I beheld great heaps of coin and quadrilaterals built of bars of gold. That was Flint’s treasure that we had come so far to seek and that had cost already the lives of seventeen men from the Hispaniola. How many it had cost in the amassing, what blood and sorrow, what good ships scuttled on the deep, what brave men walking the plank blindfold, what shot of cannon, what shame and lies and cruelty, perhaps no man alive could tell.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island, 1883
Come all you brave Boyes whose Courage is Bold
Will you venture with me and I’le glut you with Gold
From A Copy of Verses, Composed by Captain Henry Every, 1694
One golden, windswept afternoon last summer, my six-year-old son, Indy, and I went searching for old Portuguese silver in the shingle and rock pools of Dollar Cove on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall, named for the number of coins washed up over the centuries. The waves were raging that day and above us, in the cloudless blue sky, sand martins darted and circled their nests in the crumbling cliffs. We dug deep holes with our cheap plastic spades and picked our way through the bladderwrack and washed-up tangles of fishing net. On the other end of the beach, a man with headphones and an army cap paced methodically with his metal detector.
We found nothing: just bottle-tops and and broken crabs’ legs and one 20-pence piece, green from salt water. As the day ebbed, we walked along the coast path to the weather-worn church dedicated to the Breton Saint Wynwallow, bedded hard into the sheltered hillside, and ate our sandwiches surrounded by the graves of drowned Norwegian sailors. According to an old Breton legend, Wynwallow was the son of Saint Gwen Teirbron or Three-Breasted, a feisty patron saint of nursing mothers, who was kidnapped by English pirates. She managing to escape by climbing down the side of the ship, but not before one of the pirates had chopped off two of her fingers with a boarding axe.
The treasure we were searching for was also piratical: connected to us by a thin line of paternal blood, a vast fortune stolen from a convoy of Mughal ships in the Red Sea by our distant ancestor, Captain Henry Avery, described by Daniel Defoe as the “King of Pirates.” It was rumoured to have been buried by him somewhere along the sand dunes and adder-haunted heaths of the west Lizard coast at his retirement in the late 1690s. According to local gossip, he left a “rough catalogue” in his hand, detailing the whereabouts of “certain chests of treasure, containing jewels, gold ornaments, diamonds, ingots, bars and coins of gold, of untold value.” The paper fell into the possession of one Cornelius Ffurssen. In 1702, Ffurssen obtained a grant from Prince George of Denmark to search for the treasure “at any point between Helford Haven and the Loe Pool.” This grant was passed down through generations, but the treasure was never found.
Avery first enters popular culture in a broadsheet ballad published by the London printer Theophilus Lewis in 1694 under the title A Copy of Verses, Composed by Captain Henry Every, Lately Gone to Sea to Seek his Fortune. Said to be penned by Avery himself, relating his entry into the realm of piracy, it swiftly became something of a sensation: Samuel Pepys snapped up a copy for his library and popular newspapers like The Flying Post and the Post Boy swiftly reprinted his words to the delight of an enthralled readership. Opening with a treasure-hunting invitation to “all you Brave boyes” and boasting that “Our Names shall be Blazon’d and spread thro the Sky,” it cast him in the public imagination as a wild and dashing pioneer at a time when the working class was characterised by grinding poverty and a dearth of opportunities to subvert one’s fate.
After a brief career in the usual Early Modern maritime arenas – the Royal Navy and an ignoble stint on Royal African Company slave traders – Avery had signed up as first mate on the warship Charles II. Its owners, a conglomerate of English merchants and aristocrats, had secured a trading and salvage license for the Spanish West Indies, to conduct trade, supply the Spanish with arms, and recover treasure from wrecked galleons while plundering the French possessions in the area. However, in May 1694, after the ship had been mired for months in the old fortified Roman port of La Coruña in Galicia due to administrative delays, the company, led by Avery, mutineered on account of almost a year of unpaid wages. They renamed the ship the brightly optimistic Fancy, and made sail for the Indian Ocean, in search of “a glut of gold” and the spoils of the spice trade.
Towards the end of 1695, they weighed anchor at the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb (the aptly-named “Gate of Grief” in Arabic), a strategic choke point where the waters of the Red Sea meet the Gulf of Aden, waiting for the great fleet owned by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir on its return journey from Makkah.
