The material below was prepared during the development of the Corsairs Legacy pirate life simulation game by Ukrainian Mauris studio in order to popularize the marine theme in general and pirate games in particular.
In this article, Kirill Nazarenko will talk about the most famous and expensive pirate treasures, as well as pirate treasures in the Black Sails series and the book Treasure Island.
If you watch the Black Sails series, then as you remember, in the first season, Flint and his team are chasing the Spanish ship Urca de Lima, which is loaded with countless treasures, and if they manage to capture it, then, of course, huge wealth will fall into their hands, and it will be possible to bury it somewhere. However, the corsairs in the Black Sails fail to achieve this success. But what was the deal with treasures in real life?
First of all, it must be said that treasures are often found. If you look at the news feeds, we will see that even in completely non-exotic seas, interesting things are found from time to time.
If we take such ship-specific maritime specifics, then, say, in the Baltic Sea in 1953, a ship was found off the coast of Finland, which sank in 1747 and was carrying various cargoes destined for Empress Elizabeth the First. Among other things, there was a gilded carriage, thirty-four gold snuff boxes, quite a few watches made of gold and silver, and porcelain.
In 1999, the schooner "Frau Maria" was also discovered in the Baltic Sea, which sank in 1771, and carried paintings from Holland for Catherine II. Moreover, the paintings were very well packed and did not suffer from water at all. By the way, the trial over the fate of these treasures is still ongoing, since Russia believes that these are Russian art objects, and those who found them, underwater Finnish archaeologists, believe that these objects belong to them.
Still, quite a lot of interesting things were found on land, for example, in 2010 Dave Krypt, not a treasure hunter, but an ordinary farmer, took a metal detector from a neighbor to find a hammer he had lost on the field. Instead of a hammer, he found a vessel with ancient coins, of which there were 52,000 pieces, and some of them date back to the third century AD.
And the world's largest treasure that has ever been found is the treasure discovered in the summer of 2011 in the temple of the god Vishnu in India in the state of Sri Padmanabhaswami. Treasures were found not by treasure hunters, but during the inventory process since the temple was taken under state protection. Underground vaults were opened and treasures worth $22 billion were discovered.
You can generally name huge numbers, for example, returning to the marine theme, in 2005 the Chileans found a real almost pirate treasure. On one of the islands of the Juan Fernandez archipelago, they found 800 tons of gold, which was buried by the Spanish navigator Juan Ubilla in 1715, and this treasure is estimated at 10 billion dollars. The amounts are quite large.
Be sure to understand that modern finds will certainly be expensive. Because if you and I even find some items, say, silverware of the 19th century in good condition and it is already more than 100 years old and at that time this silverware could cost not so much, now it will cost lots of.
Even if you find a treasure, even a small one, say, from hundreds of coins that were minted in Ancient Rome, and even find it somewhere in an interesting place, as happened in the early 2000s in the Crimea, when 99 gold coins were found from Malaya Asia, and it became the largest treasure in the history of archaeological excavations in the Crimea. Maybe the value of this treasure itself, if measured by gold, will not be very large, but since these coins are 2000 years old and if they are in good condition, and if there are unique ones among them, then the monetary value of this treasure can rise hundreds and thousands of times, and, maybe, it will become completely priceless. It is clear that if these are really large cultural values, then now this kind of treasure is very difficult to sell. Most likely it will go to the museum, but those who find it, at best, will receive gratitude and some more or less modest amount of money.
However, there are various legal nuances. For example, if you find a treasure in the American legal zone, then most likely, even if it is cultural property, you will be paid for it at the museum. If it is Europe, then you may not be paid, and precious objects may become the property of the museum, but you will receive a modest reward.
Still, in order to bury the treasures, it was first necessary to get the treasures somewhere. By themselves, the finds of certain treasures by modern people, in general, do not prove the circumstances that someone once buried the treasures. If you look at the statistics of where rich treasures are found now, then basically these are sunken ships that transported state cargo that belonged not to private individuals, but to the authorities of one state or another.
We can recall, say, the story when in 1702 the British tried to attack the Bay of Vigo (this is northern Spain, the Bay of Biscay) the Spanish fleet, which transported approximately 3400 tons of silver and 200 tons of gold, as well as a certain amount of goods, the amount of which was approximately 265 million piastres or thalers, or about 9 annual budgets of Spain. However, when compared with the annual budgets of England or France, it will be about 6 annual budgets of that time.
