Map of Cocos Island

Searching For Pirate Treasure in the Pacific

John M. MacFarlane 2002

A partner of the famous privateer Captain Dampier named Captain Edward Davis sailed the High Seas between 1683 and 1702. He blockaded and sacked the port of Lé on in Central America as well as other cities in the coast of Chile and Peru. Loaded down with treasure, and being in danger himself from capture by other privateers and Spanish ships, he is said to have sought a safe repository for his loot until he could return to collect under safer conditions. He chose the little island off the coast of Central America we now know on the map as Isla del Coco or Cocos Island.

Often confused with Cocos-Keeling Island (situated in the Indian Ocean), Cocos is located about 300 nautical miles off Punta Arenas on the coast of Costa Rica and almost the same distance north of the Galapagos Islands. This small (18 square miles) island is as close to the "Treasure Island" of the imagination as one could find. Mountainous and covered in lush tropical vegetation, the island's 300 inches of rain made it important for watering and provisioning in the days of sail.

Off the shipping routes Cocos was only visited by whalers who utilized the abundant fresh water and the goats and pigs left by Captain James Colnett in the sloop Rattler as feral food sources. Colnett visited the coast of British Columbia in the hey-day of the sea otter trade in the 1790s and was probably interested in the islands for commercial reasons. After burying the treasure, Captain Davis retired to Jamaica. Typical to most treasure legends he never returned to dig it up. I have often thought about this aspect of treasure tales and it always makes me ask "Wouldn't you spend the rest of your life trying to retrieve a treasure you had buried?" But Davis died without doing so.

A few years later, in 1818, a pirate named Bennett Graham, and better known as Benito Benito or Bonito of the Bloody Sword, buried a great treasure which he supposedly stolen from some Peruvian Churches. Reputed to have been a Royal Navy officer who had served under Nelson, "Benito" turned to piracy in his ship Relampago. Legend has it that after capturing loot in the Caribbean he rounded Cape Horn to avoid capture. In Acapualco he seized a mule-train of gold which added to the hoard. "Benito" then stashed his loot on Cocos Island and remained in the area for the next three years.

In 1821, the inhabitants of Lima Peru, fearing the approaching army of Simon Bolivar, gathered a huge hoard of treasure which they placed on board the Mary Dier under a Newfoundlander, Captain William Thompson, in Callao harbour. This was said to have included two large gold religious statues, 272 jewelled swords, bank bullion and jewels and treasures of the richest residents pf Lima. The Limans felt re-assured that they and their valuable cargo were safe on board this English ship, protected from the army of liberation. The presence of this treasure became too great a temptation for the Captain, greed overcame his propriety and he ordered the crew to be murdered in a ten-minute bloodbath. Relieved of his passengers he sailed immediately for Cocos. There he joined forces with the pirate Benito and together they hid the new treasure in a cave on one of the island's mountains. To seal the secret one of the two crewmen witnessing the deposit was shut into the cave to die after it was closed up.

Now sailing together Thompson and Benito encountered the frigate Espiègle and both their own ships were quickly captured. Benito apparently then committed suicide to avoid the harsh punishment he knew would follow but the Newfoundlander Thompson was made prisoner. Although his entire crew were executed for piracy, Thompson was spared on condition that he reveal the whereabouts of the treasure. Leading his captors to Cocos he broke free once in the bush and managed to escape in familiar jungle eluding his jailers. After a desperate and futile search the Espiègle departed without the treasure, abandoning Thompson to his own fate. Luckily for Thompson a whaling ship, the captain oblivious to recent events, "rescued" Thompson and enabled him to return to the East Coast and on to obscure retirement in Newfoundland.

Again, Thompson never returned to recover his treasure. But he made a map (also an important ingredient in treasure tales!) The map passed to a John Keating who with partners in 1841 became the first group to actually attempt to recover these treasures. After their arrival on the island Keating's crew mutinied and he saved his life by hiding in the jungle as his ship departed. A ship stopping for water rescued him and he was reputed to have carried pockets crammed with gold, but he was unwilling to share the secret (or the reassured) with the captain of the ship. Now word of the existence of the treasure began to circulate through grog shops and in the lairs of adventurers throughout the world.

A chain of story telling and re-telling and map-drawing that led to a mini-industry of treasure hunting sprang up. A German mariner named August Geisler was granted a concession on the island by the Costa Rican government in 1888. He lived on the island as "Governor" for twenty years and never found the treasure. He claimed, as many have, that he knew where it was hidden but for unexplained reasons never recovered it and he died in poverty in New York in 1930. It is here that the British Columbia link begins to form. It was Geisler who greeted Captain John Voss on his private expedition in the Xora in search of the treasure.

