RGSSA Library Catalogue

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Action of Cartagena

"Action off Cartagena", 1708 
Oil by Samuel Scott
“On Friday, June 8 1708, at four o’clock in the afternoon the galleon San José set sail for Cádiz with a cargo of precious metals and stones valued at five hundred million pesos in the currency of the day, it was sunk by an English squadron at the entrance to the port [Cartagena de Indias].”--from Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by the Colombian Nobel laureate, Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014)

After three hundred years; the shipwreck of the Spanish galleon, San José, has been found. The galleon perished in a battle during the Spanish War of Succession (1701-1714) with perhaps the richest cargo ever lost at sea.

The Colombian Government reported the news of their discovery through world media outlets in December, 2015. From deep dive photographs taken by the Colombian navy, the identity of the wreck was confirmed, showing the galleon's unique dolphin engravings on the bronze cannons of the wreck.

Once again, the San José, is the coveted prize of a battle being waged through a minefield of international law courts to establish the ownership of the wreck; potentially valued in multi-billions of dollars. In 2011, a US court decided that the shipwreck was the property of Colombia. The decision went against a salvage claim made by an American based company, Sea Search Armada, who maintained to have initially located and documented the wreck in 1982.

The Spanish and Colombian Governments both attach historical national importance and cultural heritage rights to the San José. Spain is pursuing an appeal through the international courts of the United Nations by argument of provenance; insisting that the 17th century galleon is the sovereign possession of Spain. As the San José lies within Colombian territorial waters, southwest of the port of Cartagena, the Colombian Government claims legal possession of the wreck. In March this year, officials from both governments, met in Madrid to resolve their differences but to date have not reached an accord.

The search for the treasure-laden San José may be over but it is not the end of her story.

For researchers interested in this topical event, the RGSSA, holds an 18th and 19th century reference library of books and maps regarding the history of the Spanish conquest and colonisation of South America. Historical maps published in these volumes are works of art and must be seen to be fully appreciated. Reference information from these resources in the Library often provides a unique perspective to historical events and the opinions of the day.
Information regarding shipwrecks is a specialty subject of the Collection with many reference volumes and maps detailing the circumstances and location of famous and obscure wrecks. The RGSSA's digital catalogue can be searched for the names of ships and shipwrecked vessels.

Did British guns cause the catastrophic events that sank the San José ...

The San José was sunk in an attack by four British warships led by Admiral Charles Wager (1666–1743) of the British Jamaica Station in a battle known as Wager's Action by the British or the Battle of Barú in Spanish records.

 "Sir Admiral Charles Wager", 1710
Oil by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Royal Museums Greenwich

In March, 1707, Captain Charles Wager was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the British Jamaica Station in the West Indies by Prince George of Denmark (1653-1708), consort of Queen Anne. Wager replaced Sir John Jennings (1664–1743) who had been promoted to vice admiral and sent to command the British fleet off Lisbon in 1708-1710. Established in 1655, the duty of the Jamaica Station, was to defend the English settlements and disrupt Spanish ports and shipping in the region.
    Along with her sister ship, San Joaquin; the San José and the Santa Cruz formed the Spanish 'Tierra Firme Fleet' of 1708. At Portobelo, in modern Panama, the galleons took aboard a fabulous cargo in Inca gold, silver, pearls and emeralds, destined for the Spanish treasury of King Philip V (1683–1746). The fleet then headed to the port city of Cartagena de Indias (modern Colombia) with two small escorts; Carmen and Nietto, served by twelve supply ships in convoy with a heavily armed French squadron.

Captain general of the Spanish flagship, San José, was
Don José Fernández de Santillán, first Count of Casa Alegre.

The treasure aboard the San José was said to be valued at 10 million Spanish pesos but estimates vary depending on the reference source. Undoubtedly, the fleet's actual cargo inventory would be available from records held at the National Archives of Spain and at Lima. It is known that the Tierra Firme Fleet of 1708 carried great quantities of silver from the mines at Peru and Veracruz, pearls from the Island of Contadora, emeralds from Muzo and Somondoco and tens of millions in gold coins.