Unfortunately, the British were severely disappointed: the Spaniards resisted, some of the Spanish ships were sunk, and the British did not capture much booty. A legend was born that ships with treasures still lie at the bottom of Vigo Bay, but then it turned out that the Spaniards managed to unload most of the treasures and if something sank, then in very small quantities. It was in 1702, but this legend of gold and silver on galleons in Vigo Bay still excites the imagination of people.
There were also reverse situations. For example, in August 1780, the Spanish fleet, with the help of a French squadron, captured a British convoy of 55 ships. The trophies amounted to a huge amount of military equipment for the British troops in the Caribbean (at that time the American War of Independence was still going on) and 1.5 million pounds sterling in silver and gold — that's 6 million piastres or thalers. Of course, 6 million is not 265 million, but it is still quite a lot.
If we talk directly about corsairs successes, then in 1715, 11 Spanish ships crashed during a hurricane off the coast of Florida, these ships were loaded with silver. It was part of the silver fleet that carried the jewels from America to Europe, but most of the silver was taken up by the Spanish.
Pirate Henry Jennings was able to capture some 348,000 worth of silver from the Spanish camp on the coast. True, this silver was also squeezed out of him later, but in any case, 350 thousand piastres was not a small amount, although, of course, these are not the 6 million that the Spaniards captured from the British in 1780 and not the 265 million that could capture the British at Vigo Bay.
But, let's say, if the story about Jennings is a more or less confirmed fact, then in 1693 the corsair Thomas Tew captured a ship in the Indian Ocean that belonged to the great Mongols — this is a dynasty that ruled in India. The booty allegedly amounted to about 400 thousand piastres, also, notice, that it does not reach a million, but since there were not many corsairs, each of them had a rather big booty. Moreover, in 1695, Henry Avery allegedly captured exactly the same ship.
Let me remind you that a piastre or thaler is a large silver coin, 27 grams of pure silver.
If we count by modern standards, this is a very small amount, say, one gram of silver of the highest standard costs now approximately 67 US cents. That is, it turns out that a thaler is generally some kind of insignificant coin now, but relatively insignificant, only some 18 US dollars. But it is impossible to translate the value of ancient coins into modern ones in this way because in the 18th century the ratio of the price of gold and silver was about one to fifteen. Even earlier in the Middle Ages, the ratio was one to ten (but we are talking about the 17th–18th century, so the ratio was 1:15).
If we now look at the ratio of the price of gold and silver, we will see that if 1 gram of silver costs 67 US cents, then 1 gram of gold costs much more — it will be approximately 60–65 US dollars, that is, a ratio of approximately 1:100 between the current price of gold and silver.
This is because a lot of silver is mined in the modern world and its price, relative to gold, has fallen. While the price of gold remains fairly stable. If we want to convert the value of one thaler or piaster into modern prices, although this is very difficult, then we must do this at the rate of gold, that is, we must increase the value of the piaster six times more and then it turns out that the piaster is not 18 dollars and approximately 100–110 dollars. That is, this is a rather large amount, although it must be understood that the price ratio for different goods in the 18th century was different. Let's say the food was relatively cheaper, and industrial products were relatively more expensive than they are now.
To buy, for example, a pair of shoes, you would have to spend quite a lot of money. If we take the English market, quality English shoes cost 4 shillings. Given that one pound is about 4 piastres, it means that there were twenty shillings in the pound at that time, which means that five shillings were 1 piastre or 1 thaler. That is, the shoes cost 1 taler, it is clear that this was a fairly serious amount.
On the other hand, it is clear that the simplest shoes are not designer shoes made of crocodile skin. And at the same time, a mug of good beer cost 1 pence — this is 1/60 of a thaler, that is, for a thaler you could buy 60 mugs of good beer, more than a liter each.
We found that a piastre or thaler is quite a lot and roughly understood how much lucky corsairs could capture. Booty somewhere in the 350–400 thousand piastres was considered a very large booty, which went to one pirate.
If we look at Treasure Island, we see that Stevenson gave his heroes £700,000. He could operate with pounds that were in use at the end of the 19th century, but he timed the actions of his book to the middle of the 18th century, so it is more logical to assume that the money that the characters are talking about is big, this is the money of that time because, during inflation, money gradually loses its value.