After a chase of several days, Avery led his men to capture the flagship, the Ganj-i-sawai: 1,600 tonnes, heavily armed, packed with gold, silver, ivory and jewels, and carrying one of Aurangzeb’s daughters or granddaughters and the elderly wife of one of his favourite courtiers as passengers. The contemporary Indian historian Muhammad Hashim Khāfī Khān describes the confusion and panic as one of the Ganj-i-sawai’s cannons accidentally exploded causing horrific carnage. Rough hand-to-hand combat followed, swiftly descending into brutal scenes of torture and rape. One young pirate, John Sparkes testified later that the “inhuman treatment and merciless tortures inflicted on the poor Indians and their women still affected his soul.” Avery’s part in the raid was deftly transmuted in later English accounts into a flowery, heavily Orientalised romance with a “Grand Mughal princess,” his reported barbarity clashing with his popular persona of a gentleman-pirate.
The treasure plundered by the Fancy pirates amounted somewhere in the region of £500,000, including thousands of silver and gold pieces – in contemporary terms, roughly £300 million, each crew member receiving a pile of gemstones and around £1,000, the equivalent of a lifetime’s wages for a merchant seaman. This still represents arguably the most valuable recorded heist in history, certainly the most treasure ever seized by a known piratical band. Sufficiently “glutted with gold,” as his ballad had promised, they swiftly set course for Madagascar, then on to Nassau in the Bahamas, where the company parted ways, each trying, with variable success, to steal away into obscurity with their treasure.
With 20 of his men, Avery bought a fine 50-tonne ocean-going sloop, the Sea Flower, for £600, and set course for County Donegal in the northeast of Ireland. They made land at the little herring port of Dunfanaghy and, after bribing the obliging customs officer, Avery bade his fellow adventurers farewell, mentioning his plans to head first for Scotland, then to his native Devon.
Coming at a vital moment within the early construction of Empire, the impact of the attack was immediate and catastrophic for the English Government. The Ganj-i-sawai treasure could potentially have brought down the imperialist project at a moment when the British presence in India was slowly strengthening. Four East India Company factories were closed, its officers imprisoned, and a major attack against the English in Bombay teetered on the verge of being ordered by Auranzeb. Terrified at losing its lucrative trading posts, the Company quickly offered to pay compensation and in July 1696, the Lord Chief Justices issued a Proclamation, bolstered by Avery’s confessional ballad, “to Seize and Take the said Henry Every and such are as with him in the said ship and cause them to be Punished as Pirates upon the High Seas,” declaring them outlaws – hostis humani generis (“enemies of the human race”). In August of the same year, the Privy Council of Scotland issued a similar document, with a £500 reward, representing the first manhunt in recorded history.
Avery, however, was neither captured, nor seen again after his leave-taking in Ireland. His disappearance only fuelled the flames of public interest and a cascade of newspaper articles, songs, broadsheets, plays, semi-biographical accounts and fictions expanded and elaborated his myth in the early years of the 18th century. In 1709, a sixteen-page pamphlet by a Dutchman, Adrian van Broeck, probably a pseudonym, entitled The life and adventures of Capt. John Avery the famous English pirate, (rais’d from a cabbin-boy, to a King) now in possession of Madagascar was published, followed by Charles Johnson’s scandalous play, The Life and Adventures of Captain John Avery, The Successful Pyrate in 1712, and Daniel Defoe’s lengthy account, The King of the Pirates, in 1720. The most definitive and sympathetic version was one sketched by a Captain Charles Johnson (possibly a pen-name for Defoe or the Jacobite publisher Nathaniel Mist) in his A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates, first published in 1724, a wildly popular compendium of piratical biographies which launched many of the principal tropes of the genre, not least, the pirate as swashbuckling anti-hero.
Johnson’s account constructs Avery as a maritime Robin Hood, full of fiery subversion, and unapologetic self-determination. His piratic narrative is held up as a rallying cry for freedom and libertarianism against a background of growing resentment towards a corrupt, top-heavy Whig oligarchy. His story was needed. It offered hope to the dispossessed, an alternative path to the appalling maritime working conditions of the time, characterised by physical punishments, low pay and appalling food. One doomed young buccaneer, Walter Kennedy, executed in 1721, claimed that he left the Royal Navy to become a pirate entirely as result of hearing these tales of Avery.
