Skullduggery and Buried Treasure
The Pirates of the BVI
by Julian Putley
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest,
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
It was Robert Louis Stevenson who helped highlight Caribbean piracy with his now world famous book, Treasure Island, and it appears that many of the book's colorful characters and events were gleaned from actual events surrounding the British Virgin Islands. Long John Silver, the story's lovable but crafty old peg-legged pirate may have been modeled after John Lloyd. Dead Chest Cay happens to be in the BVI and was used by Stevenson in his fragment of pirate song. The dates of the fictional account and the actual event are identical and on and on. In fact the similarities seem too uncanny to be coincidental.
The essence of Caribbean history combines indigenous Indians, explorers, adventurers, opportunists and unwilling migrants. Ever since the Spanish claimed the Caribbean region as theirs in 1492 European nations have taken exception to this sweeping assertion. Wars and conflict became commonplace from the 1500s right through to the golden age of piracy (the early 1700s) and beyond. Men laid off between wars quickly turned to piracy as a means of survival and a life of carefree abandon. The BVI had its share of colorful transients and many legends abound. Francis Drake and John Hawkins were undoubtedly here and Drake became England's hero when he returned home after a circumnavigation with his ship, the Golden Hind, laden with Spanish treasure. Morally there was no compunction with regard to raiding Spanish ships – after all their treasure had been stolen from the native peoples.
Blackbeard was probably the most notorious of all pirates. A ruthless giant of a man he is credited with marooning fifteen men on the BVI's Dead Chest Cay and some that couldn't swim fetched up on Peter Island's Dead Man's Bay – or so the legend goes – for obvious reasons detailed log books were not kept. Similarly the voracious pirate Black Sam Bellamy plundered many a ship in the eastern Caribbean and the legend goes that Bellamy Cay in Trellis Bay became a temporary base and was named for him.
After several successful exploits Bellamy finally managed to take a ship that satisfied his dreams, the 18 gun Whydah, a former slave ship of 300 tons. He loaded onto her a huge booty of between twenty and thirty thousand pounds of gold and silver. Sometime later, with even more treasure aboard he headed for New England only to wreck the ship in a fierce storm on the shoals off Cape Cod. The wreck with its valuable cargo was only recently discovered in 1985.
Sometimes facts become blurry when no evidence exists. Pirate Ding Dong Wilmerding has recently entered BVI folklore as the "pirate of merry abandon" who inhabited Soper's Hole in Tortola's West End. Research, though, finds that he is a product of a fervent imagination by a writer and entertainer. Captain Kidd was an unfortunate pirate who undoubtedly sailed Virgin Island waters. He started his career as a privateer with two commissions: one to capture ships belonging to enemies of the British Crown; the other to catch and apprehend pirates. Eventually Kidd became a pirate himself and was hanged at Execution Dock after a questionable trial.
Details of pirate activity were, by necessity, scant; records of illegal activity could always be used as evidence in a trial if they fell into the wrong hands. However, one piracy that caught the attention of the world included the Virgin Islands and some British opportunists. On the 18th of August, 1750 during the height of the hurricane season, a Spanish treasure fleet departed Havana in Cuba for its voyage to Spain. The fleet comprised some six ships of which at least two were treasure galleons. They had sailed north between the coast of Florida and the Bahamas when a fierce tropical storm began to envelop them. The treasure laden galleon Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe lost her rudder and had her masts torn out and became a floating hulk eventually fetching up on the shoals of North Carolina's Outer Banks. The crew ran her ashore at Ocracoke Inlet, very close to Teach's Hole where the infamous pirate Blackbeard fought his last battle some 32 years before.
While the Spaniards were making arrangements to transfer the cargo and treasure from the crippled vessel to two smaller sloops some English pirates were making their own plans to abscond with the booty, mostly silver and church plate. Two brothers, Owen Lloyd and John Lloyd, who was hampered by a wooden leg, were the ringleaders and were joined by a motley crew of other English opportunists. Owen Lloyd was first away and managed to steer clear of the shoals and make for open water. The other vessel ran aground and was captured by the Spaniards who had given chase.
Lloyd with a crew of fourteen sailed the sloop south to the Caribbean, bypassed the shoals of Anegada and arrived at St Croix. After a short stop where he unloaded two barrels of silver he sailed on for Norman Island in the British Virgin Islands. There he off loaded 44 chests of silver each containing three burlap bags of a thousand pieces of eight. Church plate and other valuable cargo; cochineal, indigo and tobacco was also taken ashore and the whole was buried.
The luck of the pirates now ran out. A certain Thomas Wallis sailed into Norman Island and approached the pirates' vessel and enquired why they had not cleared formalities in Road Town, only to be told that the sloop had only made an emergency stop to repair a leak. When Wallis finally departed for Tortola Lloyd weighed anchor and headed for St Thomas. Next day a Mr Chalwell, president of the local council, sailed over to Norman Island to investigate what was now widely believed to be suspicious circumstances. It wasn't long before islanders of all walks of life were busily digging up treasure whilst the pirates had become fugitives from justice.
The pirates scattered throughout the Caribbean but were now being hunted by the Spaniards who were incensed at the audacious crime and vowed to search high and low until the treasure was recovered. England and Spain were at peace in 1750 but the piracy threatened to destabilize the tenuous cessation of hostilities. Lloyd made a concerted effort to get to St Kitts where his wife, Ms Caines, lived at Deep Bay, but a stop in St Eustatius proved to be his downfall; here word of his piracy had preceded him and he was apprehended by the authorities. By now the incident had escalated to international significance and the Lieutenant Governor of the Leeward Islands, Gilbert Fleming, whose authority included the British Virgin Islands, was tasked to sail from Antigua to Norman Island to retrieve the treasure. On the way he stopped briefly at Anguilla where another pirate, William Blackstock, had been apprehended. Blackstock was interrogated and divulged almost all of the details of the heist.
Fleming arrived at Norman Island with two companies of marines and anchored in what would become Privateer Bay. He learned that just days earlier a Dutch armed sloop had anchored at Norman Island and had retrieved some of the effects. Fleming had no success at recovering any of the loot until he issued a proclamation that would allow the finders/diggers a third of the booty to be legally retained as a salvage fee. Eventually treasure and cargo valued at $20,429 was returned. Chalwell, the head of the local council was vehemently berated as were many of the other looters.
What became of the pirates is largely unknown except that Owen Lloyd was either released or was allowed to escape from imprisonment in St Eustatius. It is likely that he traded information to the Dutch authorities in exchange for his freedom. In June of 1751 it is recorded that he was a "burgher" (a respected citizen of the middle class) in the Danish island of St Thomas.
And what of the vast treasure? That remains a mystery. But an interesting aside is that on the leeward side of the south western promontory of the Bight there are several caves in the cliff that are accessible from the water. In 1910 a fisherman sheltering from the rain came across a treasure chest in one of the caves and several telltale coins were found scattered haphazardly on the ground and under the shallow seawater.
Today the Treasure Caves are one of the most popular destinations for visitors and sailors. It allows for a whimsical flight into the imagination; a fleeting glimpse into the past, of pirates and buried treasure, skullduggery and derring-do. And when you don your mask and snorkel keep an eye open for a piece of eight or gold doubloon. After all, not all the treasure has been accounted for.
Julian Putley is the author of the Virgins' Treasure Isle, the story of treasure buried on Norman Island. He also wrote Sunfun Calypso and the Drinking Man's Guide to the B.V.I.
Christine Taylor's paintings are available through The Gallery, BVI