There are few more enthralling stories than those of pirates. Many a generation of young children has sat gripped at swashbuckling stories such as Treasure Island and other such tales. These stories regularly feature such tropes as desert islands, shipwrecks and stolen Spanish plunder. However, all of these cliches have a basis in the real world. Piracy was rife in the Caribbean for many years, and there were genuine dangers that sailors faced during the age of sail. There is always a truth behind the story, and one such tale is the story of the Esperanza. With looted plunder said to be worth hundreds of millions, a lost treasure is claimed to be buried on Palmyra Atoll, south of Hawaii. But is it real?
It was during the 19th century that rumours first began to emerge that a large cache of gold, silver and precious stones was to be found at Palmyra Atoll, one-third of the way between Hawaii and American Samoa. The stories told of how a Spanish privateer crew had looted the treasure during their occupation of Peru and loaded it abroad the Esperanza at Callao harbour. The fortune consisted of 1.5 million Spanish gold escudos and an equal value in silver, likely consisting of Inca relics. Bound for the Spanish West Indies, the ship set sail into the Pacific at the turn of 1816.
At this time, the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru was in its dying days, with wars of independence having broken out in 1810. Equally, the 1807–1814 European Peninsular War involving Napoleon Bonaparte ensured that the Spanish homeland lost control of the colonies. Many regions responded by forming autonomous juntas to quell uprisings. The indigenous populations were almost universally opposed to Spanish colonial rule, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that remaining wealth was looted from political opponents.
The voyage, however, was doomed from the start. One version of the story says that just 4 days out of port, the Esperanza was hit by a storm, suffering severe damage that included a broken mast and a significant leak. Taking on water and floundering, the ship is attacked by pirates the following day and boarded. The pirate crew seized the treasure and took the survivors prisoner, with differing accounts as to which ship they departed on. One of the boats, the pirate vessel or the Esperanza, had been heavily damaged in the exchange of cannon fire. Abandoning one of the ships, the pirates and their treasure make for Macao. 43 days on, the justice of the sea is seen to be done. The pirates now found themselves hit by their own storm and struck the coral reefs around Palmyra Atoll. The ship damaged near beyond repair, the pirates are forced to make landfall. They disembark with the treasure and, after distributing shares amongst the men, bury the rest.
Palmyra Atoll is a veritable pacific paradise, with unspoiled beaches, warm rain, clear lagoons and coconut palms. It is very much the stereotype of the desert island, complete with castaways. However, unfortunately for any large body of men stranded there, it is less than 700 acres across, meaning that food was likely to soon run out for our stranded pirates and captives.
Some of the crew attempt a makeshift repair of the boat, sailing away and never being heard from again. Ten others, meanwhile, take their chances on the atoll. With rations dwindling after a full year of being stranded, six of the men constructed a raft to make out to sea. Of these six, four were lost following further storms and the last two were rescued by an American whaling ship. One died on their voyage home to San Francisco and the last survivor, James Hines, died in hospital. Before his passing, however, he wrote letters on the affair and described the treasure, its value and the location at Palmyra Atoll. His claims seemingly went unnoticed.
There are two accounts of what happened next, with some saying that the letters eventually found their way into the hands of Capt. William R. Foster, the harbourmaster at Honolulu. Taking possession of them for a sailor bound for the Solomon Islands in 1903, Foster kept the documents in a locked iron chest long after their owner failed to return, reportedly being lost at sea. Twenty years later, he revealed them to a journalist who published the thrilling details. Foster seemingly allowed a reporter to actually view the letters for a story published in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in April of 1923, perhaps adding some credence to his account.
Another earlier tale tells of how on his deathbed, James Hines, implored his attendant to rescue the men still stranded at Palmyra Atoll. Hines told Edwards of the valuable cargo, yet nothing was seemingly done at the time. Many years later in 1883, Capt. FD Walker purchases an obsolete Italian man-of-war called Archimede. Utilising the boat to transport Iron to Japan, Walker expands his fleet with the purchase of the store ship Onward.
Onboard the Onward is an old Irish-Chilean caretaker, perhaps aged 80 or 90, going by the name of Connor. His experience and tales of adventure in Peru, Chile, Bolivia and throughout South America lead Walker to transfer him to the Archimede, enjoying the presence of the old sailor despite his age-related limitations. One night, while enjoying a pipe in the cold night air, the men’s regular conversation took a mysterious turn when Connor declared he could tell the captain where he could “fill the gunroom with bar silver and gold”.