But perhaps the most interesting development within the tangled permutations of Captain Avery’s legend was the persistent embellishment that he had returned to Madagascar to establish a “Republic of Pirates,” a utopian piratical society, based on radical ideas of anti-capitalism and equality: rich ideological flotsam from the swell of the English Revolution a couple of decades earlier.
Foreshadowing the revolutionary tides of the following century, Avery’s fiercely alternative piratedom contrasted sharply to European modes of society and to the nascent establishment of exploitative imperial expansion. Avery lived in “great Royalty and State,” wrote Captain Johnson in Volume One of Pyrates, he “built Forts, erected Magazines, and was the Master of a stout Squadron of Ships, mann’d with able and desperate Fellows of All Nations…and was acknowledged by them as their Prince.” Like the pirate ship itself, it was a world turned on its head: an anti-society. Fundamental rights to freedom and personal happiness were recaptured, the relationships between money, land and power were redefined: “every Thing was in common and no Hedge bounded any particular property.”
In a later edition of Johnson, Avery’s Madagascan utopia becomes the primary model for an even more overtly radical society governed by a probably fictitious Captain Misson. Entitled “Libertalia,” its pirate-citizens are defined as “Vigilant Guardians of the People’s Rights and Liberties” and “Barriers against the Rich and Powerful.” Slavery is also attacked to a certain extent within Misson’s anti-capitalist, democratic vision, reflecting the centrality of Africans and African Americans, including many former slaves, within piratical society: Johnson mentions a West African former slave called Black Caesar, for example, amongst Blackbeard’s crew.
As far as we know, there are no contemporaneous maps of Libertalia or these “volatile, serpentine” utopias, make-believe or otherwise. Late 17th and early 18th century maps of Madagascar and its surrounding islands, however, give a very tangible sense of the topography of pirocracies and would have formed the visual culture that contextualised the stories and been used by pirates themselves as up-to-date guides to the region. Ile Sainte-Marie, or St. Mary’s Island had particularly piratical associations and was a candidate for Avery’s realm. Libertalia’s treasures are still sought today – in 2015, an American explorer, Barry Clifford, claiming to have found silver ingots belonging to Captain Kidd just off the coast, later dismissed by UNESCO as part of the old Sainte-Marie port constructions.
The Dutch cartographer Joan Blaeu’s map of the area from his 1662-5 Atlas Maior or Cosmographia Blaviana, entitled Insula S. Laurentii Vulgo Madagascar (the Portuguese had named the island St Lawrence in the early 16th century) gives a sweeping overview of Madagascar and the coast of Mozambique. Known for their navigational guides and globes as well as their sumptuous gilt-edged atlases (the Atlas Maior represented the most expensive set of books one could buy in the 17th century), the Blaeu family had a bustling shop with a 150-foot canal frontage on the Blumengracht in Amsterdam, a haunt of merchants and seafarers. The iconography of their maps would have been familiar to Avery and his shipmates, as they were to Vermeer, who hangs them in a number of his interiors. Their Mariners’ Atlas was trusted and used by sailors, Joan Blaeu being Map Maker in Ordinary, the officer hydrographer, to the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or V.O.C., the Dutch East India Company, charged with correcting the log books and maps of their pilots.
The Madagascar map, based on an earlier 1656 engraving by a French Governor of the island, Étienne de Flacourt, depicts the wide maritime theatre criss-crossed by the Fancy a few years later. Two 32-wind compass roses fan their warm mathematical breezes across the scene. Four ships with full rigging, two flying the flags of the V.O.C., circle the main island, underscored by a dense orange line representing the Tropic of Capricorn. An elaborate cartouche depicts two exoticised Malagasy young men next to a panther chameleon and a cluster of cuckoo-roller birds, considered harbingers of good sailing weather. Peeking out at the edge, a pair of horned sheep startle at our view. On the triangular sliver of mainland and the scatter of islands themselves, rivers and sandbanks, hills and trees, settlements and anchorages are sparsely marked.
