'pirates of the Collection'

and the quest for the 'Treasure of Lima'

[Originally posted September 24, 2015]

Fascination with pirates has inspired works of classical fiction and continues to provide contemporary popular culture with inspiration for movies, graphic novels and video games.  Beyond the traditional subjects you would expect to find in our catalogue are 'unexpected' subjects including reference books about pirates. For academic research, the rare volumes in our Collection, provide primary sources for historical biographies and information on events of piracy.

Pirates became infamous after being captured and brought to trial. The court proceedings were published to an enthusiastic readership in newspapers, journals, and books and into legend.

For those interested in true life adventure there are some rare books in the Collection about actual treasure hunting expeditions. This post features an outstanding example written over a century ago by a highly decorated British Army officer who organised a 'syndicate' of fellow adventurers to search for buried pirate treasure on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean.
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.
290 pages, [17] leaves of plates : illustrations, map
Refer RGSSA catalogue
image above:
On the Track of a Treasure
'With a pocket-compass in the hand, measure seventy paces west by south!'--frontispiece 
[Unidentified members of the 'syndicate' on Cocos Island]

Major H.G.F.E. de Montmorency was born at Gibraltar into a British military family of Irish descent. After serving with the Royal Artillery in the Second Boer War (1899-1900); he resigned his commission in the British Army for the second time. In 1904, between wartime engagements, he was enticed by a treasure map to hunt for the legendary but elusive 'Treasure of Lima'. He later served with distinction in the First World War. 

Major de Montmorency's decidedly French surname is a complicated matter of ancestry, of course, he spoke French which is explained in his memoir (1936) subtitled 'an adventurous life'. Reading through an online biography this is somewhat of an understatement; the entry dated October 12, 1904, reads— 
Hervey Guy de Montmorency aged 35, departed Liverpool to join the yacht 'Rose Maurice' at Panama via New York on the SS 'Teutonic' occupation listed as Stock Broker, Nationality Irish, (paid for his own ticket, in possession of more than 50 pounds).
Geoffrey Marston Gilling, 29, Stock Broker, English, same destination.--
they went treasure hunting in the Cocos Islands

Major H.G.F.E. de Montmorency, DSO
Portrait published in his memoir, Sword and Stirrup, 1936

Major de Montmorency begins On the Track of a Treasure
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.
the 'Treasure of Lima'

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.

image and biography:
General José de San Martin (1778-1850)
Bronze bust, Ibero American Plaza

With Lima's vaults undefended, the Viceroy of Peru, José de la Serna e Hinojosa (1770–1832), and those loyal to the Spanish King, Ferdinand VII (1784-1833), prepared to ship Lima's treasury to allies in Mexico. Many ships sailed from the Spanish garrison fort at Callao consigned with the 'Treasure of Lima'.

In October 1820 (dates vary), one ship was consigned to transport the treasures of the Cathedral of Lima to safety and represented centuries of donations to the Church. Amongst the fabulous 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 value of the consignment sent to Callao which was entrusted to the British trader, Captain William Thompson (d. 1844-46?) of the square-sailed brig, the 'Mary Dear'.

    the Cathedral's treasures were never seen again

Cathedrale de Lima, Perou /​ dessine par Fisquet; fig. par Bayot (184-)

Lithograph by Jules Robert Pierre Joseph Challamel (1813-)
print held by the National Library of Australia--

Reference information regarding pirates is full of rumours, inconsistencies and misinformation. For example, sources vary regarding the number of life-sized statues of the Madonna that were pirated from the Cathedral of Lima. Major de Montmorency accounts for only one statue in his book (p. 46).

Misinformation regarding the 'Treasure of Lima' isn't only confined to 'dusty' printed texts as a recent internet report [March 10, 2015] claimed that the treasure had been found. The report was revealed to be a hoax in a matter of days. This research has also revealed inaccurate online information regarding the correct names and biographical details given for certain pirates. Since originally posting this blog in September 2015, using the internet for research information has became increasingly unreliable and inaccurate due to the deliberate posting of 'fake' information.

