We all remember how the daring, thrilling novels of pirates, buried treasures, and exciting swashbuckling sparked our imagination when we were kids. T
We all remember how the daring, thrilling novels of pirates, buried treasures, and exciting swashbuckling sparked our imagination when we were kids. The iconic novels such as “Treasure Island” by Robert Luis Stevenson, or “Peter and Wendy,” “Desert Island,” and “Billy Budd,” have all transformed our childhoods and made us dream of grand adventures. But what about the fact that hides behind the fiction? What about the real life adventures of pirates and hidden gold?
Today we are exploring a real life inspiration behind these fictional adventures, as we examine the story of the fabled Treasure of Lima . What secrets lie in the mysterious tropical islands of the Pacific? And will the secrets of legendary Inca gold hoards ever be uncovered?
Enemy at the Gates – the Catholic Church Attempts to Save the Treasure of Lima
The story of Lima’s greatest treasure begins sometime in the 16th century, when the Spanish conquerors finally managed to subdue the Inca and set up their rule of Lima and the territories of the preceding Inca Empire . Now, the main desire of the Spanish in their conquests was gold. And if the Inca had large quantities of something, it was gold.
Ancient Peruvian mask made out of gold . (Carlos Santa Maria /Adobe Stock)
In the following decades and centuries, the Spaniards, especially the Catholic Church , amassed large quantities of gold – in coinage, ingots, and other artifacts – as well as precious gems, jewelry, and all manner of valuables. Among these fabled treasures were elaborate large gold crosses with precious gems, and it is even said that the Spanish made life-size effigies of Saint Mary and the Apostles with solid gold and encrusted with gems.
There were also a lot of other gold and silver items – church chalices , bullion, Inca gold relics, 273 precious bejeweled swords, and many more things. For the period it was worth around $60 million. But today that worth would go over a billion.
But when the South American Wars of Independence began arising in the early 19th century, panic quickly emerged among the high-ranking Spanish officials. With the onset of the Peruvian War of Independence (c. 1811-1826) it was the Lima that became the target, and in 1820 it had to be evacuated. In the following year, 1821, the leaders of the revolution, Simón Bolívar and José Francisco de San Martín, were aiming to conquer Lima, and in the process they would gain access to the vast amassed wealth that was hoarded there by the Empire and the Church. San Martín did manage to seize partial control of Lima on July 12, 1821, but the treasure was not there.
The Liberator Simón Bolívar signing the ‘Decree of War to Death.’ ( Public Domain )
Fearing mass plunder by the revolutionaries, the Spanish officials, with Viceroy of Lima José de la Serna at their head, decided to play a gambit and attempt to preserve the vast treasure. Their plan was to transfer the treasure to the port of Callao and enlist a merchant vessel to help them “smuggle” the treasure out to open sea. Once there, the ship would wait for the fate of Lima to be decided. If the revolutionaries were defeated, the treasure would be returned.
The merchant vessel that they chose was “ Mary Dear,” a British conflict-neutral merchant brig from Bristol, with Captain William Thompson at its head. The plan was a gamble from the start, but the Spaniards were desperate and had to rely on Thompson and his crew.
William Thompson. ( Keith Thomson )
Where Dost Thou Sail, Mary Dear?
Either way, the treasures were loaded into the cargo hold of “Mary Dear” and to ensure all was in order, the Spaniards placed a number of priests and armed soldiers onto the ship as a precaution. Soon after, the vessel set out towards the open seas, with the mission to cruise off the coast. But greed proved to be too much for Captain Thompson to handle.
Charmed by the immense wealth that was secure in their hold, the captain and the crew of “Mary Dear” decided to mutiny. During the night, they seized an opportunity and murdered the Spanish soldiers and priests – most of whom were asleep – and dumped their bodies into the water.
Then they promptly changed course and sailed to Cocos Island – a popular way station for whalers and traders alike, due to plenty of anchorage points and fresh water springs. This dense jungle island lies roughly 550 km (342 miles or 297 nautical miles) off of the coast of Costa Rica . When on the island the crew buried their precious cargo.
