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The Real Treasure Island

By Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff


In 1958 when I was a wee lad of eight years I was confined to my bedroom for what seemed like months with bronchial asthma. Many days I stared out the window watching as the other kids got to play in the outdoors. All I could do was dream of the day that I too could be outside. I spent hours playing with tin soldiers having mock battles on my bed sheets and in the more restful periods I read and reread my favorite book by Robert Louis Stevenson "Treasure Island." His story of treasure buried on a remote island fueled my dreams for many months until I was cured and it left in me this wonderful sense of adventure that I still carry with me today. It was only recently that I learned that Stevenson’s "Treasure Island" was based on a real place called Cocos Island.


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Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson
"Land ho!" Came the shout from above in the crows’ nest. It was a most welcome sound for the crew and passengers aboard the schooner Vanderbuilt. The date was November 2, in the year of our lord 1879 and as the ship sailed into the harbor at Santa Barbara, California these people happy again to see shore were also searching for a way to slip away from the crowds gathered on the dock to greet them.
Was this strange behavior? Not really, for these poor souls were returning from a gold less treasure hunting trip to Cocos Island and wanted to avoid questioning and embarrassments due to their failure.

The ship sailed from San Francisco on April 12 of 1879 loaded with adventurers and provisions with the final destination being the world known Cocos Island. For three months the crew and passengers dug holes and tunnels, ditches and even changed the course of some streams in search of the treasures on Cocos Island. Their search was in vain and soon they were forced to head home. It was a long, disheartening journey. Already beaten by the Islands impenetrability, they now faced calm seas and light head winds, causing a long 66-day voyage to a friendly port. Provisions ran out long before reaching port with the exception of flour and tea, which they survived on for the last twelve days at sea.

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The Lost Treasure of Cocos Island

For many years before this expedition in 1879 and as early as 1841 this island has been the source of great expense to treasure hunters world wide and still to this decade treasure hunters are trying their luck on Cocos Island. Records show that over 450 expeditions have taken place and only a little have been printed showing successes in any of the ventures. In England during the 1920's and 30's they had a virtual treasure boom with articles being printed daily about pirates and buccaneers. Of all the stories Cocos was the one that actually motivated men of all walks of life to set sail and put aside their day-to-day routines. British Admirals, English Lords, New York and San Francisco businessmen, and even our Franklin D. Roosevelt paid visits to the island.

What drove these men to try and try again where others before may have failed? Was it the dreams of a child and finding pirate gold, or greed, or maybe the sheer magnitude of the treasures supposedly buried there. After all, over $100,000,000 in treasure can be quite an inspiration to one able to finance a trip to Cocos Island.

Cocos Island is west of Costa Rica roughly 500 miles. The Island is named for its vast groves of coconut trees. The Island is roughly 20 square miles of dense jungle with cliffs that rise up from the ocean 200 to 600 feet. The two bays, Wafer and Chatham are the only safe places to anchor and were frequented often by pirates and buccaneers who found it a good watering spot. The land of the interior is steep and very difficult to traverse even for the gold craving treasure hunter.

It is believed that the first treasures were deposited on the misty veiled island by the pirate Edward Davis and the crew of his captured Danish ship the Bachelors Delight. This motley crew leisurely sailed up and down the coast of South America taking Spanish ships and looting Spanish villages. When his coffers were full he would sail to Cocos, bury the loot, and clean his ship. In time Edward Davis commanded over 1000 buccaneers. They looted the city of Leon in Nicaragua and he again returned to Cocos to bury yet more treasures. It has been estimated that millions were left on the island. Wafer Bay is incidentally named after Davis's surgeon and naturalist.

The Franco-Spanish pirate Captain William Dampier, a privateer turned pirate used the brig Relampago to loot the coast of South America also, and it is said that he buried at least $60,000. in sandstone caves on Cocos Island. On the southern side of the island is a spot named Dampier Head.