The sites below have been removed since the original posting:
'Treasure found on Cocos Island' [hoax], March 10, 2015.
Treasure hoax exposed, March 17, 2015. 

However, the 'fake news' report is still in circulation:

On the Track of a Treasure
'View on N.E. Coast of Cocos Island'--p. 4

In the first chapter of On the Track of a Treasure, Major de Montmorency, provides an account of the mutiny aboard the Mary Dear :
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."--p. 5-6.

Cocos Island is often confused with the Cocos-Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean. It is clear that Major de Montmorency's treasure map directed him to the Cocos Island located in the Pacific Ocean about 300 nautical miles off Costa Rica and almost the same distance north of the Galapagos Islands. Cocos 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 and has remained uninhabited.

On the Track of a Treasure
'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, buried treasure and treasure hunters. Pirates soon found the isolation of Cocos was a haven from capture and a hiding place for their treasure. Among the most infamous pirates known to frequent Cocos include the British naval officers, Captain William Dampier (1652-1715), Edward Davis (active 1683-1702) and Bennett Graham (active 1818).

On the Track of a Treasure
'Disused water-wheel, Cocos Island'--p. 244

In 1709, Dampier was on his third voyage around the world when he rescued the pirate, Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721). Selkirk was Dampier's former crewman and the incident is generally thought to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's, Robinson Crusoe. It was also on this voyage that Dampier fulfilled his ambition to seize a Spanish treasure ship that enabled him to 'retire' with a considerable personal fortune. 

Bennett Graham was eventually caught and executed along with his officers while the remainder of his crew were transported to a penal colony in Tasmania. Mary Welch was a member of Graham's crew who, when she was released from prison, professed to have a treasure map and a witness to tons of gold buried on Cocos that was plundered from Spanish ships.

For more detailed information; Spanish, South American and English library archives maintain historical records and inventories of cargo pirated from their ships. Despite hundreds of treasure hunting expeditions to Cocos 
                        no treasure has ever been found

Reference books about William Dampier in our catalogue, include:
[Just type William Dampier in the search box
Lives and voyages of Drake, Cavendish, and Dampier : including an introductory view of the earlier discoveries in the South Sea; and the history of the buccaneers by Christian Isobel Johnstone, 1781-1857.
Horsburgh, J. (John), 1791-1869 (engraver)
Edinburgh : Oliver & Boyd, 1831.
461 pages, [3] leaves of plates : 3 portraits                                   
Online references:
'A brief timeline of Dampier's life'
Western Australian Museum
'William Dampier - The Pirate Who Collected Plants'
Smithsonian: National Museum of Natural History

The first documented record of Cocos Island is attributed to the navigator, João Cabezas (various spellings in Portuguese and Spanish), 1526. In 1542, Cocos first appeared on a French map of the Americas as Ile de Coques, literally 'nutshell' or 'shell' island later transcribed into Spanish as Isla del Coco.

Cocos Island was claimed by the Costa Rican government as sovereign territory in 1869 but not constitutionally declared until 1949.

In 1898, naturalists Anastasio Alfaro (1865-1951) of Costa Rica and the Swiss born Henri Pittier (1857-1950) visited the island suggesting it should be a protected area; well before any such concept of conservation.

image and biography : 
Henri Francois Pittier (1857-1950)
  Memorial page 

Cocos provided fresh water, firewood and coconuts (introduced) for centuries to passing ships. Many famous explorers anchored at the two natural harbours on the north coast, including, Captain James Cook, on January 23, 1795. Whaling ships also took on supplies at Cocos until the mid-19th century when the industry 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 has become a popular recreational diving destination to observe hammerhead and whale sharks.

Perhaps, the real treasure on Cocos, lies in the island's unique biodiversity and a legacy to literature which some say was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island.  It remains a mystery if there ever was any treasure buried on Cocos. An old undated tree carving on the island suggests pirates may have retrieved their plunder, and reads—
'the bird has flown'

Old newspapers are increasingly valued and trusted sources of 'fact checking' research information. Many of the world's best libraries have digitised their newspaper collections and are available online.
Newspaper articles on 'Trove', National Library of Australia, include:
'The buried treasure at Cocos Island'. Empire (Sydney, NSW), July 17, 1874, (reported from San Francisco BulletinMay 21 [1874]). 
'Treasure Island.' The Daily News (Perth, WA), 22 Jan. 1935. 