The cartographic silences between these topographical elements are the spaces into which our piratical imaginings can slip, constructing pirate utopias, furnished with forts and magazines, and, of course, hoards of buried treasure. For like the increasingly fantastical accounts of Avery’s career, the map offers an oscillation between the real and imagined, between empirical and embellished geographies.
The trope of the treasure map itself is firmly situated within the imaginary. Contrary to popular belief, there are no extant historical treasure maps made by pirates. Like Libertalia itself, the piratical treasure map is a fiction rooted in certain historical realities. Nautical charts and maps of islands, coasts and interiors abound, including cartographic engravings such as Blaeu’s Madagascar, facilitating the treasure hunt of colonisation. Some describe mythic golden cities, such as Sir Walter Raleigh’s 1595 plan of El Dorado in the Pacaraima mountains in Guyana, but the crumbling codified hand-written parchment maps with their scrawled red crosses and copperplate instructions to dig “37 yards in a line northwest of the towering oak,” were invented in the 19th century, notably with the publication of Treasure Island in 1883.
Despite its status as a classic children’s book, Treasure Island is an unsettling, dark, and morally ambiguous tale. Whilst it was marketed and popularised on a wave of Victorian Empire-building, Boys-Own stories invoking the old Atlantic theatre of Avery and his confreres, it also significantly subverted the genre, presenting an adventure motivated by greed and self-interest, punctuated by betrayal and grisly murder and resolved by luck, rather than by any nobler quality on behalf of its protagonists. At the end, for example, Stevenson lets Long John Silver escape, rather than killing him off, thus contravening the acceptable late 19th century moral ending of the hangman’s noose for a villain, or as Silver puts it, the fate of “the many brisk lads drying in the sun at Execution Dock.”
Like the Robin Hood figure of Avery himself, Stevenson’s story flickers like a guttering candle in and out of different moral viewpoints, at once following and critiquing imperialism and tropes of imperialist romance. And the faint blue smoke curling around its edges is the same sub-text as that of every pirate story and every pirate utopia: slavery and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, cited overtly in the character of Silver’s wife, described as a “woman of colour,” and veiled in the choice of Jim’s surname, Hawkins, shared by one of the first English slave traders, Sir John Hawkins.
Treasure Island was first serialised in Young Folks magazine from October 1881 to January 1882 under the pseudonym “Captain George North,” and published as a book in November 1883. Narrated by the young Jim Hawkins, it opens with a drunken old sabre-scarred sea-dog, Billy Bones, taking up residence at his father’s inn, the Admiral Benbow. At night, Bones terrifies the inn’s “trembling company” with “wicked, wild old sea songs” and dreadful stories of “hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea…and wild deeds and places on the Spanish main.” After Bones’s sudden death from apoplexy, Jim and his mother open his sea chest, discovering a mysterious oil-skin bundle. With the help of the local physician, Dr. Livesey and a “fine old squire,” Trelawney, the seals are broken to reveal “a map of an island, with latitude and longitude, soundings, names of hills, and bays and inlets and every particular that would be needed to bring a ship to a safe anchorage upon its shores.”
Three crosses of blood red ink annotate the map – two in the north and one in the south-west, besides which is written, “in a small, neat hand,” the words “bulk of treasure here.” On the back of the map, Jim finds a series of impenetrable instructions, scrawled by the murderous pirate Captain Flint, in the now familiar idiom of treasure map inscriptions: “Tall tree, Spy-glass shoulder, bearing a point to the N. of N.N.E. Skeleton Island E.S.E. and by E. Ten feet. The bar silver is in the north cache; you can find it by the trend of the east hummock, ten fathoms south of the black crag with the face on it.” Exhilarated and emboldened by the prospect of Flint’s treasure – “money to eat – to roll in, to play duck and drake with” – Jim and his companions set sail to Skeleton Island on Trelawney’s schooner, the Hispaniola, having engaged Long John Silver as cook.