Between 1819 and 1820 a Portuguese by the name of Benito Bonito arrived at the coast of Mexico, near Acapulco after he had spent years pillaging the West Indies and the coasts of Chile and Peru. It was Mexico's turn to pay the pirate. He and his crew lay in wait for the fabulously rich burro trains going from Mexico City to the coast and further shipment to Spain. The trains were easy prey and soon he and his bloodthirsty crew sailed for Cocos Island where they buried 300,000 pounds of silver and the spoils from their adventures in the West Indies. The men headed for Cape Horn where all but one of the crew died in battle with a British warship the Espiegle

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Bronze pirate and treasure chest figure
The greatest part of the Cocos Islands lure of treasure however is the loot from Lima. Spain was losing its grip on the Americas and around the year 1820 Simon Bolivar was conducting a revolution in Peru. The aristocrats who represented Spain's interests were worried about the impending invasions into Lima and sought to protect their immense fortune from the rebels. The 60 or so churches were in the same predicament. The two groups stripped their vaults and churches of everything that was gold or silver and had it all transported to the fort at the seaport of Calleo were they thought it would be safe. Before long they realized that the rebels would stop at nothing to take the country and decided to ship the treasure out to sea until the revolution was over or until they could find a safe place to store the treasure and send it back to Spain.

A Captain Thompson who was well known by the Peruvians as a fair man, was approached as his ship the Mary Dier lay at anchor in the bay. They asked if he would take on the treasure, some priests and some guards and sail out into the open sea and wait until the coast was clear. He agreed to do the job for a handsome price. Once out to sea the crew and the Captain having loaded this immense treasure could not resist the temptation to own it for themselves. They proceeded to club the Peruvian guards and slashed the throats of the priests then tossed them all overboard. The Mary Deir then headed for Cocos Island where it took eleven trips in the ship's longboat to get the treasure from the ship to shore. They buried the treasure with all intentions of returning in a year or so after all the fuss had quieted down. The treasure was valued at roughly 12 million in an1820's market. Today it would be worth over $100,000,000. Another prize buried at that time was a solid gold, gem encrusted, life-sized statue of the Virgin Mary. They say it weighed a ton. After unloading the ship this group turned pirate, headed round the Horn towards England but before they reached the Horn a Spanish warship captured them and sent them all to Panama to be put on trial for murder and piracy. They were all convicted and sentenced to be hung, which they all promptly were with the exception of the Capt. and his mate, who they hoped would bargain their lives for the where abouts of the treasure. Once the two men and their guards reached the shore of Cocos Island, the Captain and his mate took off and hid in the dense foliage of the island. The Spaniards finally gave up looking for them after searching fruitlessly for days and returned to Panama. Captain Thompson and the mate stayed marooned on the island for many long months surviving on bird’s eggs, fruit, coconuts, and small game. Eventually they were rescued by whalers and ended up in Newfoundland. Thompson died and the mate a man named Keating produced a map of the treasure and from that point on people tried to finance expeditions to the island.

Since then real and fake maps have fallen from out of the pages of books, from between the linings of steamer trunks and virtually every nook and cranny to lead adventurers to the island. Distant relatives of pirates and seamen claim to have the exclusive charts to the islands treasure.

The sources of treasure on the island are as numerous as the expeditions to find them and many are constantly being rebutted by scholars, historians, and treasure hunters alike. Like Americas Lost Dutchman’s mine, and Nova Scotia’s Oak Island, people believe that there must be some truth to the stories, enough truth to spend millions trying to find lost treasure.


1. B. A. Tomkins, Treasure, Times Books, 1979
2. Ralph Hancock and Julian A. Weston, The Lost Treasure of Cocos Island, Thomas Nelson & Sons,1960.
3. Edward Rowe Snow, True Tales of Pirates and Their Gold, Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1957
4. Robert Nesmith, Dig For Pirate Treasure, The Devin-Adair Company, 1958
5. Harold T. Wilkins, Treasure Hunting, Rio Grande Press, 1939.

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