Olivier Levasseur’s Lost Treasure

Feb 20, 2024 0 comments

On the 7th of July 1730, the notorious French pirate, Olivier Levasseur, faced his final moments on the scaffold. His crimes, which had instilled fear across the high seas for over fifteen years, had finally caught up with him. However, it was his brazen looting of the Portuguese great galleon Nossa Senhora do Cabo that sealed his fate. The ship was carrying the Bishop of Goa and the Viceroy of Portugal, and was laden with treasures which Levasseur adamantly refused to relinquish. Instead, he boasted of having hidden it, taunting authorities and onlookers alike.

Moments before the hangman's noose tightened around his neck, Levasseur dramatically produced a necklace, within which lay a small piece of parchment bearing a cryptogram of clues to the treasure's whereabouts. With a defiant cry, he hurled it into the crowd, challenging, "Find my treasure, the one who may understand it!”. Thus began a legend that would echo through the ages, passed down through generations on the islands of the Seychelles and La Réunion.

The island Mahe, Seychelles, where Olivier Levasseur’s treasure is believed to lay hidden. Photo credit: Olivier Levasseur/Flickr

Olivier Levasseur was born into a privileged bourgeois family in Calais in 1688. Thanks to his excellent education, Levasseur could have led a respectable life as an architect. However, driven by adventure and the allure of the seas, he forsook such prospects and instead enlisted as a privateer for the French crown during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). In this capacity, he preyed upon vessels of Great Britain, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Dutch, amassing a reputation for audacity and skill.

Following the war's conclusion, Levasseur found himself under the mentorship of English pirate Benjamin Hornigold, whose tutelage honed his leadership abilities and seamanship. Despite their fruitful partnership, Levasseur's ambition led him to part ways with Hornigold in pursuit of greater fortunes. Venturing along the Brazilian coast and throughout the Caribbean, he and his cohorts pillaged numerous ships and vessels, accumulating staggering wealth with each successful raid.

Dubbed 'La Buse' (The Buzzard) for his swift and relentless attacks, Levasseur became a formidable figure among pirates. He forged alliances with other notorious buccaneers such as Samuel Bellamy, Henry Jennings, Howell Davis, Thomas Cocklyn, and Edward England, further solidifying his reputation as a daring and ruthless adversary upon the high seas.

In 1721, Levasseur and his band stumbled upon a fateful prize: the Portuguese galleon Nossa Senhora do Cabo, also known as Virgem Do Cabo, anchored near Réunion Island. Having weathered a tempest that forced the crew to throw all 72 cannons overboard to prevent capsizing, the vessel lay vulnerable. Seizing the opportunity, Levasseur's crew stormed aboard without firing a single gun and carried away all the loot.

The spoils they uncovered were beyond comprehension—a veritable trove of riches. Among the cargo were the personal belongings of the Bishop of Goa and the Viceroy of Portugal, en route from the Se Cathedral Church to Portugal. Described by one historian as a "floating treasure house," the galleon's holds overflowed with bars of precious gold and silver, chests brimming with golden Guineas, diamonds, pearls, silks, artworks, and religious relics. Among these treasures gleamed the legendary Fiery Cross of Goa—a majestic seven-foot-tall marvel wrought from pure gold and bedecked with rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds, casting an illusion of perpetual flame.

Such was the enormity of the bounty that the pirates scarcely bothered to relieve the ship's passengers of their personal belongings—a departure from their usual modus operandi.

Upon dividing the spoils, each pirate found themselves enriched beyond measure, with a share amounting to at least £50,000 in golden Guineas and 42 diamonds apiece. Levasseur and his comrade, John Taylor, claimed the lion's share of the remaining gold, silver, and artifacts, with Levasseur laying claim to the coveted golden cross.

Levasseur tried to retire quietly in Seychelles, hoping to enjoy the riches, but his past caught up with him. He was captured and sentenced to death. As he faced the gallows, Levasseur made one final dramatic gesture: he flung a necklace into the crowd, containing a parchment purportedly revealing the location of his hidden treasure. But the instructions were a cipher.

The tale of Levasseur's treasure and its cryptic clues first emerged in Charles de La Roncière's 1934 book, "Le Flibustier mysterieux: Histoire d'un trésor caché." Contemporary sources, however, make no mention of Levasseur's alleged cryptogram, the necklace, or his defiant proclamation from the scaffold. This absence has led modern historians of piracy to dismiss the legend as a product of 20th-century fiction.

The cryptogram of Olivier Levasseur.

There is, however, one man who believe the legend to be true. John Cruise-Wilkins, known locally on the Seychelles island of Mahé as the ‘Treasure Man’, has been trying to decipher the puzzle for more than forty years. His father, Reginald Herbert Cruise-Wilkins, did the same for 27 years until his death in 1977.

Cruise-Wilkins has dedicated a better part of his life trying to decode the cryptogram, using everything from Greek, Hebrew, astrology, astronomy, mythology and the occult to break the elaborate system of clues. Through painstaking effort, he pieced together clues that led him to believe the treasure's location was intricately tied to a complex riddle inspired by the legendary 12 Labours of Hercules, and after many years identified the treasure's hiding place to the breathtakingly picturesque area of Bel Ombre on the northern coast of Mahé.

John has searched more than 40 acres around the Bel Ombre area, exploring crevices and caverns, and uncovering what he thinks are pirate markings on rocks. He’s also found bones, pistols, musket balls and statuettes.

“I’ve used all sorts of equipment: water pumps, rock drills, jackhammers, hand tools, even excavators and blasting at certain times, [as well as] the latest treasure detection equipment from Germany,” he said to BBC.

John believes he is now inches away from the treasure, having identified a cavern as the treasure site. However, the cavern’s opening is blocked by boulders and can only be accessed by an underwater tunnel. John also believes that the shrewd pirate had placed booby traps over the treasure.

The land where John is trying to dig belongs to the government, and he needs a license to continue searching. However, obtaining this vital permit comes with a hefty price tag—250,000 rupees—a financial hurdle that poses a significant challenge for John.

John has already invested considerable time and effort into preparing the site for excavation. From repairing rock armoring walls to constructing footpaths for equipment access, he has meticulously laid the groundwork for his endeavor. But without the license, his work could not commence. His hopes now rest on the generosity of an affluent benefactor who share his conviction in the legitimacy of the legend. With their financial support, John remains optimistic that he will secure the means to obtain the elusive license and finally embark on the excavation that may uncover the long-lost treasure of Olivier Levasseur.

Olivier Levasseur’s grave in Saint-Paul, Réunion. Photo credit: Jöran Kortmann/Wikimedia Commons


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