Hunting for Treasure in the Cocos

NOEL ROBINSO September 15 1924

Hunting for Treasure in the Cocos

NOEL ROBINSO September 15 1924

Hunting for Treasure in the Cocos


MANY an interesting craft has slipped quietly out of Vancouver harbor, during its fifty years as a port, through the First Narrows, past Prospect Point, and melted into the track of the setting sun upon some mysterious quest.

But it is altogether likely that no more interesting craft, or one carrying a more interesting complement, has left this port than that which left a trail of smoke behind her she passed up Point Grey upon a certain January day of the present year of grace. The Gunner—a j not inappropriate name “mystery ship” in the I Great War, and engaged pretty regularly since then in the hardly less exciting pursuit of rum-running, was off upon a treasure hunt, her objective being Cocos Island,

3,000 miles away.

The Gunner was skippered by as picturesque and enterprising a sea-dog, in Captain Polkinghorne, as the reader of any treasure-seeking story could desire. Hailing from Plymouth, in Devonshire, that English county which produced those great searovers, Drake and Hawkins, Frobisher and Grenville, and himself coming of an old family long versed in the ways of the sea, Captain Polkinghorne seems to have been born for adventuring upon the high seas. Bronzed, blackbearded and weighing about 240 pounds, this mariner, the owner of the Gunner, has been wellknown in the port of Vancouver for a number of years and has of recent years operated a small line of coasting steamers, one of them a converted yacht of graceful lines which once belonged to that

sensationally-inclined young Marquis of Angelsey, whose extravagant exploits in various directions filled much .space in the newspapers some years ago.

In the Great War this veteran skipper found himself in the secret service overseas. Eventually he became possessed of the Gunner and embarked in the rum-running profession “on the side.” A “mystery ship” during the war, the Gunner has been, more or less, a mystery ship ever since and is known from Vancouver to Panama. She noses past Prospect Point and is next heard of as lying off some lower California port inviting the courtship of Uncle Sam’s cutters.

But more anon of the worthy skipper, his boat, his associates and their novel expedition.

It was in that year of our Lord, 1688, that Captain Edward Davis, pirate (his name is particularly associated with buried treasure on Cocos Island), a man of sterling worth despite his piratical proclivities, retired from sea and settled quietly in England for the rest of his life.

It was Captain Davis who had foregathered upon the island of Hispaniola (now Hayti) with other kindred spirits,

French as well as English, and formulated plans which led to a most adventurous voyage, in the course of which they discovered, 400 miles from the Costa Rican coast, what we now know as Cocos Island, or the Isle del Cocos (Island of Nuts), an island which is not to be confused with the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean where the Emden was driven ashore in the early stages of the Great War.

From the very start things went well with the pirates, for they fell in with a large Danish ship which they carried by boarding and renamed the Batchelors’


Later, after sacking and burning the city of Leon, on the lake of Nicaragua,

Canadians still hope to discover pirates'* hidden hoard.

the force scattered, Davis keeping the best of the men, whom he took to Cocos Island, where a considerable stay was made. His star was in the ' ascendant and from Cocos he ravaged the coast of Peru, captured many vessels and took many towns. Upon these and other occasions all sorts of booty fell to Davis and the men with him. Once he was able to give each of his men 5,000 pieces of eight. Much of the treasure which he captured he is believed to have buried at Cocos as he was there frequently about this time and his subsequent history does not indicate that he took any large quantity of it home to England.

The Mary Dear Treasure

TPIE other most interesting treasure story in connection with the. Isle del Cocos is linked up with incidents many years later —in fact as late as 1820— when Captain Thompson, of the merchant brig Mary Dear, during a revolution was entrusted by the Spanish residents of Lima with no less a treasure than $12,000,000 worth of plate and jewels and gold coin. This he is believed to^have buried on Cocos Island. Subsequently he joined the crew of that notable pirate Benito Bonito and, escaping with one other man alive when that pirate was captured, and killed, he tried, it is believed, to return to Cocos.

And now we can establish a living connecting link between the recent Vancouver expedition and Captain Thompson. Just what happened to the latter is not quite clear. But it is certain that a man named Keating, of Newfoundland, while sailingjrom England in 1844, met a man whom he believed, from what subsequently transpired, to be Captain Thompson. They landed at Newfoundland together and the stranger, who appeared anxious to avoid public attention, accepted the hospitality of Keating’s home.

Nit would appear that, in return for this kindness, he eventually confided to Keating that he was one of the two survivors of Benito Bonito’s crew and possessed a secret which would make both him and his host very rich. He wanted Keating to persuade the merchants of Newfoundland to fit out a vessel to go and get this treasure from Cocos Island. A shipowner fitted out a vessel on condition that one Captain Bogue should go in command thereof. Unfortunately Thompson died while the preparations were under way. But it would seem that he left a carefully marked map, or chart, and this Keating and Bogue took with them when they left for Cocos Island.

