There is a long-standing idea that pirates buried their treasure and left maps enabling them to find it later. However, this is a myth.

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The origins of this commonly held belief stem from a story concerning the pirate Captain William Kidd (c1655–1701), who tried to escape a spell of imprisonment by writing a letter to the governor of New York and Massachusetts, Lord Bellomont, claiming that he had buried a cache of gold and jewels on Gardiner’s Island, just off the coast of New York.

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Somehow, newspapers got wind of the story and rumours of Kidd’s riches spread like wildfire. However, the search was unsuccessful – there was nothing to be found. Years later, it would serve as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous novel Treasure Island, only serving to perpetuate the myth further.


On the podcast: Dr Rebecca Simon responds to your questions on the 17th-century golden age of piracy. Plus, how accurate are pop culture portrayals of pirates?


The reality is that pirates had no reason to bury their treasure. In fact, the word ‘treasure’ often did not mean gold and jewels at all; rather, it usually referred to other valuable items, ranging from textiles and spices to various wines and spirits.

The majority of pirates had short lives at sea and needed to get wealthy quick, so they plundered goods and sold them on land in order to repair and restock their ships, hire new crew, support their families, or buy plenty of food and women’s company. Burying these items would have only led to lost goods and likely death before they could be recovered. So, while it makes for a fun story, the reality of ‘buried treasure’ is as fiction as Treasure Island.

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This content first appeared in the December 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Dr Rebecca SimonHistorian, author and piracy expert

Dr Rebecca Simon is a historian of early modern piracy. She is the author of Why We Love Pirates: The Hunt for Captain Kidd and How He Changed Piracy Forever (Mango Press, 2020)

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