RGSSA Library Catalogue

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  An historical reference volume in the Library's catalogue on real-life pirates is by Captain Charles Johnson: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."

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

Detailed biography Major H.G.F.E. de Montmorency

by Sandra Thompson
Distance Cataloguer/ Sydney, Australia
Please view the RGSSA catalogue by using the search box at:

<span style="color: orange">Pirates of the Collection<strong></strong></span>
Cocos Island, Major Hervey Guy Francis Edward de Montmorency, pirates, treasure, Treasure of Lima, 

24/09/2015 20:15

1 comment:

Alan W said...

Brilliant reminder of a swashbuckling era brought to life.