When they eventually secure the treasure, it rivals that of the Ganj-i-sawai and the sorting of it exhausts them: “English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Georges, and Louises, doubloons and double guineas and moidores and sequins, the pictures of all the kings of Europe for the last hundred years, strange Oriental pieces stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web, round pieces and square pieces, and pieces bored through the middle, as if to wear them round your neck—nearly every variety of money in the world must, I think, have found a place in that collection; and for number, I am sure they were like the autumn leaves, so that my back ached with stooping and my fingers with sorting them out.”
The treasure map then, is central to the story. But it was also the origin of the text itself.
It was the damp, midgy August of 1881, when “it blew a good deal and rained in proportion,” and a convalescent Robert Louis Stevenson, weak, tired and spitting blood, was recuperating in Braemar, an old Jacobite town by the River Dee, a few miles away from the royal seat at Balmoral. The surrounding landscape is elemental, arctic: huge cold lucid skies over the dark Cairngorm mountains, Lapland buntings and pine martins and thin snow hares, knife-cold lochs and the resinous silence of the vast Caledonian pine forest.
Also summering in the little grey granite house, known locally as the “Late Miss McGregor’s Cottage” (a lugubrious title which amused Stevenson), was his wife, Fanny, his parents and his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, home for the holidays from his boarding school. Lloyd spent his days drawing and painting and had turned one of the rooms into a makeshift gallery. Stevenson often sat with him, making pictures with the “aid of pen and ink and a shilling box of water colours.” One rainy morning, they sketched out a map, which Stevenson embellished and embroidered, taking it up to bed with him, suddenly gripped with visions of a world far from the grey drizzle of the Highlands.
“I made the map of an island,” he recollected later in My First Book, “it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance ‘Treasure Island.’ I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe. The names, the shapes of the woodlands, the courses of the roads and rivers, the prehistoric footsteps of man still distinctly traceable up hill and down dale, the mills and the ruins…here is an inexhaustible fund of interest for any man with eyes to see or twopenceworth of imagination to understand with!”
As he carefully delineated the coast of this imaginary isle, “shaped like a fat dragon standing-up,” something shifted in Stevenson. The land-locked harbours, the hills, the sandbanks, all started to take on a strangely independent reality, imbued with the rough romance of old tales of buried gold and shipwrecks he’d picked up whilst travelling the previous year in California. The canyons and chapparel of Silverado and the sea fogs rolling in across the hilltops of Marin County were still fresh in his mind began to shape and topographise the flat cartography.
“As I paused upon my map of “Treasure Island,”” he continues, “the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.”
The following day, “on a chill September morning, by the cheek of a brisk fire,” Stevenson began to write in earnest. By the end of the month, the book, with a working title of “The Sea Cook” was progressing at a fair rate of knots. His close friend, the jocular, red-bearded poet W. E. Henley, a great bear of a man, posted him a copy of Captain Johnson’s Pyrates from London, and, his left leg having been amputated through a tubercular illness, served as a study for Long John Silver. A tall pile of sea adventures provided further imagery: “No doubt the parrot belongs to Robinson Crusoe. No doubt the skeleton is conveyed from Poe,” Stevenson admitted later.
The Blaeu map would also have been familiar to him, not least from his awareness of another work considered to be by Defoe’s hand, a quasi-fictional account of a young man named Robert Drury, who was shipwrecked on Madagascar in 1703: Madagascar: or Robert Drury’s Journal during fifteen years captivity on that island, published in 1729. Illustrated with a copy of the map itself, the journal describes Drury’s capture and enslavement by Antandroy soldiers after his ship, the East Indiaman Degrave, was sunk on the reefs off the southern coast. Drury’s story echoes Robinson Crusoe, but offers detailed, often accurate descriptions of the island, its flora and fauna. One of his shipmates who managed to escape was the son of John Benbow, the Admiral after whom Stevenson named Jim Hawkins’ parents’ inn. The reference is undoubtedly deliberate and when the two maps are placed side by side, the similarities are marked –the compass rose, the ships in full sail, the sandbanks, inlets and hills – but in Stevenson’s plan the silent spaces are now noisy with story, with treachery, murder and gold.
