A ROMANCE OF THE SALVAGES
THE article in the St. James's Gazette attracted a considerable amount of attention, as was proved by the bewildering mass of correspondence with reference to the expeditions which I received during the weeks preceding our departure. Many of these letters were prompted evidently by mere curiosity, others contained suggestions — of which some were sensible enough; a few, whimsical in the extreme. Cranks wrote to me who professed to be acquainted with certain methods for discovering treasure by means of divining rods, or charms, or other uncanny tricks. Others had dreamt dreams, in which they had seen the exact position of the wealth; but most curious of all were the letters from individuals in all parts of Europe and America who were acquainted with the existence of other treasures, which they proposed I should search for in the course of my voyage. To have sought them all would have meant to sail every navigable sea on the face of the earth, and to have travelled into the heart of continents; in short, to have undertaken a voyage which would have extended over a century or so. To have found them all would have necessitated my chartering all the merchant fleets of Europe to carry them home; and then gold would have become a valueless drug on the markets, and my labours would have been all in vain.
One individual modestly asked for £1,000 down before he would give the slightest hint as to the nature of his treasure or its locality; but, according to him, there could not be the slightest doubt as to my finding it, and as one item alone of this pile consisted of ten million pounds worth of golden bars, it would be the height of folly on my part not to send him a cheque for the comparatively ridiculous sum of £1,000 in return for such information.
Some of these treasure-tales were very terrible, and the most bloodthirsty villains figured in the ghastly narratives. Among my correspondence I have materials that would supply all our writers of boys' stories for years.
But in addition to the numerous impossible tales, there were some well authenticated, and people who had taken an interest in these matters, and had carefully collected their data, wrote to me concerning several promising schemes.
A few days before sailing a retired naval officer residing in Exeter came to see me at Southampton; he told me he had guessed that our destination was the islet of Trinidad, and that he was acquainted with the record of another treasure which had been concealed on a desert island lying on our route, distant about 1,400 miles from Southampton and 3,400 from Trinidad, and he thought it would be worth our while to make a call there and endeavour to identify the spot.
An outline of this story is given in the North Atlantic Directory, but the following account was copied by my informant from the Government documents relating to the matter.
Early in 1813 the then Secretary of the Admiralty wrote to Sir Richard Bickerton, the Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth, instructing him to let a seaman who had given information respecting a hidden treasure be sent in the first King's ship likely to touch at Madeira, so that the truth of his story might be put to the test.
The Prometheus, Captain Hercules Robinson, was then refitting at Portsmouth, and to this officer was entrusted the carrying out of the Admiralty orders. In his report Captain Robinson states that after being introduced to the foreign seaman referred to in the above letter, and reading the notes which had been taken of his information, he charged him to tell no person what he knew or what was his business, that he was to mess with the captain's coxswain, and that no duty would be required of him. To this the man replied that that was all he desired that he was willing to give his time, and would ask no remuneration if nothing resulted from his intelligence.
A few days afterwards the ship sailed, and in a week anchored at Funchal, Madeira. During the passage Captain Robinson took occasion to examine and cross-question the man, whose name was Christian Cruise, and compare his verbal with his written testimony.
The substance of both was that some years before he was sent to the hospital in Santa Cruz, with yellow fever, with a Spanish sailor who had served for three or four voyages in the Danish merchant ship in which Cruise was employed. He was in a raging fever, but notwithstanding, recovered. The Spaniard, though less violently ill sank under a gradual decay, in which medical aid was unavailing, and, a few days before his death, told Cruise he had something to disclose which troubled him, and accordingly made the following statement.
He said that in 1804 he was returning in a Spanish ship from South America to Cadiz, with a cargo of produce and about two millions of dollars in chests that when within a few days' sail of Cadiz they boarded a neutral, who told them that their four galleons had been taken by a squadron of English frigates, war having been declared, and that a cordon of cruisers from Trafalgar to Cape Finisterre would make it impossible for any vessel to reach Cadiz, or any other Spanish port. What was to be done? Returning to South America was out of the question, and the captain resolved to try back for the West Indies, run for the north part of the Spanish Main or some neutral island, and have a chance thus of saving at least the treasure with which he was entrusted. The crew, who preferred the attempt of making Cadiz, were all but in a state of mutiny. But they acquiesced in the proceeding, and, keeping out of the probable track of cruisers, reached a few degrees to the southward of Madeira, where they hoped to meet the trade-winds.