Captain Wager had been promoted to admiral when he wrote to the Board of Admiralty in London, 13 April, 1708, with information regarding the Tierra Firme Fleet:
       It is said that the king's money is ready to be shipped off [Portobelo] and that it amounts to eleven millions of pieces of eight.
   Variance in the estimates of the fleet's value may be due to errors in the exchange between the currencies used by Spain and Portugal. Regardless, in 'reis or pesos', it was still a vast fortune and Admiral Wager most certainly intended to capture the fleet for the Crown of England. Moreover, it was 'common knowledge' that Spanish galleons routinely carried civilian passengers in a practice to render them unfit for naval combat.

By all accounts; Admiral Wager did not place greed above honour. He would not have found it honourable to deliberately sink the San José with the knowledge that she carried civilian passengers. Nonetheless, they perished with the captain, officers and most of the crew.

Perhaps, the Admiral is entitled to the benefit of the doubt?

the Action off Cartagena de Indias 

Aboard the HMS Expedition, Admiral Wager described the action on Friday, 8 June, 1708:
It was just sunset when I engaged the Admiral [San José], and in about an hour and a half, it being then quite dark, the Admiral blew up. I being then along his side, not a half pistol's shot from him, so that the heat of the blast came very hot upon us and several splinters of plank and timber came on board us afire. We soon threw them overboard. I believe the ship's side blew out, for she caused a sea that came in our ports.
She immediately sank with all her riches.
Captain Arauz of the Spanish escort ship, Carmen, recounted:
A great fire seemed to come from within the capitana [San José]. It rose to the topmast and topsails, giving the appearance of a volcano eruption. Accompanying this was a great pall of smoke that lasted for fifteen minutes. When it cleared, the capitana was gone!
     Admiral Wager eventually disabled and captured the Santa Cruz but the San Joaquin escaped him into the safety of the Spanish harbour at Cartagena. The Santa Cruz carried an estimated £60,000 in cargo. The Admiral's share of proceeds from the Santa Cruz together with his flag share of other prizes taken in the West Indies meant that he returned to England a rich man. Wager's Action ended a few days later on the 12th June, 1708, for which he was knighted in the following year by Queen Anne (1665–1714).

Detail from map below
"Plan of the harbour of Carthagena" 
from surveys made by Don Juan de Herrera
Chief Engineer at Carthagena
[Don Juan de Herrera y Sotomayor, 1667-1732]
RGSSA catalogue reference 

British naval justice, or ...

Brigadier General Thomas Handasyd, Governor of Jamaica from 1702-1711, sent an official report of Wager's Action to the Council of Trade and Plantations in London. Regarding the failure to capture the San Joaquin, he wrote:
I understand Mr. Wager intends to bring the two captains that were with him to a trial, as soon as the ships from Great Britain arrive, that they may be able to make up a Court Martial. By the account that I have had from my own officers on board those ships and the lieutenants of them, Mr. Wager has had very foul play, but that will be best known when the Court Martial meets. The traders that have come from Porto Bell [Portobelo], say, that the Spaniards laugh [at us] ... This talk is enough to concern any true Englishman.
    Admiral Wager presided over the court martials of Captain Simon (Timothy) Bridges of HMS Kingston and Captain Edward Windsor of HMS Portland. Both Captains were charged with 'poor performance'; found negligent in their failure to pursue the San Joaquin and dismissed from the navy without pension. Details regarding the exact charges of their 'poor performance' are not made clear.
Both Captains presented 'reasons' not to pursue the galleon which are not stated in the proceedings. It is known that Admiral Wager was disappointed with the small bounty from the Santa Cruz in comparison to the far greater prize that had escaped him on the San Joaquin.

While researching previous post, an opinion piece written about the Royal Navy, vividly illustrates the perspective gained by using the RGSSA for research information not available from an internet search:
With the waning of the seventeenth century, buccaneering became a discredited profession; though, in Good Queen Bess's [Elizabeth I, 1533–1603] time, every navigator was a pirate and every buccaneer was a navigator, and so it continued through the days of the Stuarts.
Our "Merrie Monarch" [Charles II, 1630–1685] made Morgan governor of Jamaica—Morgan, who with four hundred cut-throats, had sacked Panama in the sight of three thousand Spanish soldiers!
Dampier was a pirate too, and so was Sir Francis Drake—the latter the greatest and most cunning of all! For did he not waylay the bearers of government treasure on the Isthmus of Panama, and share the spoil with our Virgin Queen?—thus protecting himself from all unpleasant consequences, and from any unfavourable verdict which might be given by the Commission appointed by his Royal Mistress to enquire into his conduct, with the laudable object of maintaining peace and appeasing the indignation of the Spanish Government.
--From On the track of a treasure by Major H.G.F.E. de Montmorency (1868-1942) of the Royal Artillery, highly decorated veteran of the Boer War and First World War, 1904, p. 13-14.