“He then related to me the foregoing account of the Esperanza, he having been Edward’s attendant. He had gone to Mission hospital with a broken arm and collar bone. He carefully wrote down Edward’s statement of the latitude and longitude of the place of shipwreck together with a map of the buried treasure. After remaining in the country till 1819, he joined the service of the Argentines, first in one ship under Corney and lastly under the famous Bouchard. He spoke so highly of the latter that I was convinced that if Nelson ever had a superior, his name was Bouchard.”
Captain F.D. Walker, Daily Pacific Commercial Advertiser, 1903
Walker promised secrecy on the matter, but before they could act, Connor died from a combination of old age and pneumonia while on land, leading Walker into a period of mourning for his friend. He never found the treasure.
The old harbourmaster also told of another legend linked with the rumoured treasure that said some of it had been found by an English privateer, the Santa Rosa. This legend told of how the English ship had been sent to the islands, making off with the gold. Stopping at Hawaii on the return, the celebratory crew decided to spend some of the loot on rum. King Kamehameha declared he would exchange one bottle for one coin, a fair price thought the Englishmen who readily agreed to the deal.
Soon, however, the lower value coins were all used up, and only the gold escudos were left. The crew told the King that a gold coin was worth five of the silver ones, but he would not relent. The deal was one coin, one bottle. Irate, the crew took to cutting the escudos to make a smaller weight of gold, presenting the cut coins as a single item. The King was not to be fooled. One bottle, one coin. Faced with his unmoving defiance, the crew were forced to relent, and soon every last gold coin on the Santa Rosa was gone.
Hearing of the legends, Judge Cooper bought the island for $750 in 1911 and, despite searching for the treasure several times, failed to find a single doubloon. It would become a recurring theme. Cooper believed that the gold was buried under a large Banyan tree on Home Island, being convinced enough that he sold the atoll to the South African diamond miner Leslie Fullard-Leo for $15,000, only retaining that one islet.
In 1913, an expedition set sail for Palmyra Atoll with a mysterious mission, allegedly having forty empty barrels in the hold that the crew expected to fill with gold. However, while the speculative press gossiped about treasure hunting, the voyage was, in fact, a scientific one. Botanists and scientists were planning to erect several wooden dwellings at the atoll and were seeking to transplant seeds onto the island. They were intent on filling the barrels with soil, not plunder. The story might be a footnote in the legend of the Esperanza treasure, but it proves a point. While we are prone to believe that the standard of the press was better in a historical context, this is plainly not true. Fake news and outright lies have been published since the very dawn of the printed word. Despite being featured in the press, there is no evidence that either of the tales of the Esperanza are true.
The 1903 and 1923 accounts tell mostly the same story, with both explaining that the Esperanza was wrecked and the treasure, carried off from Peru, was left partially buried at Palmyra Atoll. Both tell of the sole survivor, James Hines, dying in hospital after telling his attendant of the tale. There is the possibility that both might be true and not conflict with each other, with Connor being present at the hospital and the letters also existing. The 1923 account as told by Captain Foster does not make clear who the sailor he acquired the letters from was, where that sailor got them, nor the full content, with the implication being that they are the words of Connor. Yet, we only have the reporters word that he ever saw any documentation, just as we only have Captain Walker’s claim that Connor even existed.
The origins of the tale, mutilated beyond recognition, may lay in the confirmed 1806 sinking of another Esperanza off the Philippines island of Mindoro. Researchers believe that the ship was carrying gold, gems and other artefacts. These goods were never originally supposed to be aboard this ship. The precious cargo was transferred off the gallon Magallanes when it was realised that the boat was not seaworthy, having sprung a leak in July of 1806. The Esperanza was promptly loaded with around 750 bales of the best cargo and set sail for Acapulco out of Manila. Headed out to make a stop at Zamboanga city, the ship is caught in a storm and strikes a reef at the Panagatan Cays, sinking. All the crew of the Esperanza were rescued, leaving many alive to tell drunken tales. The name of the ship, the transfer of goods, the vessel leaking and the precious cargo all echo the stories of Captains Foster and Walker.
The legend of the Esperanza sounds too good to be true. It reads like a swashbuckling adventure of piracy, shipwreck and mysterious gold, one told over and over again by old sea dogs at taverns across the pacific. There is little evidence that any pirate actually buried treasure, and while eastern pirates indeed existed, this story seems to be an amalgamation of common legends surrounding Caribbean pirates such as Captain Kidd and possible real-life events. There may be some truth, somewhere, in the myth, and the lack of any physical evidence hasn’t stopped many from trying to locate the gold.
Yet, would-be treasure seekers should beware.
While the lost Inca treasure may be more legend than truth, the islands themselves are linked to all manner of strange disappearances, uneasy feelings and even murder. As we shall see in the companion piece to this article, Strange Places: Palmyra Atoll, the legends of Palmyra are far more than just another treasure story…
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