Tragedy dogged their footsteps. The two adventurers were rowed ashore at Cocos, leaving the vessel in charge of the mate. It is understood that they located an almost fabulous treasure, but that they decided to withold the knowledge from their crew. The crew, however, suspected. Keating is believed to have held out that a division of the spoil should not be hiade until they returned to the home port and the owner of the ship had been given the greatest part, which, Keating argued, belonged to him as he had taken the greatest risk. However, the mate and the members of the crew did not agree and went ashore, leaving the two captains alone aboard. The crew, unable to find the treasure, returned in very angry mood and prepared, if necessary, for bloodshed. Keating and Bogue thereupon promised to show them the following day where the treasure lay. In the night, however, the two commanders of the expedition got ashore in a whaleboat, secured many jewels and what other treasure they could carry, covered up their tracks, and proceeded back to the ship, hoping to bè able to secrete their spoil. In crossing back through the surf the boat capsized and Bogue, weighted by the treasure in his pockets and in a belt around his waist, was drowned. Keating clung to the boat and was carried out to sea by a current. Nearly dead, he was picked up two days later by a Spanish vessel and put ashore on the Costa Rican coast, still in possession of his treasure. He is believed to have had with him about $100,000 worth of jewels and other treasure and he lived in comfortable circumstances in Newfoundland for the rest of his life.

Victoria Skipper Takes a Hand

BUT twenty years later he confided the story to one Nicholas Fitzgerald and also his (Keating’s) wife he had married a very young woman. Fitzgerald and he agreed to fit out a schooner, but, following the example of Thompson, Keating died at the psychological moment. However, Captain Thompson’s chart directions had been preserved, and in 1894 Keating’s widow went into partnership with a Captain Hackett, of Victoria, British Columbia, and they sailed for Cocos Island aboard the brig Aurora. In a recently published and very attractive and racily written book (“The Book of Buried Treasure” by Ralph D. Paine), to which I am indebted for some of the foregoing information, it is stated .that eventually “the Aurora jogged homewards without sighting the treasure island.” This is incorrect. The expedition, though unsuccessful in discovering the

treasure, not only landed on Cocos Island but, by

means of the late Keating’s directions,

located certain features which he had

indicated, including some broken crocks which he told his widow had contained some of the treasure which he had brought Continued on page 37

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Huntingfor Treasure in the Cocos

Continued from page 21

away with him. Keating had mentioned a jewelled hilted sword which he said he had re-buried near the spot, not being able to carry it away conveniently, but this the widow and Captain Hackett were unable to locate. I have this information upon the authority of Captain Whidden, who was a member of that expedition and also another Cocos Island expedition, and who was also a member of this year’s Polkinghorne-Clayton expedition, and who is, therefore, a connecting link*—albeit a distant one—with the Thompson buried treasure.

W. S. Clayton, the inventor of the apparatus which differentiates this expedition from all others which have preceded it, was the leader of the recent enterprise, Captain Polkinghorne, as the skipper and owner of the Gunner, was in absolute charge at sea.

Mr. Clayton, an Aberdonian who has been resident in Vancouver and engaged .in the electrical business for twenty years, has devoted all his spare time for the past three years to perfecting his invention for * detecting metals hidden beneath the surface of the ground. Having completed this instrument he had it tested by a professor of the University of British Columbia, and then, in order to make assurance doubly sure, very thorough outdoor tests were made on the island oiLasquiti, a little way up the coast from Vancouver, and it was found that the apparatus would discover any metal or alloy to a depth of forty feet below the surface of the ground, no matter what intervening substance was between—gold, silver, platinum, tin, lead, copper, antimony, mercury, iron, zinc, it matters not what the metal is.

One day towards the end of last year Captain Polkinghorne’s eyes happened to light upon a reference in a Vancouver paper to this inventor and his instrument. Immediately he sa\v the latter’s possibilities. Ever ready to jump into an enterprise which suggested the elements of the unusual or adventurous, he at once communicated with the inventor and offered to put his vessel, the Gvnner, at Mr. Clayton’s disposal and take chances on financing the trip as far as the transportation and commissariat part of the proceedings were concerned if Clayton and his associates would see to the financing of the scientific end. No sooner said than done. A complement of fifteen men, all from Vancouver, was engaged, no less than five of these rpen (including the skipper of the Gunner) being sea captains with masters’ papers. And so it was that on the early hours of the morning of Sunday, January 20, the

little 200-ton cargo vessel passed out through the First Narrows upon her quest, taking aboard 130 tons of coal at Ladysmith, on Vancouver Island, en route. The personnel of her complement was as follows; Captain Polkinghorne (skipper), Captains W. Kerr, J. Fletcher, F. Crawford, and G. Whidden (associated) J. Blanchflower (chief engineer), W. Tait (second engineer), R. Ellis (wireless operator), J. Struthers (steward), Messrs. Mackay, Planch and Moore (firemen and sailors), also associated with Mr. Clayton and the expedition J. Mullin and W. Evans.