Cocos Island, Costa Rica . ( Michael Bogner /Adobe Stock)
Once they sailed off again, they were intercepted in the open sea by a Spanish naval frigate. A clash ensued and “Mary Dear” – being a merchant vessel – was quickly overwhelmed and the entire crew captured. Accused of piracy, mutiny, theft, and so on, the crew was executed by hanging. All except two men – the Captain of “Mary Dear,” William Thompson, and his first mate – James Alexander Forbes. They were allowed to live in order to lead the Spaniards to the spot where the treasure was buried.
Soon after, they were back at Cocos Island, but the two captives, fearing death even if they cooperated, managed to flee from their captors and into the dense tropical jungle of Cocos Island. For up to three weeks the Spanish crew attempted to locate them, or the gold, but they failed. Thompson and Forbes knew the island too well, and were tough seamen who were able to survive off the land. The Spaniards never found them and eventually had to sail away back to the mainland.
The two traders-cum- pirates were thus left stranded on a desert island . But they were not worried, for they knew that a ship was bound to anchor there sometime soon. And it did. They were rescued months later by a passing British whaler, managing to survive on Cocos Island alone by sustaining themselves on fish, birds, eggs, and coconuts.
But the treasure they buried remained somewhere in the soil of this island. Fearing the greed of other seamen, they could not risk taking any portion of it with them. In the following months and years, Thompson and Forbes created detailed documents and maps relating the location of the buried treasure. This was done to memorize the location without risk. William Thompson died soon after, leaving James A. Forbes as the last remaining person to know the exact location of the buried and fabled Treasure of Lima.
Map of Cocos Island by Jose Maria Figueroa in 1883. ( DreamCoin)
Keeper of the Secret – James Alexander Forbes I
James Alexander Forbes I was born in 1804 in Inverness, Scotland. Bearing the surname of a prominent Scottish Highland Clan , his adventurous spirit led him to South America at age 12. He was the first mate of Mary Dear at a mere 17 years old – a proof of his shrewd and capable nature.
After the burying of the treasure and the death of Thompson, Forbes spent the following years sailing all over the Pacific, being involved in several nautical positions. His paths eventually led him to California and San Francisco , where he was quickly becoming a wealthy and influential person.
He worked as an accountant in Richmond, at the San Pablo ranch of the wealthy landowner Francisco Maria Castro. He later arrived at Santa Clara region where he made himself an up-and-coming businessman. In 1834 he married Anna Maria Galindo, a daughter of Jose Crisostino Galindo, a majordomo of the Santa Clara de Asis Mission. By then he was a wealthy businessman.
After marrying into this wealthy Mexican family, he provided funding for the founding of the University of Santa Clara. Afterwards he became involved as a partner in the Almaden Quicksilver Mines, eventually gaining full titles for the mine. He also purchased 2,000 acres of land from El Rancho Rinconada de Los Gatos land grant, with an aim to build a prosperous mill at Los Gatos creek – a decision that was made due to growing shortages of flour.
Forbes Mill, Los Gatos, California, circa 1900. ( Public Domain )
All of James’ Forbes’ lucrative endeavors and smart decisions made his family one of the wealthiest in the region. In the latter years of his life he kept the documents and maps of Cocos Island locked in a safe and spoke to his children about the buried treasure . Knowing little of their father’s history, the children dismissed the stories as “tall tales.”
Nevertheless, before his death in 1881, James Alexander Forbes I passed the map and the documents to his eldest son and heir Charles Forbes. Being wealthy and influential, his heir didn’t desire to go treasure hunting , and thus the documents were simply passed on from generation to generation in the Forbes family.
No one made any attempts to search for the fabled treasure until 1939, when James Forbes the 4th – a man of adventurous spirit – decided to sail to Cocos Island. By then, the Forbes family was not so wealthy or influential anymore (but not poor either).