Voss had been approached several years earlier by the mysterious George Haffner in the lobby of the Queen's Hotel in Victoria and was offered what now seems an amazing proposition … to travel to the island and share in the treasure which Haffner claimed he was going to recover. Voss, with a friend Jim Dempster, left Victoria in 1877 in the sealing schooner Aurora intent upon finding that treasure. On Cocos they met Haffner who had obtained a permit to recover the treasure. Unsuccessful in the dig, Haffner revealed the secret of its location to Dempster and then Haffner conveniently expired and was buried as sea on the long voyage to Victoria. Voss never forgot these tales of buried treasure. Brooding on the secret he vowed to return and he purchased the centreboard sloop Xora, engaged two crew members and sailed in 1898 for Cocos Island. It was on this voyage Voss developed his great skill in handling small craft at sea which enabled him to make his voyage in the Tilikum three years later. Voss did not recover any treasure.

Voss carried an interest in treasure for years afterward. William Nettleship tells of a chance meeting with Voss, an old friend from Tilikum's layover in South Africa when the two met in the Naval and Marine Exhibition at Earl's Court at London. Voss, weary of being landbound and the interminable retelling of the Tilikum adventure "at sixpence a throw." dreamed of returning in a small craft to Cocos. Nettleship and Voss purchased a 50-ton schooner with a third partner Cliff Manning. This syndicate obtained a treasure permit and advertised for additional investor-partners. New backers were difficult to find. Those who really wanted to go didn't have the necessary money and those who did thought better of the project once the details were revealed.

Nettleship proposed a "high-tech" solution to locating the treasure. He argued that traces of the precious metals in the treasure and remains of chests would be located using a pump to blast a high-power jet of water into the sand from a caisson to be sunk in an excavated hole on the sandbar Voss had indicated as the most likely location of the treasure. Voss was skeptical of the idea. These preparations were hectic and Voss chose to take a break by taking a speaking engagement in Scotland, leaving the other partners to continue their work in London. He never returned. He disappeared from the English scene and was never seen there again, apparently wearying of the whole matter and moving on to Japan.. without informing his erstwhile partners (or anyone else!) In fact an inaccurate story circulated for years that Voss had died. Nettleship was forced to abandon the scheme and returned to Victoria where he pursued more conventional maritime interests. But fate would not leave the matter to rest.

In 1933 Nettleship met Jack Leckie in Vancouver. A well known and highly decorated army officer Leckie was a promoter and adventurer who had made and lost a great deal of money in mining and other schemes. In fact it turned out that Leckie had already made an unsuccessful voyage to Cocos with the Cocoas Island Treasure Company of Vancouver, sailing in the Vigilant. Exotic in all respects this expedition even carried a seaplane on board. Plagued by mechanical problems the ship was not useful. His project was abandoned and the vessel sold in Panama. Leckie could not be enticed by Nettleship into making yet another expedition. Nothing doing!" he said, and Nettleship resigned himself to never reaching the fabled island.


Nettleship’s Vessel With Seaplane Stowed on Deck

It is said that a young Belgian, Peter Bergmans, recovered a two foot tall solid-gold statue of the Madonna and sold it publicly at auction in New York. The public admission of the finding of treasure is a rarity anywhere in the world, but Bergmans claimed to have found the trove but refused to reveal it or to show anyone where it had been found (a pattern often repeated by treasure seekers.) The pattern continues with this and other treasures.

It is true that some remarkable treasure finds have been made creating multi-millionaires. Many more though have been financially ruined. There have been some 500 expeditions over the years searching in vain for the three treasures which are reputed to be worth more than $500 million in current value. For years the Costa Rican authorities would issue treasure permits on the basis of one-third for Costa Rica and two-thirds for the searchers Now the only inhabitants are national park rangers who would take a dim view of treasure hunting.

All treasure stories are complicated and often filled with unexplained inconsistencies and surprises. The seekers seem always to be thwarted by disappointments just as they close in their goal. Perhaps it is just the explanation needed to explain away failure? Is it the searching and dreaming which is the best part of the hunt. Or are the finders tight-lipped about their discoveries avoiding the glare and close scrutiny of publicity? Perhaps these treasures on Cocos Island have already been found and removed. It is a pleasant thought now though for the British Columbia yachtsmen who visit Cocos on their own voyages of discovery that just possibly they will find a gold coin as they walk the white sand of the beaches there.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2002) Searching For Pirate Treasure in the Pacific. 2002.

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