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British set sail for Cocos Island in search of fabled lost treasure

by Sail-World Cruising round-up on 13 Aug 2012
Cocos Island - half way from Panama to the Galapagos SW
It doesn't just happen in story books and movies. A British explorer was this week preparing to set sail for a deserted Pacific 'treasure island' to search for pirate loot worth €200m. Shaun Whitehead, an engineer and lecturer from Leicester, will lead the expedition to the Pacific's Cocos Island, about half way between Panama and the Galapagos, but owned by Costa Rica, with the aim of retrieving the fabled treasure.

An original inventory showed 113 gold religious statues -- one a life-size Virgin Mary -- 200 chests of jewels, 273 swords with jewelled hilts, 1,000 diamonds, solid gold crowns, 150 chalices and hundreds of gold and silver bars.

The goods were stolen by British rogue and pirate Captain William Thompson in 1820 after he was entrusted to transport it from Peru to Mexico.

After leaving the port of Callao, near Lima, Thompson and his crew killed the Viceroy’s six men and sailed to Cocos, where they buried the treasure.


Shortly afterwards, they were apprehended by a Spanish warship. All of the crew – bar Thompson and his first mate – were executed for piracy.

The two said they would show the Spaniards where they had hidden the treasure in return for their lives, but after landing on Cocos, they escaped into the forest.

They are said to have been picked up by a passing ship a year later, but without the treasure.

Over the decades many treasure-hunters, including President Franklin D Roosevelt, racing car driver Sir Malcolm Campbell and swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn, all searched for the treasure.


The site, credited by some as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, is uninhabited. It has also been designated a Unesco World Heritage Site for its unspoilt environment and variety of wildlife and it has taken around 18 months of negotiations with the authorities to secure permission to go there on an exploratory mission. It is also said to have been the inspiration for Jurassic Park, the book and film about an island on which dinosaurs are recreated.

Armed with new technology that has never been used on the island, Mr Whitehead says he intends to establish the most likely locations on which to focus his efforts.


'If it is there, it will be in a natural cave which was hidden by one of the many landslides that occur on the island.

'It is not a case of following a map and 'X' marking the spot. It is about using a bit of logic to establish the likelihood of some areas where it could be,' he says.

'This is a scientific survey, including archaeological, geological and biodiversity aspects,' Mr Whitehead said.

'Unlike previous trips we are not going to dig vast holes or do anything destructive at all.'

The group are funding the expedition themselves, although they are hoping a television company may help to cover costs. They plan to travel after the end of the current rainy season, which finishes in November.

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