But 700 thousand pounds sterling, counting 4 piastres per 1 pound, is 2.8 million piastres or thalers. This is a huge amount, for comparison — this is about 7% of the annual budget of the UK at that time. Such an amount in private hands, of course, was a fabulous fortune, but it exceeded several times the largest jackpots that corsairs managed to break in their history.
Let's say that this booty from Treasure Island was seven times greater than the booty that Thomas Tew got, capturing a Mongolian ship in the Indian Ocean in 1693, or Henry Avery in 1695, and this was more than eight times more than Henry Jennings was able to capture the silver from the Spanish in 1715.
The question arises: how much did Flint have to capture to bury such a huge treasure?
We remember that the heroes of Treasure Island dug only gold. And on the map of Billy Bones, it was written that there is a treasure with silver and there is a treasure with weapons. The question arises: how much silver did Flint bury in Treasure Island, as well as in one of the last seasons of Black Sails??
It is clear that such gigantic treasures were absolutely unthinkable. Nowadays, treasures of this size can be found, but if we estimate by weight how much the 700 thousand pounds sterling found by the heroes of Treasure Island or 2.8 million piastres could weigh, we multiply this amount by 27 grams and get 75 and a half tons, if counted in silver.
If we count in gold, and the heroes found it, and gold correlated with silver 1:15 at this time, then, respectively, Squire Trelawney, Captain Smollet, Dr. Livesey, and Jim Hawkins should have found approximately 5 tons of gold.
Basically, the author roughly imagined it. If you remember, at the end of the book, the heroes drag the gold onto the ship for a long time, Jim Hawkins packs it in bags, and indeed it must have been something around 5 tons.
Still, such finds, in principle, are now found. I have already mentioned that the Chileans on the island of Juan Fernandez in 2005 were able to find 800 tons of gold, that is, the amount is 160 times more.
And, say, at the bottom of the sea at one time was found the Spanish frigate "Ester Señora de Mercedes", which sank in 1804, and was not far from Portugal. Approximately 500 thousand coins were lifted from it, with a total weight of about 13.5 tons. That is, you can find big treasures, but all these were not treasures of private individuals, they were state ones. It is clear that the possibilities of the state budget of any country are much greater than the possibilities of a private person.
But if we talk about the corsairs who talked about their treasures or who were suspected of having buried the treasure, we can remember, first of all, Henry Morgan. He, after the capture of Panama in 1671, divided the booty, and every one of each of his warriors, his corsairs, had only 25 piastres, not 25 thousand, but 25 piastres — a tiny amount. From here, rumors began that Morgan stole some part of the booty. But the corsairs, I'm afraid, were not the kind of people who could easily wring out anything that fell into their hands, and most likely Morgan's raid on Panama was simply extremely unsuccessful.
Just in case, I must emphasize that the coins in the 17th–18th century were called differently, and when they talk about Spanish coins, they constantly confuse reals and piastres.
The fact is that piastres or thalers were a world currency, which was used in its pure form only in some countries.
For example, in Turkey, thalers were used, which were called just piastres after the Spanish and Italian models. In France, ecu was in use in the 17th century, but even then not from the very beginning of the century. In Germany, thalers were used, which were called the same — thalers.
But then this coin became widespread in America, and if somewhere in Jack London we read about a silver Mexican dollar that fell into the hands of one of the heroes, it will be the same piastres. Why Mexican? Because there was quite a lot of silver mined in Mexico both in colonial times and after independence, and Mexico minted this coin, which came from the United States.
But in some countries, such as Spain or Portugal, thalers in their pure form were practically not used, and another coin was in use. Reals were one of these coins, and the reals were of two varieties: silver reals and just reals — and there was also a difference of about one and a half times between them. However, there were 8 silver reals per piastres, so if you read that Morgan's ordinary associates received 200 reals each, it will be the same 25 piastres or thalers, in which case you need to know the monetary economy of the era well.
And, by the way, if we talk about famous literary works, then Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers makes a lot of absurdities and mistakes, and his characters constantly and very badly screw up in money calculations, they would have been deceived in any French market of that era, because Alexander Dumas knew very little how real monetary relations were arranged in France in the 17th century.
But almost all countries had a counting coin and a real coin. Again, the scene that Stevenson paints for us when Jim Hawkins' mother is digging through Billy Bones' chest and counting out only a certain kind of coin. Because in England the most common coin was the crown — a coin of a quarter of a pound sterling or five shillings. In fact, the crown is the British version of the thaler. At the same time, coins were minted in half a crown, that is, in 2.5 shillings, and a quarter of a crown, that is, 1.25 shillings. Silver shillings were not minted so often, but it depends on the specific time.