They had familiarized their minds to plans of resistance and outrage, but had not the heart to carry them into effect, till, one daybreak, they found themselves off a cluster of small uninhabited islands fifty leagues to the southward of Madeira, and nearly in its longitude, the name of which the narrator did not know. The central island, about three miles round, was high, flat, and green at top, but clearly uninhabited, the temptation was irresistible: here was a place where everything might be hidden; why run risks to avoid the English in order to benefit their captain and the owners? Why not serve themselves? The captain was accordingly knocked on the head, or stabbed and carried below, and the ship hauled in to what appeared the anchorage on the south side of the island. There they found a snug little bay, in which they brought up, landed the chests of dollars, and cut a deep trench in the white sand above high-water mark, and buried the treasure and covered it over, and, some feet above the chests, deposited in a box the body of their murdered captain. They then put to sea, resolving to keep well to the southward, and try to make the Spanish Main or a neutral island, run the ship on shore and set her on fire, agree on some plausible lie, and with the portion of the money which they retained and carried on their persons they were to purchase a small vessel, and, under English or other safe colours, to revisit their hoard and carry it off at once or in portions. In time they passed Tobago, and in their clumsy, ignorant navigation while it was blowing hard, ran on an uninhabited cay on which the ship went to pieces, and only two lives were saved. These got to Santa Cruz or St. Thomas; one died, and the other was the seaman who made the statement to Christian Cruise. The name of the ship, the owners, the port she sailed from, the exact date, or various other particulars by which the truth might be discovered, were not told to Christian Cruise, or not remembered.
Captain Robinson gave at length and in a quaint old-fashioned way his impressions as to the bona fides of Cruise. He says: "May he not have some interested object in fabricating this story? Why did he not tell it before? Is not the cold-blooded murder inconceivable barbarity, and the burying the body over the treasure too dramatic and buccaneer-like ? Or might not the Spaniard have lied from love of lying and mystifying his simple shipmate, or might he not have been raving ?" Captain Robinson then thus satisfactorily replies to his own queries: "As to the first difficulty, I had the strongest conviction of the honesty of Christian Cruise, and I think I could hardly be grossly deceived as to his character, and his disclaiming any reward unless the discovery was made went to confirm my belief that he was an honest man. And then, as to his withholding his information for four or five years, be it remembered that the war with Denmark might truly have shut him out from any possibility of intercourse with England. Next, as to the wantonness and indifference with which the murder was perpetrated: I am afraid there is no great improbability in this; with self-interest in the scales, humanity is but as dust in the balance. I have witnessed a disregard of human life in matters of promotion in our service, etc., even among men of gentle blood, which makes the conduct of these Spaniards under vehement temptation, and when they could do as they pleased, sufficiently intelligible. But, certainly, the coffin over the treasure looked somewhat theatrical, had given it the air of Sadler's Wells or a novel, rather than matter of fact. I inquired, therefore, from Christian why the body was thus buried, and he replied that he understood the object was, that in case any person should find the marks of their proceeding, and dig to discover what they had been about, they might come to the body and go no farther. Then, as to the supposition of the Spaniard lying from mere méchanceté, this conduct would be utterly out of keeping in an ignorant Spanish seaman. But, lastly, he might have been raving, and on this point I was particular in my inquiries. Cruise said, 'Certainly not, he was quite clear in his mind; his conscience might be troubled, but his head was not disturbed,' and it is conceivable enough that this dying criminal might have been able to bring into such correct review, as he was stated to have done, these portions of his dark history. The result of my inquiries and cogitations on the subject was that the probability was strongly in favour of the substantial truth of this romance of real life, that I considered would be still further substantiated if the locus in quo, the Salvages (for to them alone the latitude and longitude pointed), corresponded with the account given of the tomb of the dollars."
Captain Robinson goes on to state that he inquired at Madeira whether anything had ever been picked up at the Salvages, and was informed that some years before the taffrail of a foreign ship had been found there and two boxes of dollars. Being unable to obtain any precise information, he then proceeded for the islands. On arriving off the Great Salvage they found it was about a league in circumference, flat at top, and green with salsola or saltwort and other alcalescent plants; and on hauling round the east point opened up a sandy bay with white beach and the little level spot above high-water mark just as they w nted to find it. Captain Robinson asked Christian, "Will this do?" and the man replied, "No doubt, sir, it must be the place." The captain then sent for the officers, and, pledging them to secrecy that others might not interfere with them, told them all the story, but desired them to announce only half the truth to the men — namely, that they were in search of a murdered man who was supposed to be buried somewhere above high-water mark. Fifty or sixty of the ship's crew were then landed, provided with all the shovels there were on board, and boarding-pikes; and to encourage them they were told that the discoverer of the coffin should have a reward of one hundred dollars. Their embarrassment, however, was now extreme; the white sand extended round the bay, and a large area intervened between the high water and the foot of the cliff, which a month would not turn up. They selected the centre of the beach and went beyond high-water mark to where Captain Robinson thought the breaking of the sea and the drainage through the sand might terminate, and where a man would be likely to drop his burden, and then they dug a deep hole, but with no greater success than finding some broken shells and rounded pebbles. The men in the meanwhile were probing with their boarding-pikes in all directions, and digging in every promising spot. This went on for several hours, and finally the captain abandoned the search and ordered the boats on board, and, as night was approaching and the ship's situation unsafe, hoisted them in, weighed, and stood out of the bay and shaped course for Madeira. On arriving at Funchal they found other orders and occupation, and had no opportunity of revisiting the spot before their return to England. Nor did the Admiralty of the day, on receiving Captain Robinson's report, think it worth while to prosecute the matter further.
