Whose Treasure is it Anyway?
Some of our greatest lost treasure stories range from the 1600s through the 1700s, when Spain ruled the seas and used Mexico and South America as its national piggy bank. The Spanish would mine (some might say steal) gold, silver and jewels, sending the loot back home in vast treasure fleets, some of which ended up on the bottom of the ocean. But not all the lost treasure still out there was hidden by storms; some of it was lost to good old human greed.
The early 1800s were a time of change in the world. The newly minted United States of America was growing and flexing its new muscles. One of the first efforts of the American Navy was clearing out the pirates operating in and around Florida. That was an unfortunate development for a pirate named Gasparilla.
The rise of America as a global power and the weakening power of Spain prompted a long period of revolution and independence in South America. By the early 1820s that spirit of revolution had spread to Lima, Peru, one of Spain’s last and richest footholds in the New World.
As the legend goes, the Spanish nobles of Peru saw the revolution closing in and decided to salvage what treasure they could by shipping it to Mexico. In 1823 the gold and treasure of these not-so-nobles was loaded on a British ship named the Mary Dear, commanded by a man named William Thompson, for transport to Mexico. The treasure aboard the Mary Dear was rumored to contain over a 100 religious figurines, including two larger than life size statues of the Virgin Mary cast out of pure gold. Along with that were 200 chests of jewels, 273 decorative swords with jewel-encrusted gold hilts and millions in gold and silver ingots.
According to history William Thompson and his crew turned pirate, murdering the Spaniards sent along to guard the treasure and tossing them overboard. Now rich beyond their wildest dreams, Captain Thompson and his unruly crew steered toward a remote island called Cocos Island, or Isla de Coca. The island, located 400 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, was largely uninhabited but, due to its heavy rainfall, was used as a water stop by passing ships. It was there that Captain Thompson and his rebel crew buried the vast treasure and then joined forces with the notorious pirate Benito Bonito.
Their stint as pirates lasted twenty one years, which was a pretty good run for a pirate in the 1800s. In 1844 Thompson was the only one to escape an attack by a British warship and later hooked up with a man named Keating to arrange an expedition back to the hideaway to recover the treasure. Unfortunately them both, Thompson died before the expedition set sail. Keating and a man named Bogue landed at Cocos Island and found the treasure, but, probably predictably, the crew mutinied. Keating and Bogue tried to flee in a small boat loaded with as much treasure as they could carry, but the boat capsized. Bogue was drowned and Keating was picked up by a passing ship and taken to Newfoundland, where he later died. That legend is thought to be the basis of the popular Treasure Island pirate story.
Cocos Island is today a national park inhabited by a mere handful of park rangers. The island is popular with tourists and served as the model for the fictional Isla Nublar from the Jurassic Park series. The waters around the island are considered some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world if you can manage swimming in waters teeming with hammerhead sharks.
Various attempts have been made to locate the treasure over the years and a few pieces here and there have been recovered, but the seven foot tall statues of gold and chests of diamonds and jewels have never been found. Due to the heavy volume of rain and frequent rock slides, some believe the treasure cave has been buried under thousands of tons of rocks and dirt.
Even if the treasure is located, it would certainly set off a protracted international court fight over ownership. Costa Rica owns the island; Peru would claim the treasure, and the Spanish would almost certainly file a claim. How international courts would award Spain ownership of treasure that they brutally robbed with slave labor from countries they occupied by military force is something of a mystery, but it wouldn’t be the first time. It’s likely that the lost treasure of Peru was either moved years ago or will remain buried in its hiding spot, lost to time on a tiny island off the coast of Costa Rica and guarded only by a nearly impenetrable jungle, wild pigs, wild goats, a few bored park rangers and maybe one or two genetically engineered dinosaurs.