This Side of the Pond
Notes from and Uprooted Englishwoman
April 1, 2021
Of all the treasure chests buried during the Golden Age of Piracy, not a single one has ever been found. Thanks to British television presenter Richard Hammond, I stumbled across this fact last week and at first found it tough to believe – until I remembered that those troves of gold and silver belonged to the most famous thieves in history.
We know there are pirate hoards out there, it’s just a matter of finding them. Perhaps the most famous belongs to Edward Teach, a British privateer from the early 18th century.
Now, privateers were not quite the same as pirates. They still harassed the treasure ships of the nations we didn’t like at the time – which was usually Spain – but they did it with permission from the monarch.
This began with Queen Elizabeth I’s “Sea Dogs,” who filled her coffers with gold while allowing her to deny all knowledge of their raiding. She referred to them as her “supplementary navy.”
Perhaps inevitably, some of the privateers decided it would be preferable to keep all that booty for themselves and enjoy a life free of oversight in the notorious pirate settlements, such as Libertatia and Port Royal. Teach was one such turncoat and his reign of terror lasted only a couple of years, but we all know the name he came to be called by: Blackbeard.
On his 40-gun flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, he preyed on Spanish ships laden with treasures from South America. He was killed in 1718 by a British naval force, his head hung from one of its ships.
Blackbeard claimed to have buried what must have been a considerable pile of treasure, but he didn’t ever reveal its location – in his ledger, he wrote that it “lay in a location known only to him and the devil.” It’s one of the most coveted treasures in the world, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever find it.
The trouble is, the legendary men and women of the Golden Age didn’t actually mark a spot on a map with an X. When you live and work with other professional burglars, I imagine you learn fast that leaving a handy guide to finding your fortune lying around is a terrible idea.
For a few days back in 2015, we did think someone had managed to recover the treasure of William Kidd, infamous Scottish pirate. Underwater explorer Barry Clifford claimed to have found the wreck of the ship he scuttled near Madagascar, and the first thing brought ashore was a 110-pound silver bar.
Clifford said the ship appeared to be filled with metal, so there was plenty more where that came from. Unfortunately, a UNESCO investigation found that the silver bar was just a lead ballast and the wreck was nothing more than old rubble.
Experts believe Kidd really did bury treasure, hoping to use it as a bargaining tool when he was caught – it’s the plunder that inspired “Treasure Island.” The lead bar, sadly, was not it.
This was not the first time Mr. Clifford had told the world about a pirate treasure discovery. Back in 1984, he claimed to have found the ship belonging to Black Sam Bellamy, which sank off Cape Cod in 1717 carrying tens of thousands of gold coins from the sale of slaves.
That time, he was right. He remains the owner of all 200,000 artifacts from The Whydah, which are kept for conservation and examination in his private facility or on display at his museum in Massachusetts.
It doesn’t count as buried treasure though, because you can’t dig up the sea, so this doesn’t bring us any closer to our treasure map goals. What surprises me about this failure to unearth a single pirate’s plunder is that we’re so usually pretty good at sniffing things out from the ground.
In Britain, we’re constantly coming across buried booty by accident, which leads me to suspect the pirates were just particularly good at choosing hiding spots. Back in 1840, for instance, a group of workmen repairing the embankment of the River Ribble in England found an enormous hoard of Viking treasure that would be worth more than $3 million today.
The trove included more than 8600 individual objects, which must be why it wouldn’t fit on their longships for the voyage home. It also explains why the English didn’t like them very much.
In 2009, a man in Staffordshire stumbled across a trove of Anglo-Saxon treasure in a recently plowed field. It contained weapons, artifacts and decorations that shed new light on life in the eighth century.
It’s apparently difficult to get through life without tripping over at least one long lost historical artifact if you live in Britain, which is why a gentleman by the name of Peter Whatling was not all that surprised when he lost his hammer in a field, tried to find it with a metal detector and uncovered an oak chest instead. Inside were spoons, coins and pieces of jewelry dating back 1500 years.
But still no luck on those pirate hoards, and I don’t see that changing. We do know such a thing as a treasure chest once existed, because Thomas Tew left his 150-pound metal box behind in Rhode Island when he set out on his final voyage.
We also know there are missing treasures out there somewhere, such as the Treasure of Lima, stolen by Captain William Thompson in 1820 when he was entrusted with its transport from Peru to Mexico, or the 1.5 million gold pesos stolen from the Esperanza.
And then there’s Henry Avery, once known as the “King of Pirates” and one of the only Golden Age villains who was never arrested or killed in battle. He was responsible for the most profitable theft in the history of piracy when he stole $108 million in precious metals and jewels from the 25-ship convoy of Grand Mughal on its annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
Nobody knows where Avery went, or what happened to his riches. Some say he died a pauper back in England, others that he changed his name and lived a peaceful life, but I prefer the theory that he spent the rest of his life as king of a pirate utopia in Madagascar.
If he buried his treasure somewhere, he didn’t leave a single clue, which is probably for the best. The Golden Age pirates have entered the realm of myth, and the truth is usually less interesting than the story. Let’s leave his treasure be, because there are some legends that really should stay that way.