That is, it is difficult to understand money, these are not modern banknotes, on which everything is written in plain text. Just in case, the denomination on the money was very often not indicated, because the size of the coin itself and its decor was sufficient to understand what kind of coins they were.
It is clear that if you were a poor person, then, as a rule, silver did not fall into your hands, you lived on copper money and saw nothing but copper in your life. Well, if you were a rich person, then you should have had the appropriate knowledge in order not to lose this wealth.
At the same time, if we talk about pirate treasures, then we can recall Captain Kidd, who, when he was threatened with hanging in England, said that he would show where he buried the treasure. He was taken to the Caribbean Sea, and he began to carry his interrogators from one island to another, as a result, he received two years of life, but in the end, he was hanged anyway. By the way, now there is a movement for the acquittal of Captain Kidd and this is a fairly popular topic in the UK, there are lovers of litigation to restore the captain's good name.
So that you understand what real money the corsairs operated with, Olivier Exquemelin, the author of the book "History of the Buccaneers of America " — this is one of the main sources in the history of piracy — wrote about how the pirates distributed the booty.
First of all, before the partition, they gave out some money for certain services. For example, the one who provided the preparation of meat for swimming was supposed to be 25 piastres, the carpenter who prepared the ship for swimming — from 12 to 19 piastres, the doctor was supposed to be from 25 to 30 piastres, and the payment for medicines was included in the same amount, that is not everything the doctor could take for himself; the following compensations were due to the wounded: for those who lost their right arm — 75 talers, for those who lost their left arm or right leg, or received a gunshot wound — 62 talers, for those who lost their left leg — 50 talers, for those who lost an eye or finger — 12 talers (well, it seems to me that for an eye it was necessary to pay more, but the corsairs did not ask my opinion).
In addition, it must be borne in mind that one slave in the Caribbean at the end of the 17th century cost only 12 thalers, and slaves were relatively cheap. Let me remind you: 12 thalers are the annual salary of a European soldier, and in addition to this, the soldier received a uniform and food, and an apartment or a place in the barracks. That is, 12 thalers were money for his pocket expenses. At the same time, it was a small amount in terms of a year, that is, one thaler per month. But a soldier could go to a tavern two or three times for this thaler and eat heartily — it was probably pleasant to eat once every 10 days.
Then the corsairs began to divide the booty and the captain had four or five shares of the booty, the ordinary pirate — had 1 share, and the cabin boy — had half the share. That is, if we have, say, a team of 50 corsairs on our ship, let's say, then all the booty had to be divided into 55 parts, of which 5 parts for the captain, and one part for each ordinary corsair. Thus, the captain of a pirate team of 50 people could receive only a tenth of the booty.
Now let's remember that Silver tells how Flint (in the book "Treasure Island" and in the TV series "Black Sails") hid these treasures and in general it turns out that it was not a common fund, but his own treasures, that is, his property. But if it was Flint's property, then the amount becomes completely unrealistic and absolutely fantastic.
As I already said, the booty found by the heroes of Treasure Island was 7 results of the most successful operation of Thomas Tew or Henry Avery, and if it was still only the captain's share, then how much did the rest of the corsairs capture? Therefore, I am inclined to think that Stevenson went a little too far with the amount of booty found by the heroes of Treasure Island. If he reduced its size, at least 10 times, it would be more realistic. But it would be better to reduce it by 20-30-50 times, then it would be even more realistic, but then it would not be so interesting, it would be some more or less ordinary amount.
By the way, I must say that it happened that in the Royal Navy it was necessary to share quite a lot of booty. Let me remind you that the Spaniards in 1780 captured an English convoy with cargo, and its 900 thousand piastres out of 6 million captured were divided among the sailors.
But why so few? Because it was the Royal Navy, most of the booty was considered government property. Ordinary sailors got 15–20 piastres each because in the royal fleet the booty was divided in a completely different way than pirates.
On royal ships, one-third of the booty was assigned to the crew and the commander, one-third to the officers, and only the remaining third to the sailors, in proportion to their salary. And the salaries of sailors could vary quite a lot: the boatswain could receive 8 times more than an ordinary sailor, especially 16 times more than a cabin boy received. Therefore, ordinary sailors of the Royal Navy, even those who captured very large booty, received a very modest reward, while it was still possible to receive bonuses.