RGSSA references and maps

A description of the Spanish islands and settlements on the coast of the West Indies: compiled from authentic memoirs, revised by gentlemen who have resided many years in the Spanish settlements; and illustrated with thirty-two maps and plans, chiefly from original drawings taken from the Spaniards in the last war, and engraved by Thomas Jefferys.
London : printed for T. Jefferys, 1762.
RGSSA catalogue reference

"List of Plates"
[32 maps with source references]

This volume contains a 'History of Carthagena' (archaic English spelling) to the date of its publication in 1762 (p.12-22). Cartagena was then located in the Spanish Province of Tierra Firma (modern Colombia) that gave its name to the Spanish treasure fleets. Decades of fleets transported silver from the mines in the Viceroyalty of New Granada (1717–1819) to the treasury of the Spanish kings and were also known as the 'Silver Fleets'. A history of the Province of Tierra Firma (p. [1]-23) provides a description of its boundaries in the first paragraph:
"It is a very large territory, bounded by the sea on the north; by Caribana, and Guiana on the east; by Peru and the river of the Amazons on the south; and by the Pacific Ocean on the west."--p. [1]

"Plan of the City and Suburbs of Carthagena"
"From French authors"
[Survey prior to 1761 earthquake that destroyed the city]

detail from above map
"Plan of the City and Suburbs of Carthagena" 

"It was reported in the beginning of the present year, that great part of Carthagena was destroyed in an earthquake 1761, but as the particulars of that dreadful account are not yet come to hand, we shall decline saying any more about it, only that we hope it is not true."--p. 22.

In 1761, a catastrophic earthquake devastated Cartagena and destroyed all the adobe buildings. This is possibly the last published map of the city to show the location of landmark buildings prior to the earthquake.     

A voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Nieves, St. Christophers and Jamaica : with the natural history of the herbs and trees, four-footed beasts, fishes, birds, insects, reptiles, &c. of the last of those islands; to which is prefix'd an introduction, wherein is an account of the inhabitants, air, waters, diseases, trade &c of that place, with some relations concerning the neighbouring continent, and islands of America ... by Hans Sloane. 
London : printed by B.M. [R. Bentley and M. Magnes] for the author, 1707-1725. [Cited in Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation]

Published in two volumes, this work is an important botanical reference by Irish naturalist, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), Royal College of Physicians of London and Secretary of the Royal Society. Also titled, Sloane's Natural History of Jamaica, the work is extensively illustrated with 274 folded plates featuring botanical sketches by Michael van der Gucht (1660-1725). The second volume published in 1725 is a revised and extended edition of the first volume and includes an extensive index.    

Detail from complete folded map below
"A New Chart of the  Western Ocean"

Off subject, it would be remiss not to include examples of the beautifully detailed botanical sketches in this work which is referenced in the prestigious botanical library of the

Examples of botanical sketches
from Sloane's Natural History of Jamaica

Illustrations [tabs] 135 & 146

In news from America, that perhaps, eclipses the find of the San José, is the possible discovery of Captain James Cook's Endeavour. In a report issued by the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project; HMS Endeavour, may lie in waters off the state of Rhode Island in Newport Harbour.

    Aboard the Endeavour, Captain James Cook (1728-1779), claimed Australia as British territory in 1770 for King George III. The ship was last seen in 1778 by which time it was being used as a transport ship during the American Revolution.The Endeavour is the 'most important' ship in the history of Australia and a specialty subject of collection for the Library

Captain Cook's journal during his first voyage round the world made in H.M. Bark "Endeavour", 1768-71 : a literal transcription of the original mss. : with notes and introduction. London : Elliot Stock, 1893 

 Frontispiece Captain Cook's Journal
Portrait of Cook by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland, c.1775
 National Maritime MuseumGreenwich
RGSSA catalogue record

In  Australia, the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976, protects historic wrecks and associated relics that are more than 75 years old and in Commonwealth waters. Essentially, historic wreck sites within Australian territorial waters cannot be salvaged for commercial purposes and are protected and preserved in situ. 

