This edited article about treasure hunters originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 743 published on 10 April 1976.
The popular idea that pirates were in the habit of going off and burying their plunder on some lonely island is one that dies hard, even though common sense dictates that any pirate in his right mind would prefer to spend it on riotous living before ending up, as was always more than likely, with his throat cut or dangling at the end of a rope.
Pirate treasure has certainly been found, but only in small amounts, and then generally by accident. But the gold hunters have continued to search for it, led on by myths and legends which have taken them inevitably to some deserted island. A typical example is Cocos Island in the Pacific, an isolated and volcanic island populated by birds, insects, rats and landcrabs.
At first sight it would seem an unlikely place to find pirate gold. Located some 300 miles (480 km) from the coast of Costa Rica, it is a forbidding-looking spot, rising to a height of 3,000 feet (910 m.) and covered in parts with an impenetrable tropical jungle growth.
But it was at least an island where freebooters could rest and careen their ships in perfect seclusion on two good sandy beaches, backed by cliffs honeycombed with caves. As such it became a favourite haunt for the few buccaneers who knew of its existence.
According to popular legend, a large treasure hoard was hidden there by an infamous pirate named Bonito Benito, who began his career in 1816 by attacking an English slaver, which he captured and then used as his own vessel. Only two members of the original slaver crew were allowed to live, a Frenchman named Chapelle, and Thompson, an Englishman, who prudently elected to join the pirate crew.
It was Chapelle and Thompson who gave rise to one of the many stories about the vast treasure purported to be cached on Cocos. Having intercepted a large consignment of gold from Mexico, Bonito then made off with it to Cocos, where a quarrel broke out between himself and some of the crew. Fearing that he would be robbed of his share of the gold, Bonito hid it in a cave, and then sailed off while the malcontents were on the island. The marooned buccaneers were later picked up by the authorities, and were all executed with the exception of Chapelle and Thompson, who claimed they had been pressed into service against their will.
Bonito, in the eventuality, was no more fortunate than those he had abandoned. Cornered by a British frigate, he blew out his brains on his own quarterdeck, rather than surrender, to face death on the yard-arm.
An even stranger story is told of other events concerning Cocos, also in the 19th century, and involving a far greater treasure. A vast consignment of gold from Lima, destined for Spain, was loaded on to a brig named Mary Dear. The temptation to sail off with it proved too much for one Captain William Thompson and his crew, who slipped away to Cocos Island, where they managed to hide the treasure only a few hours before a Peruvian gun boat caught up with them. The crew of the Mary Dear were executed on the spot, with the exception of the mate and Captain Thompson, who fled into the dense undergrowth and remained hidden there until the gunboat had departed.
When the two men were eventually rescued by a ship which had put in for water, the mate’s condition was so bad that he died soon afterwards. Later, Thompson met a man named Keating, whom he told of the treasure he had buried on Cocos. Soon afterwards the captain died, but not before he had given Keating a rough map, showing the location of the treasure. Keating then teamed up with a Captain Boag, and in due course the two of them sailed to Cocos Island.
At Cocos, the two men quickly located the treasure, which was stored in a cave. The first boat-load they brought back to the ship brought about an almost inevitable confrontation with the crew, who demanded a share of the treasure. To pacify them, Keating and Boag promised to show them the hiding place the next morning.
As soon as the crew had settled down for the night, the two men silently filled a whaleboat with provisions and then slipped away back to the island. According to Keating’s story later, Boag had filled his pockets with so much gold that when he slipped while wading out to the whaler, he sank almost immediately. Keating sailed off alone, and was later picked up off the Mexican coast.
Seamen are famous for embroidering a story, but on the other hand, Keating’s subsequent behaviour does seem to indicate that he had found gold on Cocos. Two years later, he returned to Cocos on a second trip, pretending that he was going on a pearl-fishing expedition. But as soon as they saw Cocos, the crew guessed the real purpose of the voyage, and immediately demanded a share of the treasure. Fobbing them off with vague promises, Keating landed on the island, and hid himself there until the vessel finally sailed away. Alone and at his leisure, Keating went back to the cave, concealed as much gold as he could on his person, and then waited patiently for the next vessel to arrive and take him off.
In the years that followed, Keating lived at his home at St John’s, in Newfoundland, and from there he set off from time to time on mysterious journeys from which he was in the habit of returning seemingly far richer than when he had set off.
As Keating passes into oblivion, we move on to the most enterprising of all the treasure hunters on Cocos Island – a German seaman named August Gissler, who had heard of the treasure that was supposed to be on the island. Realising that he would probably need a great deal of time to find it, Gissler acquired Costa Rican citizenship, and then persuaded the authorities to make him Governor of Cocos, with a monopoly interest in treasure hunting. In exchange he guaranteed to supervise the colonization of the island. Thirteen families did indeed come there, but soon left, leaving Gissler in sole possession.
But not for long.
Ignoring Gissler’s so-called monopoly of treasure hunting, one expedition after another arrived on the island. None of them found anything, including Gissler whose sole find was a single gold coin. In all, he spent twenty odd years searching in vain for the treasure.
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