In conclusion, Captain Robinson remarks that, "In favour of the affirmative view, there is the apparent honesty, fairness, candour, and clear-headedness of Christian Cruise, as well as the entire correspondence of the place with that described; and opposed to this are the many motives to falsehood, deceit, and self-interest in some obscure shape, or even mere love of lying; or it may be the ravings of lunacy and the wonderful plausibility of perverted reason. If I am asked for my own opinion, I would say that my judgment leans, as I have already declared, to the probability of some such transaction having taken place, so much so that I certainly think it worth the while of any yachtsman to try what this might turn up."
My informant from Exeter told me that he had sailed by these islands close in shore while he was serving in the Navy, and he gave me an account of their appearance. He said he had perceived men on the Great Salvage, and understood that Portuguese or other fishermen visit the island at one season of the year in order to catch and salt down the fish that abound in the surrounding sea. He did not consider that there was ever a large body of these men on the island, so that in the event of our digging there and discovering the treasure, our party would be strong enough, well armed as we were, to protect and carry it off in spite ot any opposition that might be offered.
As my informant pointed out, one curious feature in this vague and not very encouraging tale of hidden treasure was that the foreign seaman, according to the report, stated that the chests of dollars were landed on the middle island, whereas Captain Robinson prosecuted his search on the Great Salvage, or northernmost island.
The Salvages — a map will show — consist of three islands, of which the middle one, known as the Great Piton, is the largest; and if the man's tale be true, it is on this island that the treasure should be sought.
It would not be worth while to fit out an expedition to the Salvages on such evidence as this; "but," argued my informant "as you must pass near the group with your vessel, it would not delay you much to discover whether any bay answering to the man's description exists on the south side of the Great Piton."
I told this gentleman that I would put the matter before my companions, and that in case they agreed to this deviation from our original scheme we would, if possible, land on the Great Piton and explore the likely portions of the sands for the chests of dollars.
Seeing that the Salvages, adjacent as they are to both Madeira and the Canaries, might belong to either Spain or Portugal — though I could find no record of such being the case — I thought it prudent to keep this portion of our programme a secret, for the publication of our intentions in the papers might attract the attention of those who laid claim to the islets and cause them to interfere with our operations. Consequently, when we sailed only three men knew whither we were bound, and I said nothing about the Salvages until we had been two days at sea, when I repeated the whole story to my companions after dinner. They were unanimously of opinion that we should visit the island and see what could be done there. Our course was accordingly shaped for it. We talked over the possibility of our finding foreign fishermen on the Salvages, and some of my companions proposed that in this case we should take charge of their boats for them during our stay, so that they would have no means of communicating with their countries and giving notice of our arrival. Having thus, as it were, taken temporary possession of the island, we were to compel the fishermen to dig for us at a reasonable rate of pay — a somewhat high-handed proceeding, but the suggestion at any rate showed that there were those among my crew who would not be deterred by small difficulties when impelled by the prospect of discovering gold.
I was unable to take a bill of health for our first port of call, as I did not myself know what it would be, our stoppages on the way out entirely depending on our necessities, such as want of water or repairs of any damage to the vessel. If it had been possible to have done so I would have called at no inhabited place until the termination of the expedition, but I was well aware that the lack of something or other would sooner or later drive us into port. I accordingly procured a bill of health for Sydney; not that I had the slightest intention of going there, but I knew that this document would satisfy the authorities of any place at which I was likely to call for stores: every harbour on either side of the Atlantic can be considered as being more or less on the way to Australia and on entering a port a visé of our bill of health would be all that was necessary; for there is no law against zigzagging across the world to one's destination in a leisurely fashion if one chooses to do so.