THE CRUISE OF THE “ALERTE”
IN SEARCH OF TREASURE
THE HISTORY OF THE TREASURE
IN the course of a long cruise in the South Atlantic and up the South American rivers, in the years 1880 and 1881, with my little yacht the Falcon, I found myself, more by accident than intention, in the neighbourhood of the small desert island of Trinidad. We were bound from Montevideo to Bahia, and, after running before a heavy pampero off the River Plate, we fell in with strong head winds, and had to thrash our way to windward for upwards of a thousand miles of choppy seas and boisterous weather, while the rain poured down upon us almost without cessation, as it not unfrequently does during the season of the northerly Brazilian monsoon.
We steered a course away from the land to the eastward, hoping to meet with more favourable winds when we had obtained an offing, of some four or five hundred miles. Vessels bound north from the Plate during the season of the northerly monsoon invariably pursue this plan, sailing as much as seven hundred miles close hauled on the port tack before they go about and make their northering. Thus it was that our course brought us in the vicinity of Trinidad, which lies in latitude 20° 30' south and longitude 29° 22' west, distant about seven hundred miles from the coast of Brazil, and my curiosity being aroused by the description of the islet in the South Atlantic Directory, I decided to land and explore it.
We came to an anchor off this desolate spot on December 8, 1881, and we remained there for nine days. Our adventures of various sorts, the perils of landing, the attacks made on us by the multitudes of hideous land-crabs and ferocious sea-birds, our difficult climb over the volcanic mountains, and finally our anything but regretful departure from one of the most uncanny and dispiriting spots on earth, are fully set out in my book, The Cruise of the "Falcon." On turning to that book I find that I state there that I had had more than enough of Trinidad, and would on no account set foot on its barren shores again — a rash resolution which I was destined to break nearly ten years after my first visit to the island.
The descriptions of Trinidad in the South Atlantic Directory are all of an old date, and were supplied at different times by captains of vessels in want of water or with crews stricken with scurvy, who effected a landing in order to procure water or the purslain and other greens which abound on some portions of the shore. Halley in 1700, Amaro Delano in 1803, and Commodore Owen in 1822 visited the island, and it is from their accounts that most of the information concerning it has been gathered. All describe the landing as extremely difficult, and often quite impracticable, on account of the almost perpetual surf which breaks on the iron-bound coast. Consequently mariners avoided the coral reefs and sea-worn crags, and, though the masters of homeward-bound vessels from around Cape Horn often sighted the island from a safe distance in order to correct the rate of their chronometers, it was rare indeed that the foot of a human being trod its shores.
But now the land-crabs and sea-birds of Trinidad must be becoming almost familiarised with the sight of man, for the report of a vast treasure that is supposed to have been buried here some seventy years ago has induced no less than five different bands of adventurers in the course of the last twelve years to fit out vessels for the purpose of seeking their fortunes among the volcanic ash.
This is an account of the most recent of these ventures, and I think it will be the last of them, for whereas all the previous explorers— in consequence of mutiny, the difficulty of landing, and other causes — failed to make any real attempt at digging into the landslip which now covers the spot where the treasure is supposed to lie, and, losing heart in the presence of the preliminary perils and discomforts, abandoned the island after a few days' stay, we succeeded in landing by degrees our tents, tools, and stores, and established quite a comfortable little settlement, while the diggmg was steadily carried on for three months and many thousands of tons of earth and rock were removed.
We worked on until we were satisfied that further search was useless. We failed to find the treasure, but we did what our predecessors did not — we had a very good try for it; and we have, I think, at any rate proved that it is not worth the while of any other adventurers to go in search of this too carefully concealed hoard.
When I visited Trinidad in 1881 I was not aware that a treasure was supposed to be buried there, else I should most probably have prosecuted some preliminary search with the small crew—we were five all told — and the inadequate tools I had on board, so as to ascertain whether it would be worth while to organise a properly equipped expedition on my return home. It was not until the year 1885 that my attention was directed to paragraphs in the newspapers which spoke of the departure from the Tyne of the barque Aurea with a considerable company, including navvies, and well provided with the tools that were considered necessary for the recovery of the treasure.
These adventurers started full of hope, but were doomed to disappointment, as is shown in the following extract which I cut from a daily paper some months later:
This ill-fated expedition of the Aurea was, so far as my information goes, the last before that of the Alerte.
In the autumn of 1888 I happened to meet some South Shields people who knew the history of the treasure and of the previous expeditions. They told me that there had been some talk lately of fitting out another vessel to renew the quest, and that many undeniably shrewd Tynesiders had a complete faith in the existence of the treasure, and were willing despite former failures, to risk their money and lives in order to discover it. My informant gave me an outline of the evidence on which this faith was based, and I heard enough so to interest me that I forthwith took train to South Shields and put myself into communication with the heads of the Aurea expedition with the view, in case I should consider the prospects of securing the treasure to be not too remote, of fitting out a small yacht and sailing away once more to Trinidad.
