obsession with him, but as the Admiralty had no intention of mounting another expedition, he had to wait another 40 years before he was able to return to the island.
He was an Admiral by now, but this time he went as a private individual with a small party of friends in a yacht. Calling in at Tenerife on the way, Robinson was dismayed to hear from one of the local inn-keepers that some years before, another party had come searching for the treasure, and were reputed to have found gold there amounting to the value of £40,000.
On hearing this, another treasure hunting expedition had been mounted and a ship had landed some miners on the island. But for some reason, it had failed to return for them, and they had managed to survive only by making the journey back to Tenerife in a small boat which had been left with them. On the point of complete collapse from starvation, they had told of how they had dug and dug all over the beach, but had found nothing except one copper coin.
All this made depressing hearing for Captain Robinson. But worse was to come. When he landed with his party, he found the beach completely changed. Wind and weather, and worst of all, landslides had left very little of that golden beach he had hungered for so long to see again and attack with a shovel.
Nor was the situation improved by a sudden worsening in the weather which made it impossible for them to anchor the yacht. Robinson was prepared to risk the yacht in order to stay on, but was firmly over-ruled by his companions. One can imagine the unfortunate captain’s feelings, as he sailed reluctantly away, never to see the island again.
But even then the island had not seen the last of its treasure hunters. E. F. Knight, a famous yachtsman and adventurer, who was also a compulsive treasure hunter, arrived there in 1889 in his yacht, the Alerte, and spent days there searching for the elusive treasure. He found nothing except a few crumbling bones, which might have belonged to anyone, and were certainly not in a grave containing the treasure.
Putting aside the story of the £40,000 in treasure which was supposed to have been discovered there, and which was, in all probability, mere gossip, it would seem that the only thing that was discovered was a single copper coin. As it was an English one, it proved nothing. What then of the original story? Would a sailor on his death bed really invent the story? It hardly seems likely, so perhaps the treasure really is there, despite all the vain attempts to find it.
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