Pirate treasure! Who doesn’t dream of digging into the warm sand of a Caribbean beach and bringing out handfuls of doubloons, piles of pesos, stacks of silver and piles of pearls? And ever since Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of the Whydah in 1987 and cleaned up with a sweet $26,000,000.00, it’s been acknowledged that there’s still treasure to be found.
So how does one go about bringing in the gold?
Barry famously found his treasure map on the back shelves of his public library, so you if you live along the eastern coast of North or South America, you might hit you local public records office, library, or other records depository to scope out records of local shipwrecks. Enormous amounts of gold and silver were shipped to Europe during Spain’s exploitation of the New World, and the wrecks of these treasure vessels are the best way to pick up some gold.
New discoveries pop up all the time. On June 17th of this year (2015), Eric (not the one of Google fame) was diving near the site of the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet wrecks, and found over a million dollars worth of gold, in the form of 40 feet of solid gold chain and 41 gold coins. The coins, some of which are among the most beautiful and best preserved of their kind, include a solid gold “Royal” intended for presentation to the King of Spain.
It would be wonderful to believe that you might do the same, but sadly there are legal considerations. After all, when the possibility of treasure comes up, everyone wants a piece. In this case, the right to scavenge the wrecks belongs to the company: 1715 Fleet – Queens Jewels who paid the government for the right. The Schmidt family had subcontracted to search the area for valuables.
Even with the known location of the wrecks, it has still taken years to bring up the treasure. Eric speaks of many fruitless hours turning over bits of garbage on the ocean floor, looking for something shiny. This time the effort paid off, at the cost of boats, diving equipment, and lots and lots of time. Treasure hunting ain’t easy.
But gold coins still occasionally wash up on the Florida beaches. It’s possible to get lucky.
Legendary treasures still await. Although most pirates had no interest in burying treasure, it has been rumored for years that Captain Kidd, a pirate who started out as a privateer, buried some of his ill-gotten gains. Some treasure was dug up and sent to England, where it served as evidence in Kidd’s trial. But additional riches are said to remain, and treasure hunters have gone digging after Kidd’s legendary gold from Connecticut to Madagascar. In 1983, Cork Graham and Richard Knight thought they could find his treasure in Vietnam. They landed illegally on the island of Phu Quoc and were arrested, fined $10,000 each and kept in prison for 11 months, until they could pay the fine.
You could always search for the lost treasure of Lima. Not quite pirate era, it is nonetheless Spanish gold, which was taken from the natives and held in a treasure stronghold until 1823, when native rebellion forced the government to try and evacuate the gold. These officials hired an English ship to hold the treasure offshore until the rebellion died down. But Captain William Thompson decided to turn pirate instead and sail off with his ill-gotten gains.
The Spanish eventually caught up to them, and executed everyone except the captain and first mate, who promised to take their captors to where the gold was buried. They led the Spanish to Cocos Island, near Costa Rica, and then ran off into the jungle and were never seen again. Neither was the gold. Was it ever really there? Or did the wily Captain Thompson simple lead the Spanish to a place he could disappear from? We may never know.
Pirates almost always spent their plunder, rather than bury it or hide it away. But the legends – possibly fueled by Kidd’s actual actions (He was trying to hide his income and avoid paying men who had invested in his privateering operation.) remain. Other semi-believable tales are told as well. Olivier Levasseur tried to confuse matters at his own hanging by throwing a piece of paper into the crowd and shouting, “The treasure to he who solves it!” No one has ever “solved” the mass of seemingly random numbers.
You, too, can purchase pirate treasure. Coins from the Schmidt family’s find will probably be on the market soon, and there are many other treasure dealers, mostly along the east coast. But beware! Real coins are so valuable that many forgeries exist. Expect to pay between $1,200 and $2,400 for a single gold doubloon.
Why so much? Part of the issue is supply and demand. People will pay for pirate artifacts, and the more well-documented the better. But there’s also the issue of the gold involved. Many of these coins were made from an ounce of solid 22 carat gold, a purity that is rarely found today. Even melted down, they’d be worth a fortune.
If you vacation in Jamaica, you might also like to go snorkling over the site of the old city of Port Royal. This historic town more closely resembled the fictional Tortuga than any more law-abiding place. Pirates roamed the city freely for 20 years, and there were almost more taverns than permanent residents, until two thirds of the town sank in a massive earthquake that some attributed to the Wrath of God.
On some tours, participants are free to pick up anything they like in the wreck of the old city. Broken pipe-stems are common, along with equally broken rum bottles. But gold may lurk. You never know!