Cocos, The Treasure Island

Cocos, Treasure Island
There could possibly be millions of dollars of treasure buried on the Island of Cocos in the Pacific. This tiny uninhabited tropical island, sits off the west coast of South America, about 400 miles from Costa Rica. A simple cone of rock, covered by dense jungle containing poisonous snakes and insects. Cocos being so far and remote was used by pirates as a base to refit and stash the booty that had been looted. This nine square mile island had been a magnet for treasure hunters. Many searched, only to die empty-handed. Some of the treasure is from the Portuguese buccaneer Benito Bonita of ‘The Bloody Sword’ who operated in the early 19th century. His hoard is estimated at $300 million at today’s prices. Another pirate, Captain Bennett Graham hid 350 tons of gold there which he had taken from Spanish ships.

The earliest pirate to use Cocos as a safe haven was a Briton, Captain Edward Davis, known as a ‘gentleman’ pirate. He plied a profitable career with royal approval between 1683 to 1702 as he harassed Spanish merchantmen in the South Seas, as the Pacific Ocean was then known. We have a full account of this from a book written on the ship Revenge by one of those aboard, William Dampier.

Another pirate who used the island to bury treasure was Captain Bartholomew Sharp who captured the Spanish ship, La Santissima Trinidad (The Most Blessed Trinity), and her huge amount of chests of gold and pieces of eight. Again we have the full story written by one of the pirates, Basil Ringrose. Dampier also sailed with Sharp but disliked the captain’s murderous attitude. This treasure it is said had never been recovered by the pirates.

Yet the greatest treasure to be hidden on Cocos is fabulous wealth evacuated from Lima, Peru in 1821. A vast collection of gold, silver, gems and church treasures: golden life-size figures of the Virgin Mary, including one standing seven feet tall, a gem encrusted gold statue weighing 780 lbs. Also hundreds of jewel-studded gold plates, boxes of gems and minted coins. A revolution in the early 19th century made the Lima Treasure too dangerous to remain in Lima as the rebel army of Jose de San Martin approached. The wealthy inhabitants and priests began to make their escape with their treasures by bribing the captains of ships lying in harbour to take them away.

The Viceroy of Lima, Jose de la Serna entrusted the Lima Treasure to William Thompson, Captain of a British merchant ship, the Mary Dear which was in the Port of Callao, near Lima during August 1821. It was said into the hold of the Mary Dear poured such wealth as may never before had been carried on a single ship, estimated to be worth between twenty and thirty million pounds sterling.

Thompson’s orders were to remain at sea until he could return safely to Lima. No sooner was the ship out of sight of land, he and his English crew murdered the Spanish citizens and priests and threw their bodies overboard. Thompson’s treacherous band then sailed to Cocos and buried the treasure, planning to return later when things got quiet. Thompson then fell in with Bonito of the ‘Bloody Sword.’ But none ever lived to enjoy their spoils. A British frigate ran them down. Bonito, seeing all was lost, blew his brains out. The other pirates were captured while seeking stores, and all but Thompson and his 1st Mate were hanged for piracy from the yardarms of the naval frigate.

Thompson and the mate promised to recover the treasure. When they returned to the island, they managed to escape into the jungle. For three days the crew of the frigate hunted for them, but had no alternative than to sail away. Many months later the fugitives were picked up by a passing whaler. The 1st Mate died onboard and at the end of the voyage, Thompson was put ashore in America, the whaler crew knowing nothing about the treasure.

Thompson became an old man before he passed on his secret – to a Newfoundland shipowner John Keating. Keating agreed to take Thompson to Cocos but before they were due to sail, Thompson died having drawn a map giving Keating explicit instructions where to find the treasure.

In 1841, Keating and a companion, William Bogue went to Cocos and found the cave where the treasure was hidden. They decided not to say anything to their crew, but in their excited condition, the crew became suspicious. They kept Keating and Bogue on board while they went in search of the treasure themselves. During the night, Keating and Bogue escaped, crept ashore in a boat, returned to the cave and stuffed their pockets with jewels. Leaving the island, their boat then capsized in the surf. Bogue was carried down to the bottom by the weight of his bulging pockets. Keating managed to cling onto the overturned boat and was finally rescued by a Spanish schooner some days later. Another story says that after a fierce quarrel, having been marooned by their mutinous crew, Keating sealed his friend in the treasure cave in a fit of rage, leaving him to die there.

Keating returned to Newfoundland, living on the proceeds of the jewels he had with him, but he never returned to the sinister island. He did confide in another captain, named Fitzgerald before he died. His treasure chart then passed through a chain of men to Sir Malcolm Campbell, who vainly searched for the treasure in 1926. Another who gained the chart, a German, lived on Cocos for eighteen years but never found anything.

Only one man ever really received any ‘treasure’ from Cocos. He was an author who heard about the island in a San Francisco saloon. His name was Robert Louis Stevenson. On what he heard, he based his famous story ‘Treasure Island.’ The book made many thousands of pounds.

Since the 1970s treasure hunting has been strictly prohibited on Cocos Island, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, because of the unique exotic marine and land ecosystem, although some adventurers have tried to find access under the guise of scientific research.