James the 4th led a team to Cocos Island and quickly discovered a few traces that told him a treasure might really be buried there. But before making any significant discoveries, the whole team was forced to leave and postpone their excavations due to shady armed men observing them from boats off-shore.
James Forbes the 4th died without returning to the island again and passed the documents to his nephew, William B. Forbes.
Greed Breeds Mysteries – Was the Secret Shared?
As with most buried treasure stories, there exist multiple versions and many more legends surrounding the original story. Some sources state that before his death, Captain William Thompson shared the information with a seaman by the name of John Keating. The latter is said to have recovered a part of the Lima treasure. The one to know this secret was his quartermaster, a man by the name of Nicholas Fitzgerald.
A unique document that is preserved in the Caracas museum is a purported inventory of the buried treasure that Keating and Fitzgerald buried on Coiba island off the coast of Panama. The letter lists the items and is a clear insight into the enormous wealth of the Treasure of Lima :
“We have buried at a depth of four feet in the red earth: 1 chest; altar trimmings of cloth of gold, with baldachins, monstrances, chalices, comprising 1,244 stones. 1 chest; 2 gold reliquaries weighing 120 pounds, with 624 topazes, cornelians and emeralds, 12 diamonds. 1 chest; 3 reliquaries of cast metal weighing 160 pounds, with 860 rubies and various stones, 19 diamonds. 1 chest; 4,000 doubloons of Spain marked 8; and 5,000 crowns of Mexico. 124 swords, 64 dirks, 120 shoulder belts. 28 rondaches. 1 chest; 8 caskets of cedar-wood and silver, with 3,840 cut stones, rings, patents and 4,265 uncut stones. 28 feet to the northeast, at a depth of 8 feet in the yellow sand; 7 chests: with 22 candelabra in gold and silver weighing 250 pounds, and 164 rubies a foot. 12 armspans west, at a depth of 10 feet in the red earth; the seven-foot Virgin of gold, with the Child Jesus and her crown and pectoral of 780 pounds, rolled in her gold chasuble on which are 1,684 jewels. Three of these are 4-inch emeralds on the pectoral and 6 are 6-inch topazes on the crown. The seven crosses are of diamonds 124 swords, 64 dirks, 120 shoulder belts. 28 rondaches. 1 chest; 8 caskets of cedar-wood and silver, with 3,840 cut stones, rings , patents and 4,265 uncut diamonds…”
Most of the listed treasures are confirmed to have belonged to the Cathedral in Lima, notably the fabled life-sized figure of the Virgin Mary cast from solid gold. But whether the story of William Thompson sharing his secret with John Keating is true, we might never know. It is possible that James Alexander Forbes lived without knowing this, believing that the treasure remained on Cocos Island when it was not there. But the truth remains buried and hidden – just like the Treasure of Lima.
The Island Keeps its Secrets
Cocos Island became the center point for many buried treasure stories. From the infamous pirates Benito Bonito, Bennett Graham, Captain John Cook , and Captain Kidd – all were said to have buried their treasures at Cocos Island. Mary Welsh, a female pirate from the crew of Bennett Graham, was sentenced to exile into an Australian penal colony for her piracy. She stated that there were 350 tons of Spanish gold buried on Cocos Island.
There is certainly something lying dormant in the sands of this tropical island. With entry onto it forbidden, its secrets remain at bay. But even so, its ancient stones are covered with cryptic carvings from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, left there as signs by pirates and treasure-seekers. It is also filled with remote caves, tunnels, creeks, and dense jungle foliage – it is the perfect deserted island for burying treasure. But what exactly rests buried in its depths remains a mystery.
Top Image: The location of the Treasure of Lima remains a mystery. Source: fergregory /Adobe Stock
Minstrel, F. 2017. Buried Treasure on Cocos Island – The Lost Treasure of Lima. Daily Odds and Ends.
Unknown, 2015. The Loot of Lima Treasure. Adventure Quest. [Online] Available at:
Various, 2017. The Pirates’ Chronicles. Greatest Sea Adventure Books & Treasure Tales. Mosaicum Books.