The following is the substance of the story as I heard it from Mr. A—, who was the prime mover of the last venture, and who himself sailed in the Aurea, and passed fourteen days on the island.
Now this story, so far, bears a strong family resemblance to many other stories of pirate treasure, mythical or otherwise, and, though there can be no doubt that great stores of valuable plunder are still lying hidden away in this fashion on many a West Indian cay and desert ocean island, the dying quartermaster's disposition was hardly enough by itself to warrant the expense of fitting out an expedition for Trinidad. But on making researches it was found that his story was corroborated in many remarkable ways.
In the first place the archives of Cuba were inspected, and a record was discovered which showed that a gang of pirates who had plundered Spanish vessels sailing from Lima had been hanged at Havannah at the time mentioned.
The probability of the story further strenghened by the the actual history of Peru during the War of Independence. It appears that the Spanish population of Lima entertained a wholesome dread of the liberators of their country, and deposited large sums of money and a vast amount of plate in the forts for security. Lima was then a city very rich in gold and silver plate, and the value of the property lying in the fortress alone was estimated by Lord Dundonald as at least six millions sterling.
Lord Dundonald, who was at the time in command of the Chilian fleet which had be sent to the assistance of the liberators of Peru, endeavoured to obtain possession of this fortress by negotiations, and offered the Spanish governor to permit his free departure with two-thirds of this treasure on condition of the remainder, together with the fortress, being given up to the Chilian squadron. The admiral hoped by means of this one-third to abate the mutinous spirit of his men, who had received no pay for a long period and who were, moreover, in a state of actual destitution. But, to Lord Dundonald's disgust, the Peruvian protector, San Martin, for purposes of his own, allowed the garrison to evacuate the fortress, carrying away with them the whole of these riches. Later on, however, Lord Dundonald took the responsibility on himself of seizing the protector's yacht at Ancon, and discovered that it was entirely ballasted with silver coin and uncoined gold. With this he paid his sailors some of their arrears of pay and prize-money.
During the first few years of their liberty the unhappy Limenos must have occasionally regretted the old Spanish misrule, bad as it was; for their liberators plundered them in the most shameless fashion, and most of the wealthy citizens of Lima were reduced to a state of abject poverty. The tyrannical protector inflicted great hardships on the Spanish inhabitants, and among other of his decrees one was passed confiscating to the public treasury one-half of all their property. When some of these unhappy people, driven to desperation, took to sea and endeavoured to escape with the remaining half of their possessions, the Republican officers boarded their vessels and, wholly regardless of the decree, appropriated this half also.
The wealth of Lima, the richest city of Spanish America, was soon scattered far and wide, and disappeared for ever; but it is probable that only a small proportion of it fell into the hands of the liberators for the new executive was not sufficiently well organized to carry out fully the decrees of confiscation. I do not think that the property to the value of six millions sterling which was carried away by the Spanish garrison has been all traced, but the records of the day show that the Spaniards took every opportunity of escaping to sea in any sort of vessel they could procure, carrying with them all the property they could collect, in the hope of reaching the mother-country or some neutral port.
It must have been a glorious time for adventurous persons not overburdened with scruples, for it seems that all the gold and precious stones of Peru were travelling about recklessly by sea and land without any proper protection. The pirates who then swarmed in those seas were not slow to avail themselves of this rare opportunity, and carried on a flourishing business until such time as they were caught and hanged by that terrible English admiral.
Numbers of piratical craft hovered around the Peruvian ports, and the badly equipped vessels of the Spamsh fugitives fell an easy prey to them. But Lord Dundonald, on the other hand, was ever pursuing the pirates with great energy. He captured many of them, and, later on, he was able to boast that he had swept the West Coast clean of these scourges of the sea.
It is known, however, that several of these vessels escaped his vigilance, and that enormous quantities of cathedral plate and specie were never recovered from their hands.
The pirate vessel that succeeded in reaching the islet of Trinidad is supposed to have been one of these. Captain P—, on leaving Bombay after the deathof his quartermaster, had intended to land on Trinidad and examine the spot indicated on the pirate's plan, but as he had a rather unruly crew, and was himself crippled with a broken arm, he thought it prudent not to make the attempt then, and so passed the islet and sailed home.
On his return to England he told the pirate's story to many people, but, of course, preserved the secret of the exact position of the hiding-place. Nothing, however, seems to have been done towards recovering the treasure until 1880, when Captain P— persuaded a shipping firm at Newcastle to allow one of their vessels trading to the Brazils to visit the island. It was arranged that the barquentine John should call at Trinidad on her way from Santos to Bull River, and that Captain P—'s son should go with the vessel so as to identify the spot and act on his father's behalf.
