By Alex Scott
Through stories like Treasure Island, Peter Pan, and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the Western world is very familiar with the iconic imagery and exploits of the pirates that lived and sailed in the Americas in the 17th century, with their distinctive accents, hooked hands, and trusty shoulder-perched parrots. However, these images that we associate with the word “pirate” are only a small portion of the rich history of piracy, and their overall accuracy is debatable at best. For over 6,000 years, as long as there has been civilization, commerce, and boats to carry people, pirates have been sailing the world’s oceans, plundering ships, attacking settlements, and, occasionally, leaving buried treasure behind for future generations to find.
Jack Sparrow and Long John Silver are fictional pirates that represent the Golden Age of Piracy, which lasted from the 1650s to the 1720s as European empires colonized the Americas, Africa, and Indian Ocean in order to buy and sell goods across the world. Most real pirates that have passed into legend like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd also reigned in the Golden Age, but they are by no means the first pirates to terrorize the seven seas.
The Mediterranean Sea was the first place to breed piracy, as early Greek, Egyptian, and Persian civilizations began sailing and trading goods between each other. The Iliad and Odyssey make many references to pirates—a word from the Greek word meaning “to attempt or attack”—raiding ships and taking women and children to be sold. Through the Roman Empire into the Middle Ages, the Mediterranean continued to be a hot spot for marauding pirates of all nations and backgrounds. The Vikings also began their reign of piracy along the northern European coast in the Middle Ages, and it was not until a group of German towns came together in the late 1100s to form the Hanseatic League that the Vikings were defeated.
By the 1700s, the modern European countries had formed and began to spread out to colonize the world. Although pirates from these European nations were common, pirates from the Arabian Coast, West Africa, China, and Southeast Asia also rose up to loot the European trading ships. So began the aforementioned Golden Age of Piracy, as indigenous people, colonizing foreigners, and men with no particular allegiance to either side all clashed on the open ocean for riches and freedom. Most pirates’ lives during this period were short and bloody, and many would not become famous until after their deaths. Although the Caribbean pirates that Westerners are most familiar with had mostly died out by the mid-1700s, Chinese pirates continued to wreak havoc in the Pacific Ocean until the late 1800s, by which point the Chinese government, combined with the power of the United States and United Kingdom navies, managed to capture the last of the outlaws.
Although it may seem a given that the pirates who sailed the Caribbean are the most famous among Europeans, seeing as they were mostly European themselves, it is actually in part due to one single book written by an anonymous author that has completely shaped our understanding of the Golden Age of Piracy. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates was published in 1724 by a Captain Charles Johnson in Britain. Most historians agree that Charles Johnson is a pseudonym, but it is still not known who the real author is, although some have suggested Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe as a potential candidate.
In A General History, Johnson claims to report from primary sources the exploits and eventual captures or deaths of the most famous Caribbean pirates from the Golden Age, including Blackbeard, Charles Vane, and Calico Jack Rackham. The stories are violent and bloody and mostly fantastical, but they are also the first to write of peg legs and eye patches, the skull and crossbones flag known as the Jolly Roger, and buried treasure. These exciting tales and iconic portraits of the outlaws became extremely popular in Europe, even as the men and women on which they were based died in jail or out at sea. Over the next 300 years, the stereotypes of Golden Age pirates became so ingrained in European culture, despite most of the stories in the book being apocryphal or downright inaccurate, that every single subsequent writer has used them in their stories about pirates. Robert Louis Stevenson in particular cited A General History as inspiration for his 1883 novel Treasure Island, even naming a character after a member of Blackbeard’s crew mentioned in the book.
As evidenced by the popularity of Stevenson’s classic tale, the idea of untold riches lost on a beach waiting to be found by a lucky and intrepid explorer particularly fascinated readers around the world. However, there is more fiction than fact to the myth of buried pirate treasure. While there are a couple examples of pirates burying their gold and silver to avoid it being captured by other pirates or foreign governments, they were far more likely to spend their plunder than save it responsibly for the future. Francis Drake and William Kidd are both reported to have buried their treasure in the Caribbean as they were escaping the authorities, but Drake retrieved his treasure soon after and Kidd’s was confiscated by the Governor of New York when he was finally captured.
It was rare for a pirate to lock their treasure in a wooden chest and bury it in the sand, but there is one lost pirate treasure from the Golden Age of Piracy whose location is still unknown and whose story is similar to those told in books and movies. In the early 1800s, the hub of Spanish colonization in South America was the Peruvian city of Lima. The Spanish colonists had been amassing a vast amount of gold, gems, jewelry, statues, and religious artifacts, valued at $60 million, in Lima for the previous two hundred years, believing their reign in South America to last forever. However, the Peruvian independence movement, which began in 1811, proved too powerful and dangerous for the Spanish to safely remain in Lima. So in 1820, the Spanish Viceroy of Lima commissioned a British sea captain named William Thompson and his merchant brig, the Mary Dear, to transport the treasure to safety in Mexico. But as soon as Thompson reached the open sea, he and his crew killed the Spanish sailors on board and headed to Cocos Island off the coast of Costa Rica instead.
When they reached the island, they buried the treasure and agreed to split up until it was safe to return and divvy up the booty. Unfortunately for them, the entire crew was captured by a Spanish naval frigate and hanged, save Thompson and his first mate James Forbes, whom the Spanish forced to lead them to the buried treasure. The two managed to escape their captors and the island, but neither ever returned for the loot, and Thompson was never seen again. The Forbes family is said to have passed down a map to the treasure drawn by James Forbes himself, but even that is now lost to the ages. Today Cocos Island is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a Costa Rican national park for its pristine natural beauty, so treasure hunting is forbidden. If the treasure of Lima is really buried there, it will likely remain hidden for the rest of time.
Although one is unlikely to find chests of gold and silver and jewels buried neatly on the beaches of the Caribbean, there are people who have found, both on purpose and accidentally, priceless treasures throughout the world that are valuable in historical significance, if not always in modern currency. Large ancient hoards of treasure have been found by chance in Hoxne and Staffordshire in the UK, Sroda in Poland, Caesarea in Israel, and Jowzjan in Afghanistan. In 1840, English workmen discovered the largest Viking treasure hoard ever recorded buried in a riverbank in Lancashire, containing over 8,600 silver coins and bullion and dated to the early 900s.
In 1996, nautical archaeologists discovered a sunken ship off the coast of North Carolina that some believe to be the Queen Anne’s Revenge, the flagship of the notorious pirate Blackbeard. While no gold was found on board, researchers did find many everyday items like syringes, swords, and window glass. A Californian couple unearthed 1,400 gold pieces dating to the Gold Rush in their backyard in 2014. The treasure was valued at over $10 million. And in 2015, an American diver found a 50 kg silver ingot off the coast of Sainte Marie Island near Madagascar believed to be part of Captain Kidd’s treasure trove. Just eight years earlier, Kidd’s ship the Quedagh Merchant was discovered near the Dominican Republic, where he is said to have abandoned it on a quest to clear his name after turning pirate.
After 300 years of books, movies, TV shows, amusement park rides, and Halloween costumes, our fascination with pirates and buried treasure is still alive and well long after the last pirate flew a black flag over the Caribbean. The legacy of pirates is not the treasure they stole and buried but the stories of independence, terror, action, and excitement.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2020 issue.