Also refer :

'Battle begins over world's richest shipwreck'. National Geographic.
Retrieved 15 May 2016 from

'Captain James Cook's ship Endeavour believed found in US'. Retrieved 3 April, 2016 from

by Sandra Thompson
Distance Cataloguer/ Sydney, Australia

Monday, 29 February 2016

RGSSA Event Program for 2016


Founded in Adelaide
10 July 1885

2016 Program

His Excellency
Hieu Van Le Ao
Governor of South Australia
vernor of South Australia

[image: The Mortlock Wing of the State Library of South Australia houses the RGSSA Collection] 

The object of the Society is to promote the understanding of geography among its members and the community.  Some of its activities include:
Coach tours, day and weekend excursions
Monthly talks on geographical topics
Publication of an annual SA Geographical Journal and bi-monthly newsletter (GeoNews)
Other occasional publications including South Australian regional guides

Please note that most lectures are generally held in the Goodman Lecture Theatre, Ground floor Goodman Building, Hackney Road; within the Botanic Gardens (enter and park in Hackney Road car parks).
NOTE: All meetings are on a Thursday at 5.30pm, unless stated otherwise.

Thursday, 18th February, 5.30pm
'Great Artesian Bore Capping'
Goodman Lecture Theatre

Thursday, 17th March, 5.30pm
'S.A's Desert Rivers'
Richard Mancini
Goodman Lecture Theatre

Thursday, 21st April, 5.30pm
'Roonka Station and the Overlanders'
Kerrin Walsh
and RGSSA Annual General Meeting
Goodman Lecture Theatre

Thursday, 19th May, 5:30pm
'A Future Plan for the Development of Adelaide'
Stephen Haines
Goodman Lecture Theatre

Monday May TBA 5.00pm
RGSSA Awards by invitation
Government House

Thursday, 16th June, 5.30pm
Brock Lecture
'Dry Stone Walls of S.A.'
Bruce Munday
Goodman Lecture Theatre

Thursday, 21st July, 5.30pm
'The demise of Whaling in the Southern Ocean'
Dr Catherine Kempler
Goodman Lecture Theatre

Thursday, 18th August, 5.30pm
'The decline of the American Forests'
Goodman Lecture Theatre

Thursday, 15 th September, 5.30pm
'George French Angas'
Dr Philip Jones
Goodman Lecture Theatre

Thursday, 20th October, 5.30pm
'Ernest Shackleton or James F. Hurley'
Alasdair McGregor
Goodman Lecture Theatre

Thursday, 17 th November, 5.30pm
'East Africa since independence'
Don Young
Goodman Lecture Theatre

Online Lectures are available through the members portal on our website.

Proposed events include:

• North Terrace Walk
• Turretfield
• Penwortham

EXHIBITION FOR 2016 - May to July

Further details for all ‘2016 Program Events’

will be advised in GeoNews and www.rgssa.org.au.      

We accomplished all we set out to do in 2015. In 2016 emphasis will be placed on the northern walks which have been affected by rain in recent years. We need to clear the way! In open country it is not always obvious where shrubs begin to encroach.
All hands welcome for any of the sessions.

Southern Flinders Ranges – 2 May to 13 May
• Mount Brown and Dutchman Stern
• accommodation at The Dutchman – 300 km north of Adelaide
• timing and accommodation – to be confirmed

Central Flinders Ranges – 13 June to 24 June
• Wilcolo, Bunyeroo Gorge, Yuluna, Aroona-Youngoona, Trezona, Wilkawillina
• accommodation at Oraparinna Shearers Quarters, Flinders Ranges National Park – 500 km north of Adelaide
• timing and accommodation – confirmed

Northern Flinders – possible 4 July to 22 July
• Italowie, Balcanoona Creek, Monarch Mine, Oppaminda-Nudlamutana, Mawson Spriggina, Acacia Ridge, Bararranna and Terrapinna Tors
• camping at Hamilton Creek Monday 4 to Sunday 10 July to be confirmed
• accommodation at Balcanoona Shearers Quarters Monday 11 July to
Friday 22 July – confirmed

Dates are tentative: see GeoNews or contact RGSSA office for updates.

RARE BOOKS Group contact the RGSSA office or our web site for further details. Meets 4th Thursday at 10:30am in the rooms. Experience publishing formats from 1482.

Thursday, 8th December 2016
Venue: Naval Military and Air force Club, Adelaide 6:30 for 7:00pm
Mark this in your diary now.