Following the map as closely as his characters, animating the cartographic silence, Stevenson thundered out a chapter a day from his bed, reading the dispatches each evening to his father, Thomas, and Lloyd, who offered suggestions and ideas. His father was particularly involved, penning the inventory for Billy Bones’ sea chest on the back of a legal envelope, naming Captain Flint’s ship the Walrus, and conceiving the famous apple barrel device for Jim Hawkins to hide in. But it was the map, always the map, to which Stevenson turned. It ordained, for him, almost the complete plot – its backshores, swamps, springs and woods, its sharp red crosses and soundings – literally pre-scribing the story.
“I had written it up to the map,” he wrote, “The map was the chief part of my plot. For instance, I had called an islet ‘Skeleton Island,’ not knowing what I meant, seeking only for the immediate picturesque, and it was to justify this name that I broke into the gallery of Mr. Poe and stole Flint’s pointer. And in the same way, it was because I had made two harbours that the Hispaniola was sent on her wanderings with Israel Hands.”
Like all treasure maps, Stevenson’s had entered that odd space half-way between the empirical and the imagined. Without it, as was discovered in its first serial printing in Young Folks, the story flounders and somehow fails to engage the reader. A review in the Aberdeen Journal of a later 1890s equally map-less edition writing “that Jim Hawkins’ sea adventure…is quite incomprehensible” without it. For Stevenson, it was never simply an aide-memoire to the text, but a semi-magical artefact with its own discrete power and talismanic import not simply to the expression of the story, but to its author. Indeed, the creation myth of Treasure Island has direct echoes to the antics of the medieval treasure sorcerers, not least as the book would represent Stevenson’s first real financial and critical success, bringing “fire and food and wine” to his family in the form of a £100 book advance and royalties. “A hundred jungling, tingling, golden, minted quid. Is this not wonderful!” he excitedly wrote to his parents.
By the Braemar cottage fire, Stevenson had half-conjured the piratical spirit of Captain Flint into the paper, like one of the old Russian treasure demons known as the kladovik, the souls of dead brigands who guard their hoards of gold in the black earth. And interestingly, like Libertalia, the story of the map’s genesis is never entirely fixed. Whilst the Braemar account of the elaboration of an informal sketch is the most likely, a bewildering number of other tales of its precise authorship also circulated in different editions of the book.
On 17 February 1924, for example, one frustrated reader. a Mr S.J. Young of Edgeware, was even moved to write a letter to the Sunday Times about the matter. Entitled “The Map of Treasure Island,” his missive inquires “Who really created Treasure Island in so far as the geography is concerned?” He continues by citing the various accounts– found in an old chest, drawn by Lloyd and Stevenson on a bare floor in chalk in Davos, painted by the fire in Braemar, and ends with the plaintive question, “Who did make the map?”
So when the original map was lost en route between a post office in Scotland and the offices of Messrs. Cassell & Company, his publishers, at La Belle Sauvage Yard in Ludgate Hill in London (incidentally, the site of the inn where Pocahontas first boarded in 1616), Stevenson was profoundly affected by the loss: ‘The proofs came, they were corrected, but I heard nothing of the map. I wrote and asked; was told it had never been received, and sat aghast. It is one thing to draw a map at random, set a scale in one corner of it at a venture, and write up a story to the measurements. It is quite another to have to examine a whole book, make an inventory of all the allusions contained in it, and with a pair of compasses, painfully design a map to suit the data. I did it; and the map was drawn again in my father’s office, with embellishments of blowing whales and sailing ships, and my father himself brought into service a knack he had of various writing, and elaborately FORGED the signature of Captain Flint, and the sailing directions of Billy Bones. But somehow it was never Treasure Island to me.” The crucial word here is “forged”: for Stevenson, this second, redrawn map was a fake – the peculiar authenticity of his first figmental island could not be replicated.
Despite the aesthetic and iconographical associations tethered to the idea of the treasure map by Stevenson and later writers such as Rider Haggard, over recent years it is being eased from its shackles, the empty spaces between the palm trees and the iron chests are sounding new narratives, as historians re-chart historical contributions by women and people of colour to Early Modern mapmaking, and artists subvert and disrupt the genre.
