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Pirates, gold and ghosts: Goa’s ‘Treasure Island’ connection is a movie waiting to be made

A real-life mystery which makes the Da Vinci Code look like a child’s jigsaw puzzle.

Most of us have grown up with the story of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), with its swashbuckling tale of “buccaneers and buried gold”. So many clichés about pirates begin here, with Long John Silver emerging as the stereotypical pirate in our imagination.

I only recently learnt of the tale’s connection to Goa. Among the several historical allusions to real pirates and piracies, Stevenson also cites (through the character of Long John Silver) a ship named The Viceroy of the Indies sailing from Goa, and taken by real-life pirate Edward England (1685-1721) off the Malabar coast, when John Silver was serving along with England, aboard his pirate ship Cassandra.

In real life, there was no ship called The Viceroy of the Indies, but there still is some factual basis for its inclusion in Stevenson’s tale. In April 1721, when one of the biggest recorded piracies took place, the hapless victim was the great, 700-tonne Portuguese galleon Nossa Senhora do Cabo e São Pedro de Alcântara (also referred to as Virgem do Cabo, or La Vierge du Cap in French). It was heavily laden with “the wealth of the entire viceroyalty of Goa”. The pirates who led the raid from the Cassandra were John Taylor (originally England’s second-in-command, but who had England marooned in Mauritius over a misunderstanding), and Olivier Levasseur (1688-1730), who was nicknamed La Buse or The Buzzard, or sometimes La Bouche, The Mouth, for his ruthlessness and swift attacks.

Treasure Island by George Wylie Hutchinson.
Treasure Island by George Wylie Hutchinson.

Among the several prominent passengers aboard the vessel were the Archbishop of Goa (Patriarch of the East Indies) Dom Sebastião de Andrade, and the outgoing Viceroy of Goa Dom Luís Carlos Inácio Xavier de Meneses, fifth Count of Ericeira. Interestingly, the latter would return to Goa in 1741 (with an additional title of first Marquis of Louriçal) for his second tenure as Viceroy, only to die in office just a year later. Stevenson conflated the title of the Archbishop and the Viceroy to christen the fictional ship of Silver’s account as the Viceroy of the East Indies.

The treasure on board included silver and gold bars, dozens of boxes full of golden guineas, pearls, diamonds and other gems, silk, spices, art and Church regalia particularly from the Se Cathedral. The hoard was so vast that the passengers were simply allowed by pirates to keep their personal valuables with them and set free, an occurrence unusual for piracy. In monetary terms, the takings were estimated to be worth £875,000, though some inflate it to £1 million, others to a fantastic £1 billion, and yet others to $400 million. It is still regarded as the largest heist in pirating history.

The incident helped Luso-French relations, as the governor of Bourbon, Beauvolier de Courchant, secured the release of the Count of Ericeira and his entourage and provided them shelter for months, before carrying them to Mozambique. The resultant cordial relations between Goa and Pondicherry opened French ships to Goa for repairs but not for trade, and ships from the Compagnie des Indes were permitted to go and take slaves in Mozambique. But the Count of Ericeira was received in disgrace at Lisbon, and banished from court for 10 years.

Good fortune

But how did such a haul fall to pirates? Some accounts say the galleon was damaged in a storm, and the crew were compelled to sink all its 72 cannon to avoid capsizing, and had to anchor off the island of Bourbon (today Réunion) in the Indian Ocean to undergo repairs. The ship was thus taken in an unequal fight, as most of the crew were ashore as well.

Among the Church’s valuables was the Flaming or Fiery Cross of Goa, so called on account of its brightness, as it was believed to be made of pure gold, inlaid with diamonds, rubies and emeralds. It was described as being seven feet tall, and so heavy that it required three men to transfer it to Levasseur’s ship.

The pirates then returned, stunned by their literally good fortune, to their base in Madagascar. Here, one version states that they burned their own ship the Cassandra (another account says Taylor took the Cassandra for himself), and christened their newly-acquired ship the Victorious (le Victorieux). The loot was divided, with Le Buse keeping the ship and the Fiery Cross of Goa.

But what good is a pirate story unless we know where the treasure is buried?

‘Find my treasure’

In 1722, Taylor and Levasseur parted ways after an argument. Taylor went on to the Caribbean and then to Panama, where he and his crew were pardoned (most likely after receiving a hefty bribe) by the governor of Portobello in exchange for the Cassandra.

Levasseur makes an even more interesting story: he contemplated taking up the French government’s amnesty to all pirates who would give up their profession. But the French wanted too much of the loot for Levasseur’s liking, so he settled down incognito in the Seychelles until he was found out by a bounty-hunter. He was captured near Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, and hanged for piracy at 5 pm on July 7, 1730, at Saint-Denis, Réunion.

In a dying theatrical flourish, he allegedly flung a paper with a 17-line cryptogram at the crowd, exclaiming “Find my treasure, ye who may understand it!” Many doubt that this could be possible: most hangings occurred at dawn, not at dusk and it would be extremely difficult for a prisoner with his hands bound, to be able to make such a gesture.

But what follows is a real-life mystery saga that would put The Da Vinci Code in the shade, and it is quite surprising it hasn’t attracted the attention of Hollywood. The ciphers, codes and clues involve the Zodiac, the Clavicles of Solomon, and the Twelve Labours of Hercules.

The treasure has still not been found, although treasure-hunters are tantalisingly close.

The epitaph to Levasseur’s tomb at Saint-Denis has a skull and crossbones, under which reads “Oliver Levassuer dit La Buse – pirate, cumeur des Mers du Sud, Executé à Saint-Paul 1730”. It has become a shrine for those who believe his spirit still has supernatural powers.

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.