It eluded Franklin Roosevelt, Sir Malcolm Campbell and Errol Flynn, but now an explorer from Melton Mowbray could be on the trail of a multi-million-pound hoard of gold, silver and jewellery stolen by pirates and buried on a treasure island.
Shaun Whitehead is leading an archaeological expedition to Cocos Island, the supposed hiding place of the “Treasure of Lima” – one of the world’s most fabled missing treasures.
The haul – said to be worth £160 million – was stolen by a British trader, Captain William Thompson, in 1820 after he was entrusted to transport it from Peru to Mexico.
He is said to have been stashed his plunder on the Pacific island, from where it has never been recovered.
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 site, credited by some as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, is uninhabited and around 350 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, of which it is a part.
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.
Although there have been no official expeditions to the island for more than a quarter of a century, Mr Whitehead will join an impressive a line of notable adventurers and explorers who been attracted by the lure of the “Lima loot”.
They include Roosevelt, the American president from 1933 to 1945, who travelled there with friends in 1910, Campbell, the racing driver, who went there in the 1920s, and Flynn in the 1940s.
Another explorer, August Gissler, a German, spent 19 years living on the island hunting the treasure but returned with just six gold coins.
However, Mr Whitehead’s team is equipped with technology that has never before been used on the island. He has also established the most likely spots around the island on which to focus his efforts.
Mr Whitehead, who has previously led a project to explore uncharted shafts inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, said: “Given the amount of treasure, it would have been too heavy to carry far from sea level and stories suggest the use of caves. We can also rule out where others have looked, dug up and detected – like on the beaches.
“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.”
The team’s research will concentrate on the areas around three of the island’s four bays, which have been most used by visitors.
The team plan to use a small, unmanned helicopter, fitted with specialist cameras, to fly above the nine mile square island, which will enable them to make a computer-generated 3D map of the landscape.
They will then use a snakelike robot that can be dragged across the parts of island and, using ground penetrating radar, detect voids and cavities up to a depth of around 60ft. This data will be added to the 3D map to identify any likely concealed caves.
After this, a team will use a specialist “keyhole” drill, which can reach more than 100ft, to dig down into the cave. A probe camera can be sent down through the 1in diameter.
The 10-day expedition will also involve extensive archaeological, geological and ecological research and Mr Whitehead is at pains to stress they are not simply going there on a treasure hunt.
The team, of around 15, involves researchers from the University of Costa Rica and the Senckenberg Insitute – a natural history research organisation based in Germany.
“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 real treasure of the island is its natural beauty. Anything else we find there is simply a bonus.”
The island, which is said to have been the inspiration for Jurassic Park, the book and film about an island on which dinosaurs are recreated, is home to hundreds of unusual species.
Dr Ina Knobloch, a German biologist who has visited the island on three previous occasions, is part of the team taking part, said: “We have a very good relationship with the authorities and they trust us that this is not a simple treasure hunt.”
Mr Whitehead, based in Melton Mowbray, Leics, is an engineer who has set up a company which supplies specialist electronic exploration equipment.
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.
The treasure could be worth at least £160 million. If any of it is found, the team plans to pass it on to the Costa Rican authorities, which would be expected to pay a fee for its salvage.
The treasure had been amassed by the Spanish authorities in Lima, in what is now Peru, but facing a revolt, the city’s viceroy, José de la Serna, entrusted the riches to Captain Thompson for transport to Mexico, also a Spanish colony, and it was transferred to his ship, the Mary Dear.
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.
Several early expeditions were mounted on the basis of claims by a man named John Keating, who was supposed to have befriended Thompson.
On one trip, Keating was said to have retrieved some gold and jewels from the treasure and also to have killed a fellow treasure hunter and left his body with the hoard.
The Costa Rican authorities want to discourage treasure hunting on the island. They have permitted the latest expedition because of the scientific survey work involved.
The document granting permission states that if any treasure is found, the team must immediately halt and notify the authorities.
The Treasure of Lima is not the only haul said to be hidden on the island.
A further 350 tons of gold raided from Spanish ships by nineteenth century British sailor, Captain Bennett Graham, is also said to be there, while a Portuguese pirate, Benito “Bloody Sword” Bonito, also operating in the nineteenth century, is said to have hidden gains there too.
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