Further details for all ‘2016 Program Events’

will be advised in GeoNews and www.rgssa.org.au 

The Library of the Society is located in the Mortlock Wing of the State Library of South Australia (as pictured above).

Special Features
Rare Books: including twenty seven books published before 1599. The oldest is a beautifully bound version of Ptolemy's Geographia (1482).

Over 200 manuscripts: including a number of Australian explorer's diaries, eighteen original George French Angas watercolours and three manuscripts of Sir Joseph banks including his 1766 Newfoundland diary.

Over 800 maps: including many South Australian maps which provide a
record of discovery, exploration and settlement.

Periodicals: including the journals of most Australian geographical, historical and Royal societies, the Linnean Society from 1791 and RGS London from 1831.

Pictorial collection: over 2,000 photographs, paintings and drawings including Francis Younghusband's 'lost' photographs of Tibet.

Artefacts/ relics: collection includes Colonel Light's brass surveying level.

Most Library items catalogued at:

MEMBERSHIP: The Society is always interested in welcoming new members or volunteers: all enquiries to the Office Manager.
Teachers: Lecture attendance CPD certificates available.
For information about membership:

To visit the Society's Library and Office:

Email: library@rgssa.org.au
Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday & Friday –
10.00am to 1.00pm
Phone: 08 8207 7266

Office: Telephone Tues (staffed) & Thurs (online)
10:00am to 1:00pm
Phone 08 8207 7265
(Answer phones 24 hrs)
Email: admin@rgssa.org.au
Postal address: PO Box 3661, Rundle Mall
Adelaide SA 5000



posted by Sandra Thompson
Remote cataloguer for the RGSSA

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Pirates of the Collection

Fascination with pirates has inspired classic fiction and continues to provide contemporary popular culture with inspiration for movie scripts and video games. Among the subjects you would expect to find in the Library's geographical catalogue are nontraditional subjects including books on pirates. For academic research and general reading, they provide primary sources of biographical information on real-life pirates and deal with historical events of piracy.

    Pirates became infamous after being captured and brought to trial.  The court proceedings of these trials were published to an enthusiastic readership in newspapers, journals, and books and into legend.  An historical reference volume in the Library's catalogue on real-life pirates is by Captain Charles Johnson:
A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyratesreprinted from 4th edition, 1726. 
In gruesome detail, this volume depicts the lives and exploits of the most bloodthirsty pirates of the age. Many historians suggest that Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719.

    For those interested in reading about real-life adventure some of the Library's books tell of expeditions in the hunt for actual pirate treasure.  An excellent example was written by a remarkable British Army officer who reveals the facts about pirates are indeed stranger than fiction.
De Montmorency, Hervey Guy Francis Edward, 1868-1942.
On the track of a treasure: the story of an adventurous expedition to the Pacific island of Cocos in search of treasure of untold value hidden by pirates
London : Hurst and Blackett, 1904.
Portrait of Major H.G.F.E. de Montmorency,
published in his memoir, Sword and Stirrup, 1936.

After serving with the Royal Artillery in the Second Boer War (1899-1900), Major H.G.F.E. de Montmorency, resigned his commission in the British Army for the second time. In 1903, between his wartime engagements, he organised a 'treasure-hunting syndicate' to locate the legendary 'Treasure of Lima'. He records this adventure to Cocos Island in, On the Track of a Treasure, which begins:
"The heavy war-clouds which for a quarter of a century had hung over Europe were swept, by the final abdication of Napoleon, from the Old to the New World, and, long before the prisoner of Saint Helena had ceased to be a living terror to European statesmen, all Spanish America was ablaze with wars and revolutions."--Chapter 1. Tells of revolutions in general and a particular mutiny.

In 1820, the fight for independence against Spanish rule in Peru was nearing Lima led by General José de San Martín (1778–1850).  For three hundred years, the Spanish Conquistadors had channelled the riches of the Inca kingdoms through Lima on route to the Pacific coast; destined for Spain.  With Lima's vaults undefended, the Viceroy of Peru, José de la Serna e Hinojosa (1770–1832), and those loyal to the Spanish King, prepared to ship Lima's treasury to allies in Mexico.  Many ships sailed from the Spanish garrison fort at Callao with the 'Treasure of Lima'.

    In October 1820 (dates vary), one ship was consigned with the treasures from the Cathedral of Lima, representing centuries of donations to the church. Amongst the cargo was a life-sized statue of the 'Madonna and Child' in pure gold, encrusted with precious stones. The jewelled Madonna was a small fraction of the total consignment sent to Callao. Entrusted to Captain William Thompson of the British square-sailed brig, the Mary Dear; the treasure was never seen again.