On the Track of a Treasure
'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 William Thompson. 

'Bloody Sword' was reportedly from a good family, born at Pomaron, on the border of Spain and Portugal (p. 14). He was fluent in French and English; valuable skills 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. Amongst the crew were William Thompson and Chapelle, a Frenchman; the only two crewmen to escape Benito's sword by pledging allegiance to him.

On the Track of a Treasure
'In the midst of the broken ground'--p. 209

Old newspaper articles report, Benito Bonito, entered Port Phillip Bay sometime in 1821 and is believed to have hidden treasure in a cave at Swan Bay, Victoria. As 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 that 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 [?]. 

If Major de Montmorency's profile of 'Bloody Sword' is correct; references to Benito de Soto (1805-1830) born at Galacia, Spain, appear to indicate another pirate with a similar name who 'pirated' at around the same time.  

It is interesting to note that Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was in San Francisco in 1881 where he chartered a yacht and sailed to Samoa. The story goes that he may have been looking for clues to Benito's treasure after talking to old sailors in the bars he frequented at San Francisco [?]. He knew the voyage to Samoa was not beneficial to his deteriorating health but something made him determined enough to take the risk. Stevenson died at Samoa, aged 44; a much loved son of the island nation to this day.
Newspaper articles on 'Trove' include:
'Pirate hoard : search for £12,000,000.' Daily Examiner (Grafton, NSW), 21 Nov. 1931. 
'Searchers find cave : treasure hunt at Swan Bay.' The Argus, Melbourne, 11 Nov. 1937.
'Pirate Gold: Victorian Quest.' Sunday Herald (Sydney, NSW), 14 June 1953.

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 had 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 legally 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 relied on his horsemanship skills to secure a source of income. He had moderate success, owning and riding steeplechasers in England and France, and competed in 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.

On the Track of a Treasure
'First camp on the beach'--p. 220

For reasons not disclosed by Major de Montmorency, Captain Shrapnel of the Royal Navy, is the only member of the syndicate who is named in his book
Captain Shrapnel, R.N., commanded a vessel in the Pacific; his ship was H.M.S. Haughty; and he knew the Western coast of the Great American Continent as some West-End clubmen know Pall Mall. The Captain had once been the guest of the President of the Peruvian Republic...(p. 27) 
In 1896, Captain Shrapnel acted on the stories about Thompson and Benito's pirated treasure and landed a large party of sailors on Cocos Island to search for treasure.  He blasted the landscape for several days without success. The British Admiralty took a dim view of Shrapnel's break in routine duty, severely reprimanded him, and decreed that no naval vessels were to land at Cocos.
[Summarised from On the Track of a Treasure but unable to verify Captain Shrapnel's service in the R.N. Please leave a comment if you can improve on this research.]
'Treasure-seeking on Cocos Island. New Zealand Herald, Vol. XLII, issue 12836, 8 April, 1905.
Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

Major de Montmorency met Captain Shrapnel in England, both on leave of absence, in 1902; the two 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 recruiting '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.
'Travel arrangements' to Cocos Island needed to be decided—

On the Track of a Treasure
'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, renaming it, the Lytton, for the westward journey to Cocos Island. May 1st, 1903, the syndicate sealed an agreement for access to Cocos Island with the Republic of Costa Rica in Paris. 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 of 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, and records of the trial and execution of seventeen mutineers from the Mary Dear, which may be existent. No previous expedition to Cocos was so well supplied with clues from previous fortune hunters and with 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.

August Gissler (1857, Remscheid, Germany–1935 in New York City)
'A modern Robinson Crusoe'--p. 229

In 1888, August Gissler (1857, Remscheid-1935, New York), a German national, 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 anything 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!'

