history notes

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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