    Reference information regarding pirates is full of inconsistencies and misinformation. For example, sources vary regarding the number of life-sized statues of the Madonna that were pirated from the Cathedral.  Major de Montmorency accounts for only one statue in his book (p. 46). Misinformation regarding the 'Treasure of Lima' isn't confined to dusty old printed texts as a recent internet report claimed the treasure had been found but was revealed to be a hoax.

Also refer :
'Cocos Island quest for treasure.' Tweed Daily (Murwillumbah, NSW),
26 July 1939. Retrieved Sep. 2015 from
Treasure hoax report. 10 March, 2015. Retrieved Sep. 2015 from 
Treasure hoax exposed. 17 March, 2015. Retrieved Sep. 2015 from

In the first chapter of On the Track of a Treasure, Major de Montmorency provides an account of the mutiny aboard the Mary Dear:

View on N.E. Coast of Cocos Island--p. 4.

"To Thompson and his crew, men accustomed to a life of hardship, the 
presence of twelve million dollars of treasure in the hold was an irresistible temptation. The turmoil of revolution provoked the hope that their crime might escape detection; that some chance, born of revolutionary times, might cover up the traces of their flight. Under the veil of darkness, Thompson and his men cut the throats of the guardians of the treasure, slipped their cable, and put to sea.    
In latitude 5° 33' N. longitude 86° 59' W. (that part of the Pacific where prevailing calms render it difficult of access to sailing ships), there lies a deserted, rocky island known by the name of Cocos; this was the mark of Thompson and his piratical crew."
Cocos Island (Isla del Coco) is often confused with the Cocos-Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean.  The treasure island of Cocos is located about 300 nautical miles off Costa Rica and almost the same distance north of the Galapagos Islands.  It is the tip of an ancient volcanic mountain; long submerged by the Pacific Ocean.  Unique species of plants and animals have evolved in isolation in the dense tropical rainforest that covers the island which has remained uninhabited.

Breakfast Island--p. 151.

"To the north of the island [Cocos] is a detached rock known as Breakfast Island;
seen from the westward, it bears resemblance to the Sphinx."--p. 186.

    The history of Cocos Island abounds with accounts of pirates, treasure and explorers. Spanish and English archives provide historical evidence and inventories of treasure hoards that were reputedly buried on the island by various pirates.  They soon found its isolation was a haven from capture and a hiding place for their treasure.  Among the most infamous pirates known to frequent Cocos include William Thompson, Benito Bonito, Graham Bennett, and William Davis.  In 1822, William Dampier is said to have excavated several sandstone caves and hidden many millions in treasure on Cocos.  Despite hundreds of expeditions to the island; no treasure has ever been found.

    The first documented record of Cocos Island is attributed to the navigator, João Cabezas (various spellings in Portuguese and Spanish), in 1526.  In 1542, Cocos first appeared on a French map of the Americas as Ile de Coques, literally Nutshell or Shell Island.  The name was later transcribed into Spanish as Isla del Coco: 'Island of the Coconuts'.  The island was claimed by the government of Costa Rica as sovereign territory in 1869 but not constitutionally declared until 1949.  In 1898, naturalists Anastasio Alfaro (1865-1951) of Costa Rica and Henri Pittier (1857-1950) visited the island, suggesting it should be a protected area; well before any such concept of conservation.

    Cocos provided fresh water, firewood and coconuts (introduced) for centuries to passing ships. Many famous explorers anchored at its two natural harbours on the north coast including, Captain James Cook, 23 January, 1795. Whaling ships also took on supplies at Cocos until the mid-19th century when whaling collapsed due to overhunting in the region and kerosene replaced whale oil for lighting.

    For decades, Cocos Island was unprotected by the Costa Rican government until 1978 when it was declared a National Park and subsequently a Natural World Heritage Site in 1997. The government now refuses to issue licenses for treasure-hunting and Cocos is a popular recreational diving destination to observe hammerhead and whale sharks. The real treasure on Cocos is its unique biodiversity and a legacy to literature which some say was the inspiration for Treasure Island.  It remains a mystery if there is or ever was treasure buried on Cocos. An old undated tree carving on the island suggests some pirates may have retrieved their plunder, reading, 'the bird has flown'.