On the Track of a Treasure
'The Governor of Cocos comes ashore'--p. 246

Fortune had not favoured previous treasure hunters and Major de Montmorency's expedition was no exception. On August 23, 1903, the expedition was abandoned for reasons explained in the book. Gissler and his wife decided to leave Cocos permanently and departed the island with the expedition that sailed to Panama, the Major noted
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.--p. 246

On the Track of a Treasure
'Panama', c. 1904--p. 249

Obituary: edit from the London Times
Major de Montmorency prospected for oil in Georgia and served as an auxiliary cadet in Ireland during the 1920s.
D.S.O., Croix de Guerre, Legion of Honour, late Major R.A., served in command of Vol. Art. S. African War (1899-1900), and Great War 1914-17 (despatches), b. 1868; Residence 34 Clifton Hill, N.W.8.
Club—Arthur's [London]
The Times (London, England), Saturday, Sep 05, 1942; pg. 6; Issue 49333.

De Montmorency, Hervey Guy Francis Edward (1868-1942)
Sword and Stirrup
London : G. Bell and Sons Ltd, 1936.
Available online from the Internet Archive Digital Library : Digital Library of India

Online biography : Major H.G.F.E de Montmorency (1868-1942)
Auxiliary Division of the Royal Irish Constabulary

Major H. de Montmorency (1868-1942). The Boer War
War Office Correspondence and Papers, South African War. (ref: WO 108/185)

Digitised newspaper articles on 'Trove' include:
National Library of Australia (free access)
'Searching for buried treasure.' Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW), 11 Feb. 1908. 
'Cocos Island'. The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld.), 09 Nov. 1921. 
'Cocos Island'. Wagga Wagga Express (NSW), 04 Apr. 1936.
'Cocos Island quest for treasure'. Tweed Daily (Murwillumbah, NSW), 26 July 1939.

To find other 'pirate' resources in our Collection just type pirates in the search box of our catalogue, that includes:

A General History of the Pyratesby Captain Charles Johnson (a pseudonym), published in 1724, is generally regarded as the first biographical reference source on pirates. In gruesome detail, this early volume describes their bloodthirsty exploits.

The female pirates, Mary Read (d. 1720?) and Anne Bonny (b. 1700) are highlighted on the title page of the first edition for their 'unladylike behaviour'. 

Some historians suggest that 'Captain Johnson' may have been Daniel Defoe (1661?-1731), author of Robinson Crusoe, first published in 1719.

A general history of the robberies and murders of the most notorious pirates :
from their first rise and settlement in the island of Providence to the present year by Captain Charles Johnson
Published 1932, reprinted from 4th edition, 1726
RGSSA catalogue

A General History of the Pyrates, title page, first edition, 1724
Available online from the Internet Archive Digital Library

For descendants of the Bounty mutineers on Norfolk Island our catalogue holds rare historical volumes about Norfolk Island. Just type Norfolk in the search box on our catalogue. This search finds 59 items; books (containing images), maps and 2 photographs (detailed below).
Also refer to the Society's Geographical Journal Index (use full index) and search for the articles regarding Norfolk Island. 

"St. Barnabas". The vanua from top of pine-tree
Author: Beattie, J W 
Date Published: [early 1900s]
Description: 1 photograph: b&w; 10.5 x 14.5 cm
Notes: Missionary activities, South and West Pacific Islands, early 1900s. St Barnabas, Norfolk Island

Panoramic view of Kingston, from Flagstaff Hill, Norfolk Island. Copyright. 100[?] - Beattie - Hobart.
Author: Beattie, J W 
Date Published: [early 1900s]
Description: 1 photograph: b&w; 15 x 20 cm
Notes: Missionary activities, South and West Pacific Islands, early 1900s. Photo from Beattie's "Catalogue of a series of photographs…scenery and peoples of islands S.& W. Pacific". [1907]
As mentioned, information about pirates is full of inconsistencies.
Please comment on any inaccurate information.
For any enquiries about the books mentioned in this post
Please contact the Library 
Originally posted September 24, 2015 on our previous blog site  
All external links retrieved January, 2019
Researched and posted by Sandra Thompson
RGSSA remote cataloguer


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