The John reached the islet, but, after beating about off it for a week, no landing-place could be found, and the captain decided to give up the attempt. But young P— was very disinclined to return without having effected a landing, and persuaded the captain to allow him to swim ashore from a boat. The ship's long-boat was therefore put out, and was pulled as closely to the long roll of furious breakers as was considered safe. Then young P— plunged into the sea, and contrived, after a narrow escape from drowning, to reach the land. The surf became more furious while he was on shore, so that it was impossible for him to swim off again that day. He had, consequently, to pass the night on the sands without either clashes or provisions, and was, moreover, in danger of being eaten alive by the land-crabs.
On the following morning the captain succeeded in casting the end of a line on shore, and the young man was dragged through the surf to the long-boat, and carried on board the vessel. He reported to the captain that he had discovered the spot described by the pirate, but that a great landslip of red debris had fallen on the treasure, which could not be removed without great labour. He said the place tallied exactly with the description furnished by his father and that he firmly believed the story to be true and that the treasure was still there, but that he would not spend such another night on the island even if he could get the whole treasure for himself by doing so.
The captain of the John, on hearing the young man's story, considered that anv further attempt to land would involve great danger; which he would not be justified in risking, and, declining to lend further assistance in the matter, set sail at once for his destination.
The next expedition was organized by my informant, Mr. A— of South Shields. The Aurea a barque of 600 tons burthen, was chartered. She was provided with life-boats suitable for surf work and an ample supply of picks, shovels, timber, blasting powder, and other stores. She was partly ballasted with a cargo of steam coal, which it was intended to sell in some foreign port so as to pav part of the expenses of the expedition. The necessary funds were subscribed by several gentlemen, most of whom, I believe, accompanied the expedition. Proper agreements were drawn up, and were signed by the officers and members of the expedition, setting forth the proportion of the treasure each was to receive should the search be successful.
This party also found the island to be almost inaccessible, on account of the surrounding circle of savage breakers' and experienced great difficulty in landing.
The following extract from the letter of one of the expedition describes only the commencement of their perils and adventures:
Eventually Mr. A— and seven other men succeeded in landing, carrying with them a limited quantity of provisions and some of the tools. They remained on the island from March 25th to April 17th during which time the vessel had been blown out of sight. Insufficient food and exposure to rain dispirited the men, and their imaginations were dismayed by the dismal aspect of these barren volcanic crags, and by the loathsome appearance of the land-crabs, which swarmed everywhere and continually attacked them.
They found what they considered to be the spot described by the pirate, but do not appear to have been quite so certain on this point as was young P—. Very little digging was actually done, "for," says Mr. A—, "we had few hands on shore capable of standing the heavy work under such a burning sun." They had only dug a small trench four feet deep into the landslip when the Andrea was sighted; then the sick and disheartened band refused to stay any longer on this accursed island, and insisted on being taken on board. So, leaving all their tools behind them — for in their anxiety to get away safely they would not be burdened with these — they were carried off to the vessel, so emaciated, weak, and ill that the captain came to the conclusion that he would lose most of his men if he landed them on so uninhabitable a spot, and, abandoning the search, he set sail for the West Indies.
This expedition, therefore, practically accomplished nothing. The problem as to whether the treasure was or was not lying under the landslips in South-west Bay was as far from solution as ever.
Before the departure of the Aurea expedition from South Shields, a good deal had been written concerning it in the English papers, with the result that some other adventurous spirits, having had their attention drawn to this possible El Dorado, hurried away to Trinidad in order to anticipate the Tynesiders. The following letter appeared in an English paper on May I4, 1885. The Aurea people, of course, knew nothing of this rival expedition, until they returned to England:
I found that the correspondent who sent this letter was correct in his information. When I called at Bahia with the Alerte, my ship-chandler, Mr. Wilson, told me the whole of this story as it was related to him by the American adventurer on his arrival at Bahia from Trinidad. It is somewhat strange that the excavations made by this party were not seen by the Aurea people, who landed on the island within two months of the departure of the Americans, but this islet has been so shaken to its foundations by earthquake shock and volcanic action, that it is brittle from its mountain-tops to the beach, and is in a state of perpetual change. Gigantic landslips are frequent, and I should not be surprised to find that all traces of our three months' hard digging have by now been entirely obliterated.
There might have been some fun, by the way, had the Aurea and the American arrived off the island at the same time.
Since my return I have heard of two other expeditions which started from the other side of the Atlantic in search of the hidden treasure of Trinidad but, as with the former expeditions, nothing was accomplished. The loss of men and boats in the surf, sickness, and the numerous difficulties and dangers encountered, disheartened the men, and the attempt was abandoned before any serious work was done. It would seem as if this was one of those forlorn islands of which one reads in the old romances of the sea, on which the bloody deeds of the pirates have left a curse behind, so that the treasure is protected by evil spirits; and the great roaring seas which roll up, seemingly without any natural cause, even after days of windless weather, and the ever-tottering crags, and all the forces and terrors of nature, are made to keep man off from the inviolate hoard; while the loathsome land-crabs might well be the restless spirits of the pirates themselves, for they are indeed more ugly and evil, and generally more diabolical-looking, than the bloodiest pirate who ever lived.