Also refer :
'The buried treasure at Cocos Island'. Empire (Sydney, NSW), July 17, 1874 reported from San Francisco Bulletin, May 21. Retrieved Sep. 2015 from

'Treasure Island.' The Daily News (Perth, WA),
22 Jan. 1935. Retrieved Sep. 2015 from

'Surely, no pirate ever minded wetting his boots!'--p. 213.

Major de Montmorency also gives a profile of the pirate, Benito 'Bloody Sword' Bonito and his association with Captain Thompson.  References to Benito are often confused with the Spanish pirate, Benito de Soto, who was about at the same time.  'Bloody Sword' was from a good family, born at Pomaron, on the border of Spain and Portugal (p. 14).  He was fluent in French and English; valuable accomplishments for commanding pirate crews of mixed nationalities.  Around 1816, he captured an English slaver, the Lightning; a speedy vessel for pirating and renamed her, the Relampago. Among the crew were Thompson and a Frenchman, Chapelle; the only two crewmen to escape Benito's sword by pledging allegiance to him.

    By some reports, Benito entered Port Phillip Bay sometime in 1821 and is believed to have hidden treasure in a cave at Swan Bay, Victoria.  Reported in the Melbourne Argus, 1937, a party of treasure-hunters descended on the town of Queenscliff on the southern shoreline of the bay. They removed tons of sand to sink a deep shaft on railway property and located a cave.  A diver worked for three weeks in the water-filled cave until it became too dangerous and the venture was abandoned.  The party informed the locals that they were close to finding the treasure they valued at £13,000,000 and included 'two life-sized images of jewel-studded gold'.

    Benito's ultimate fate is shrouded in rumour but according to Major de Montmorency he escaped capture and died of old age. He claims that Benito changed his name to 'McComber' and fled to Samoa and was later heard of in San Francisco about 1841. Interestingly, Robert Louis Stevenson was in San Francisco in 1881 where he chartered a yacht and sailed to Samoa. Some suggest that Stevenson may have been looking for clues to Benito's treasure after hearing stories in San Francisco reasoning that the climate of Samoa was not beneficial to his deteriorating health.

Also refer :
'Pirate hoard : search for £12,000,000.' Daily Examiner (Grafton, NSW),
21 Nov. 1931. Retrieved Sep. 2015 from
'Searchers find cave : treasure hunt at Swan Bay.' The Argus,
Melbourne, 11 Nov. 1937.
Retrieved August 27, 2015 from

'Pirate Gold: Victorian Quest.' Sunday Herald (Sydney, NSW), 14 June 1953
Retrieved Sep. 2015 from

On the Track of Treasure--frontispiece
[Unidentified members of the 'treasure-hunting syndicate' on Cocos Island.]

In 1889, Major de Montmorency's decision to resign his commission in the Royal Artillery, on the first occasion, was partly influenced by his lawyer in London. For well over a decade, he pursued an inheritance claim through the Irish Chancery Court in Dublin following the death of his grandfather (Hervey Francis de Montmorency, 1793-1883). To win the case; he was advised to be present at the court proceedings in Dublin. He writes in his memoir, Sword and Stirrup, that the War Office's administration; 'gave me a distaste for soldiering and hastened my determination to resign my commission'.

    During the 1890s, Major de Montmorency turned his horsemanship skills into a source of income. He had moderate success with owning and riding steeplechasers in England and France and competed in the several Grand Nationals at Aintree, the last in 1898. The following year, again in the Royal Artillery, he was with the first British troops at the 'Relief of Mafeking' (May, 1900). His diary of The Boer War (1902) is held in the National Archives UK, London.

For reasons not disclosed by Major de Montmorency, Captain Shrapnel of the Royal Navy is the only other member of the syndicate who is named in his book.  In 1896, the Captain was master of H.M.S. Haughty and had heard the stories about Thompson and Benito. He landed a large party of sailors on Cocos Island to search for treasure and blasted the landscape for several days without success. The British Admiralty took a dim view of Shrapnel's break of routine duty, severely reprimanded him, and decreed that no naval vessels were to land at Cocos.