THIS latest expedition found Cocos Island uninhabited, but it is only a few years ago that it was inhabited by a remarkable person named Gissler who acted as a sort of governor of the island, and who, it was understood, was in the pay of the Costa Rican government. He at one time persuaded several families to settle on the island, but dissensions broke out and all except Gissler abandoned the island, and he later disappeared.

Upon approaching the island the new arrivals had noticed a shack peeping out from among the tropical vegetation. They found upon investigation that it was composed of galvanized iron, framed with wood, which had long since rotted and it presented a topsy-turvey appearance strangely out of keeping with the beautiful setting in which it was placed. On further investigation they found, almost hidden by .foliage, three additional iron buildings in a more or less tumbledown condition. They returned to the Gunner and the following day landed a party and cleared paths through the heavy undergrowth. This work was accomplished at some risk, for they found at almost every few feet holes in the ground, some as deep as twelve or fifteen feet, and entirely covered with the long trailing vines which depended from all the trees and extended for many yards in every direction. The work was hot as the heat was terrific, especially during the hours in the middle of the day, Cocos being situated in the region of the equator.

Within two days a fairly large tract of land had been cleared of vines and underbrush, revealing the enormous amount of work that had been done on this part of the island by previous expeditions. Tunnels were uncovered seven feet in diameter *and thirty or forty feet in length, with shafts or wells five feet in diameter and as much as fifteen feet in depth, and scores of ditches and smaller holes.

Parts of the island are in fact literally honeycombed with shafts and intercommunicating tunnels. Many thousands of cubic feet of soil have been moved in the vain effort to uncover treasure. Here and there a tunnel or shaft of considerable size bears testimony to the work of some former considerable expedition—work of the hardest nature and accomplished under the most trying conditions. The treasure seekers, hoping that their tunnel had only just missed the treasure, have sometimes, in a last desperate effort, driven augur holes many feet long and in every direction from their original working. •

[ TNFORTUNATELY the expedition struck the island during the rainy season and this considerably handicapped the operations. It rained more or less every day and usually came down in deluges, making work during these periods impossible, while during the hours between eleven and three work was impossible owing to the scorching heat.

It would be most attractive to be able to state that some success had attended the-efforts of these treasure seekers, that precious metals beyond the dreams of avarice had been discovered. If they had been, you would probably have heard about it months before this in the newspapers. No treasure was discovered and yet the inventor and his associates are by no means dissatisfied with their search. They achieved what may he termed a negative success, a result which has left the inventor himself confident of ultimate success. To put it in his own words:

“We do not know where on the island the treasure is, but we do know where it is not, and that will be a great help in our final test. One area in particular gave indications of small quantities of metal here and there, and closer testing brought to light various implements and frag-

merits of metal used by treasure hunters in previous expeditions. Several spots gave indications of small quantities of metal, but these we passed up owing to laak of time, as the treasure we set out to find is of considerable volume and its presence within fifty feet of the apparatus would be very clearly indicated. I should say, roughly, that we covered a square mile, and the island has an area of fourteen square miles. The area we tested was covered with vines about four feet high and easily slashed. The largest trees on the island are not more than eighteen inches in diameter and about fifty feet high, the cocoanut trees. We are going to do this thing thoroughly. We shall take the island area by area. It will not be easy work, but we shall do it, and we shall know for a certainty as we cover it that those parts we have done are certainly free from buried treasure. And that is what no other treasure hunters who have sought at Cocos have been able to say. Moreover ours is not really laborious work by comparison.”

After six weeks’ work the ClaytonPolkinghorne expedition left Cocos for Balboa, on Tuesday, March 18, arriving at Vancouver some weeks later..

Of the various offers which Mr. Clayton has received to use his apparatus for treasure-hunting purposes—and he intends to use it for nothing else for some time— three in particular may possibly be tackled before returning to Cocos Island.

In the meantime the inventor has been engaged still further perfecting his instrument, seeking to extend its possibilities, and insulating and hermetically sealing parts of it, as it was found that in the humid atmosphere of Cocos Island it rusted very quickly. Mr. Clayton is not wildly optimistic—he is Scotch and wisely cautious in his statements—but he is quietly confident that his machine will solve the Cocos Island treasure mystery, and if, as seems extremely probable, there is treasure, secreted there, that that treasure will at long last be forthcoming.