Pirates, buried treasure, clues hidden in a cryptogram, mysterious carvings on granite sea rocks and bodies buried on a remote tropical island – what could be more filled with adventure? Almost three centuries after he was hanged for piracy, the deeds of famous pirate Olivier Levasseur (known as “La Buse” or “the buzzard”) still fascinates people around the world. To this day, treasure-hunters still search for his treasure, including the jewel-incrusted, solid-gold “Flaming Cross of Goa” taken from a Portuguese treasure ship.
Olivier Levasseur was born to a well-to-do family in Calais in 1688 or 1689. He was well educated, including in the Greek and Latin classics, and as a young man received a commission as a naval officer. By this time, the War of the Spanish Succession (a struggle over which alliance in Europe would have control over that country’s vast territories) was being bitterly fought in both Europe and the Americas. As was the common practice at the time, Levasseur was given a Letter of Marque by King Louis XIV to authorize him to raid the enemy’s ships on the high seas. When the war finally sputtered to its end in 1714, the French king cancelled these letters and recalled his ships.
By this time, Levasseur had developed a taste for raiding and decided not to return to his country, but instead turned pirate. Joining forces with other pirates, first in the Caribbean and later in the famed freebooters’ base on the Ȋle Sainte-Marie off the coast of Madagascar, Levasseur became famous for the speed and ruthlessness of his attacks on merchant ships. Blinded in one eye, this fierce pirate soon gained the nickname of “The Buzzard” – “Le Buse” – and became one of the most successful pirates of his time. It was on April 8, 1721, however, that Levasseur, along with his partner in piracy, John Taylor, reached the pinnacle of his career with the capture of the Portuguese merchant vessel Nossa Senhora do Cabo (“Virgin of the Cape”) off the coast of Réunion Island.
This ship, carrying the Viceroy of Goa and the Bishop of that same colony on their way back to Lisbon, was also packed with such a treasure that the booty is valued as the single greatest pirate haul in history. Bars of gold and silver, chests of gold guinea coins, diamond and other precious jewels were packed in her hold, but one single item was unique in value and artistry: The Flaming Cross of Goa, so large that it required three grown men to lift it. Yet, despite this treasure, the ship was captured without a fight because the crew had just recently pushed all the cannon overboard in order to lighten the ship during a storm! The value of the haul gave Levasseur the idea of retiring from his life of crime, but when a general amnesty for pirates in the Indian Ocean was declared in 1724, he was denied pardon unless he returned his stolen treasure.
Preferring to remain outlaw rather than give up his hard-fought booty, Levasseur secretly settled on a small island in the Seychelles group, hoping to spend the remainder of his days enjoying a quiet (and wealthy) life. Requiring supplies from time to time, however, he occasionally left his home base and traveled in disguise to trading ports on buying trips. On one such mission, in 1730, while visiting a port on Madagascar, he was recognized and tricked onto a French vessel, where he was captured. The trial was brief, and Levasseur was sentenced to be hanged in Saint-Denis on Réunion on July 7th.
What happened on the scaffold became part of the legend of piracy. Standing there, with the noose around his neck and moments from his death, Levasseur defiantly ripped a silver necklace from around his throat and threw it into the crowd, crying out, “Find my treasure, anyone who may understand it!” Engraved on the necklace was a cryptogram of 17 lines, supposedly guiding anyone who could decipher the code to the pirate treasure trove, rumored to be buried somewhere in Seychelles. The necklace quickly disappeared, of course, but a supposed copy of the cryptogram surfaced in a set of mysterious letters written by a former pirate Bernardin Nagen de L’Estang (nicknamed “Le Butin”) in the year 1800. In addition, a set of strange rock carvings on Bel Ombre beach on the island of Mahé in Seychelles were uncovered after a storm in 1923, also apparently connected to the buried treasure. So, just short of 200 years after the pirate’s death, a new round of treasure-seeking began, and continues to this day.
Is Levasseur’s vast treasure still buried somewhere on an island in the Indian Ocean? Or has it – or part of it – already been discovered? Nobody knows for sure (or, if they do, they are not talking about it). Many tantalizing clues have been discovered, including graves on Mahé containing three skeletons believed to be pirates’ since one contained a gold earring. Certainly, the belief is strong enough to have caused many people over the years to work to break the cryptogram, and several men still labor on the island to dig up the gold, jewels and, of course, the cross itself. If the bulk of the treasure is still intact, its estimated worth would be in excess of £200,000,000! That lure still draws fortune hunters to Seychelles, as if the beauty, climate and people of those islands were not treasure enough.