For example, bonuses were relied on for captured enemy guns or a captured enemy flag. But, in addition, the participants could be rewarded for the battle even if nothing was captured, but simply if they showed perseverance and courage, or they needed to be stimulated in some way, then they could be given a salary for half a year, a year or a quarter year, depending on their merits, as they were evaluated by their superiors.
We can go to the problem of treasures from another side. We have now considered treasures solely from the point of view of their value and the fact that we bury the treasure in order to save our treasures for the future in the absence of a banking system. But treasures could be left in other cases, say, in ancient times, in the Middle Ages, treasures were often sacrificed, that is, it was not supposed to return for treasures.
For example, a merchant who received a large profit, returning to his homeland, could bury part of his money, sometimes not a small, but a tenth, or even a fifth of his profit in order to donate it to the gods. They could throw some valuable items into the sea, lake, or river, in order to pay tribute to the higher powers that helped them in their affairs.
But at the same time, the ancient man was pragmatic, his relationship with the gods was rather peculiar. For example, it was believed that it was necessary to donate to the gods, but if you yourself later found yourself in a difficult life situation, you can borrow from the gods some part of the donated earlier or all, but then, of course, you have to repay the debts.
One can recall, for example, the ancient Athenians, who during the war with the Persians used all the treasures of the temple of Athena on the Acropolis and even the precious vessels that were there, they melted into coins, and after winning the war, they reimbursed Athena twice as much treasure as they took it from her. In the same way, if you buried some of the treasures in the ground somewhere, you could dig them out if your business started to go bad, but when it got better, you had to return to God what you borrowed from him. But, of course, with percentages, because the ancient gods also knew how to count, and if you tried to deceive them, it would be very bad, the gods would try to take revenge on you.
If we talk about the Christian tradition, it was customary here to donate to churches, but it also happened that certain treasures, or part of them, were borrowed from churches to solve state problems, but then returned them back. However, the tradition of burying treasures for the sake of sacrificing them will no longer exist in the classical Middle Ages or in modern times.
Perhaps, one relic of these ancient traditions has remained to this day: when leaving the sea, you need to throw a coin into the sea in order to return to this place again if you like relaxing on this beach or in this resort, and therefore quite a lot of coins are found on the beach after a storm. This is also a form of such a sacrifice, which we perceive simply as a fun tradition.
Summing up the results of today's conversation, it must be said that the talk about treasures was greatly exaggerated. There was much more noise around the treasures, triumph around the treasures and some rumors about them than the treasures themselves. The same applies to both the Treasure Island book and the Black Sails series.
This is quite natural, because every corsair pirate who told his acquaintances about his adventures, of course, had to boast and, of course, he had to show the real goods. He was supposed to show, like “you”, they say, “the newbies, are sitting on the shore and did not sniff real dangers and real money, and I went through fire and water, and copper pipes, and held a huge treasure in my hands. But I buried it on an island and I can’t remember which one, so I’m sitting here, in some dirty tavern, begging for an extra glass of rum from those who are ready to listen to my fables”.
And then it all became a literary process, and in the 19th century, a whole series of works dedicated to pirates appeared. There are dozens of authors, there are hundreds if not thousands of novels, short stories, and stories, each of which has some incredible corsairs, treasures, etc. You can remember Walter Scott, who wrote about pirates, and Fenimore Cooper, Frederic Mariette, Gustave Omar, Vicente Rio Palacio, Louis Jacollio, and, of course, Stevens.
In the 20th century, corsairs were written about by James Matthew Barry, author of Peter Pan, Emilio Salgari, and Conan Doyle, who wrote not only stories about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, but also stories about the corsair Shark, a disgusting and vile, cruel pirate; this is Rafael Sabatini and many, many others. And under the pen of each of them, the corsairs buried treasures, found them, and fought for treasures. Well, then they made films.
Returning to the series "Black Sails", the heroes of this film are again chasing treasures, and we, of course, somewhere in one of the last seasons of this series will see how Captain Flint buries the very treasures that Stevens' heroes will then find. All these authors received royalties, and if someone found corsair treasure, then this treasure was not dug up on a desert island in the Caribbean, but this treasure was received in the form of millions of books that were bought and the revenues, which partly went into the pocket of authors who wrote about it.
We hope you found this article useful!
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