    In 1902, Captain Shrapnel met Major de Montmorency on a leave of absence in England; both Irishmen shared a love of adventure. At the time of their meeting, Major de Montmorency was decommissioned from the British Army after the Boer War, and recruited 'a party of gentlemen' prepared to finance a venture to Cocos Island:
"It is a difficult task to procure subscriptions to a syndicate whose object is of such an abnormal and romantic nature; the promoter has to withstand a heavy bombardment of chaff; often denounced as a fool for his pains. … The treasure-searcher should be a man who can be a boy again when he reads Robert Louis Stevenson."--p. 95.
The means to reach Cocos Island needed to be decided:

A breakdown at Perrez, Vera Cruz and Pacific Railway, Mexico--p. 151

"The most exhaustive discussions and enquiries revealed the 
difficulties of procuring a suitable vessel at any port on the Western Coast of Central America, and the untrustworthiness of local crews. A Liverpool firm of shipowners was approached therefore, and an agreement was sketched out, which finally crystallised into the following arrangement with them:—the firm had entered into a contract with Messrs. Pearsons to carry cement to Salina Cruz in the Bay of Tehauntepec, where a harbour is being constructed at the western terminus of the new Trans-Mexican railway."--p. 98.
The syndicate purchased the Liverpool steamship, Scotia, at Salina Cruz on the Pacific coast of southern Mexico and rechristened it, the Lytton, for the westward journey to Cocos Island. On 1st May, 1903, the syndicate had sealed an agreement with the Republic of Costa Rica at their Legation in Paris for access to Cocos Island. The Costa Rican Minister assisted them with verifying the tales of the hidden treasure and sent several cables to San José to hasten the process. Permission was obtained to search for treasure excluding all rival expeditions for one year in exchange for half of any profit from salvaged treasure.

For many reasons, the expedition was a covert mission and; 'the most ingenious schemes were devised to prevent the whole affair becoming known to the Press':
"With a view to preserving the secrecy of our venture, it was decided that we should meet in the City of Mexico during the second week of July [1903], by which date, it was anticipated, the Lytton, would be at Salina Cruz ready to receive us on board. Some of our party took the route via New York, while others determined to start from St. Nazaire [France] in the Transatlantique Company's steamer, La Normandie."--p. 102.

Chart of Cocos Island published
in On Track of a Treasure

It is clear that Major de Montmorency thoroughly researched and analysed the historical evidence of pirated Spanish treasure to be found on Cocos Island. In the archives of the National Library at Lima, he found reference to Thompson, in the records of the trial and execution of seventeen mutineers from the Mary Dear, which may still be there today. No previous expedition to Cocos had been so well supplied with clues from previous fortune hunters who had provided directions to the exact location of the treasure:

"It will be observed that if lines be traced, in accordance with these instructions, upon the chart of Chatham Bay, they will converge to almost the same spot; and when it is remembered that the three sources of our information were independent of one another, the sanguine hopes of the adventurers may be excused."--p. 182.
First camp on the beach--p. 220.

In 1888, a German national, August Gissler (died 1935, New York), obtained a concession and grant of land on Cocos Island from the Costa Rican government and officially became the Governor of the island. He had been a sugar planter in the Sandwich Islands when he first heard of treasure on Cocos from 'Old Mack' who claimed to have been a pirate. With Old Mack's son-in-law, Gissler sold up everything to reach Costa Rica. When Major de Montmorency arrived on Cocos, 9th August 1903, Gissler had been on the island for sixteen years. No-one could legally search for treasure without his sanction or possibly find treasure without his knowledge of the island. When the syndicate waded ashore at Wafer Bay, Gissler met them with: 

'I suppose you've come to look for treasure!'

August Gissler
'A modern Robinson Crusoe'--p. 229.

    Fortune had not favoured previous treasure hunters and on 23rd August, 1903, Major de Montmorency's expedition was no exception and abandoned for reasons he explains in the book. Gissler and his wife decided to leave Cocos with the expedition and sailed to Panama with them. 

He writes:

"There must be a subtle attraction in this solitary home; for, as the lofty peak of Mount Iglesias became lost to view in the mists of sunset, the tears welled up into the eyes of the Governor's wife."

Also refer :
'Searching for buried treasure.' Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW), 11 Feb. 1908. Retrieved Sep. 2015 from

References for this post:
De Montmorency, Hervey Guy Francis Edward. Sword and Stirrup,
London : G. Bell and Sons Ltd, 1936.

Major H. de Montmorency, The Boer War. War Office Correspondence
and Papers, South African War. (ref: WO 108/185)
Retrieved August 27, 2015 from

by Sandra Thompson
Distance Cataloguer/ Sydney, Australia
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