In the late 1960s, for example, Land and Conceptual artist Nancy Holt created her own definition of the treasure map in a private art work series entitled Buried Poems. She created a number of deeply personal poetic texts and hid them, in cylinders, in odd isolated sites: the parched Utah desert, north of the Colorado River, a tiny unnamed island in the Florida Keys, the old haunted Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor in England. In addition to some fragmented maps, they were given an envelope of information including postcards, cut-out images, and natural objects, leaves or stones. The recipient would then slowly piece together their connection with the locality and, eventually, claim their buried poem. Memories, passions, old lovers, fractured conversations, half-remembered books, the flotsam of personality became the clues – a secret ontological dialogue between treasure cartographer and treasure seeker.
In 2014, a philanthropic artist collective more directly disturbed Stevenson’s legacy in one of the oddest auctions in art world history. Commissioned by Francesca von Habsburg’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary Academy, the design duo Aranda\Lasch created a sleekly functional sculpture, Chest, in which was placed a selection of works by artists such as Marina Abramović, Los Carpinteros, Julian Charrière, Finnbogi Petursson, Hans Schabus and Chicks on Speed. Chest was then buried on the Isla de Cocos, an uninhabited protected eco-island 500 kilometres west of Costa Rica, which, as the site of the famous lost treasure of Lima, was one of the sources for Treasure Island. A charitable auction then took place, selling not the art, but a treasure map made of a stainless steel 3d printed cylinder with the encrypted bearings of the hidden Chest. The winner of this lot, which exceeded $185,000, then had the option to travel to the Isla de Cocos, to search for the excruciatingly modish treasure, which in turn was problematised by practical inaccessibility and strict laws forbidding treasure hunting. In this way, the archetype of the treasure map is both adhered to (the avariciousness, the status goods, the hunt) and violently disrupted.
Back in Dollar Cove, having finished our picnic, Indy and I looked around the still, slightly eerie church. Outside, a strange statue of Saint Wynwallow stood sentinel, marooned amongst the graves, lichen like pox marks, pointing to the ground with outstretched arms like the skeleton in Treasure Island. Both of us sat quietly: Indy played with some Lego and moth-eaten toys and I read a stained spiral bound guide that someone had left on a pew, a reprint of a Victorian account of Avery’s treasure published in 1871.
The book, which I had never seen before, told the story of an eccentric mayor and customs officer from St Ives, called John Knill, who was born in 1733 “with a great fondness for adventure.” One day in 1779, he was approached by two Cornishman from St Michael’s Mount, who had possessed themselves of Cornelius Ffurssen’s original grant, and induced Mr. Knill to embark with them “in a vigorous search” for Captain Avery’s treasure. Precise articles of agreement were drawn up by Knill, “as was his habit in all matters of business,” the coast carefully examined, and a fresh license applied for by petition to Lord North, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Several lengthy expeditions to the Lizard were made, and regular meetings of the adventurers were held.
They searched in the sea caves and sand dunes of Dollar Cove and Gunwalloe Beach, and up across the wild gorse heathlands, heady with bees and bronze-scaled slowworms, until, in October 1781, their treasure hunt abruptly ended. For, according to the author, “a descendant of the pirate Avery” had been located and agreed to attend a meeting at St. Ives, at which he related that “his father had told him that Captain Avery, after wandering about in great poverty and distress, had died at Barnstaple, and was buried as a pauper, and that it could not therefore be supposed that any such treasure existed, for that if it had, Avery would certainly have disclosed it and rescued himself from penury.”
This statement apparently satisfied Knill and the rest that “their bubble had burst,” and after due consideration, they resolved, on the 31st of January 1782, after three years, to abandon the search.
I closed the book and looked at the candles flickering near the altar. Time seemed to fold up like a sail. That descendent was our unknown relation – a great, great, great uncle perhaps. Avery’s poverty, his profound unhappiness suddenly struck hard and viscerally. So real and so human.
Our search for treasure is never linear, never quite of this world. That fragment of connection with the past was our true coinage for the day. And as a metaphor, the treasure map is perfect for our troubled times. Utopographic, it flickers between imagined and recorded place, between fabrication and reality, and the space between is heavy with the relentless human call to exploitation, to acquisition, to ownership. But, if the spy-glass is held in the right direction and in the right light, the democratic pinnacles and hedge-less lands of Libertalia can also be glimpsed, and it is to that point that we must re-plot our course.