Thursday, 31 May 2012
Inestimable Stones, Unvalued Jewels
A Book Review from ~1930/drf
"Inestimable Stones, Unvalued Jewels."
Being and appreciation of “Lost Treasure: True Tales of Hidden Hoards,”By A. Hyatt Verrill (Published by Appleton)
From Illustrated London News, 1930. Researched by Dennis Lien; digitized by Doug Frizzle, May 2012.
In the history of the art of fiction there is no greater pioneer and innovator than Edgar Allan Poe. It is to him that we owe the detective story; it was he who discovered in the search for Treasure, a theme more profitable for novelists than for pirates. The "Gold Bug" has had numerous progeny. Auri sacra fames is an appetite so deeply implanted in the human breast (at any rate in the European breast) that its potency communicates itself onto the printed page; and the same force that impels men to crime also persuades them to read.
In real life, the quest for the Lost Treasure, like the quest for happiness, seems destined to fail. Of all the enterprises recorded by Mr. Verrill, beginning with the activities of the Spaniards in Mexico and Peru, and going down to the present day, few have been completely successful. One of the luckiest treasure-seekers was Captain Phips, afterwards Sir William Phips and Governor of Massachusetts. His first venture, in which he has a partner no less distinguished than King Charles II., came to nothing; but the second, sanctioned by James II, and financed by the Duke of Albemarle, yielded a harvest worth two million dollars. Of this Phips received only eighty thousand; but it was enough to set him up for life. The king's share was two hundred thousand.
Phips’s treasure came from a Spanish galleon, one of a fleet of sixteen bearing silver from the Peruvian mines, that had gone ashore only forty years before on the Island of the Silver Shoals. Phips kept a log in which he put down the daily progress made in the work of salvage. The entries are thrilling.
“This morning our Captain sent a longboat on board Mt. Rogers which in a shoart time returned, weh made our hearts very gladd to see, which was 4 Sows of silver, 4 barr, 7 Champers, 2 dowboyds, 2000 and odd dollars, by wch. we understood they had found the wrecke." Phips was evidently a man who expected his employees to work their utmost. Even when treasure began to come up by the ton he was still unsatisfied. On March 3 he reports: “2399 poundes weight of coined silver which we putt in 32 baggs. The dyvers could make no great hand of their work." He did not forget to observe the Sabbath: "This day being ye Lordsday we rested, notwithstanding ye weather was fair, it is almost tempting Providence so to waste His gifts." They went on working, with occasional pauses to give the divers a rest, until April 14, by which time "Ye dyvers find there is but little left within ye wrecke."
Two million dollars seems a lot of money; but it must have gone to Phips's heart to sail away leaving the remaining fifteen galleons with their treasure intact, as, perhaps, it remains to this day.
But this considerable sum is a mere bagatelle compared with the treasure which the Spaniards left behind in Peru. They were not only very cruel but very foolish in their treatment of the Indians. "Prior to the seventeenth ceutury,” says Mr. Verrill, "the greatest treasures in the history of the world were the incalculable accumulations of gold, silver, pearls, and gems of the Aztec and Incan civilisations. Such things had no intrinsic value in the estimations of the natives. They were not regarded as riches, as wealth, not as money, but were prized merely for their beauty, their imperishable character, the ease with which they could be worked, and their symbolism, and they were used only as ceremonial and religious objects, as ornaments, and as decorations. Among the Aztecs, copper was more highly prized than gold, jadeite was looked upon as more desirable than gems, and bits of sea-shells were regarded as preferable to pearls.
"Moreover, as the precious metals were not in general use, but were largely restricted to the temples, the palaces, the nobility, and the priesthood, they were concentrated, so to speak, instead of being scattered among millions of individuals."
At first the Spaniards could have had, and did have, all they wanted for the asking. The natives, regarding them as demi-gods, and immortal, loaded them with presents. But they were so greedy and immortal, loaded them with presents. But they were so greedy and importunate, at any rate in Peru, that they soon lost their reputation both for divinity and immortality. For combined treachery and tactlessness Pizarro's treatment of Atahualpa is surely without parallel. It is some consolation to think that, besides making his name a by-word in history, it cost him and his myrmidons about a hundred and thirty million dollars.
Mr. Verrill’s account of the negotiations which preceded the murder of the King is extremely graphic and well told. Captured by treachery, Atahualpa, who had "discovered that the Spaniards' one and paramount desire was gold," tried to strike a bargain with their commander for his ransom. Standing in a room twenty feet by eighteen (the room existed until a few years ago), he offered to cover the floor with gold if only they would set him free. The Spaniards shook their heads, thinking be could never fulfil his promise; and he, mistaking their meaning, thought that his offer had been insufficient. Standing on tip-toe, he made a mark on the wall as high as his hand could reach (he was not a tall man, so the height would be about seven feet). "Not only will I cover the floor of the room with the metal you desire, but I will fill it to this height," he said. "And twice as much silver will I give besides." Quick to take advantage of his opportunity, Pizarro immediately indicated a spot two feet further up; and Atahualpa agreed to fill the room to this height.
The treasure was not, of course, forthcoming on the spur of the moment. It had to be fetched long distances, much of it from the Temple of the Sun at Cuzco, which Atahualpa had never visited. The Spaniards grew impatient as the arrival of the ransom was still delayed; perhaps they thought that the King would not or could not produce it. At all events, they murdered him. The news of his death reached simultaneously two long trains of carriers loaded with treasure, one coming from Chuquis, the other from Cuzco. (In the Cuzco consignment there was a chain of gold seven hundred feet long, weighing ten tons, and worth five million dollars.) When the bearers realised that their burden could not save the King and would only swell the pockets of the Spaniards, they straightway hid it, and hidden it still remains.
Cortes was much more humane and tactful than Pizarro. He told Montezuma's representative that the Spaniards suffered from a malady of the heart for which the only cure was gold. When one of the Aztecs expressed admiration for a helmet worn by a Spanish archer, Cortes offered to send it to Montezuma, and suggested that it should be returned "filled with gold dust." These pacific tactics succeeded admirably. Montezuma's entire treasure was placed at the disposal of the Spaniards. But Cortes, in his religious fanaticism, was not content with taking the votive offerings the Aztecs had made to their gods; he wanted the gods as well. This the Aztecs could not stomach. They turned on their persecutors and despoilers. One night, the Noche Triste, there was a frightful massacre, four hundred Spaniards, weighed down with booty, were killed or drowned in the canals that intersected the city of Tenochtitlan—and Montezuma's treasure was lost to Spain.
The first part of Mr. Verrill's book describes the fate of the treasures in Mexico and Peru. It is, perhaps, the most enthralling part. Nations were involved, cities besieged, and the sums at stake were enormous. Afterwards come chapters dealing with the treasures of pirates and buccaneers: Captain Kidd, Pirate Quelch, Brother Jonathan, Billy Bowlegs. These treasures, though there are romantic stories attached to them, seem small beer by comparison with the others. Captain Kidd, poor man, though hanged as a pirate, never had any treasure at all—or at most a small one, which he dutifully handed over to his Majesty's Government: the inventory of it still exists and is reproduced in the book. Brother Jonathan's treasure still lies, Mr. Verrill says, in Tristan da Cunha, "somewhere on the left hand side of the last house down in the direction of Little Beach, between the two waterfalls." In such a limited area it should be easy to find the treasure of the man who styled himself "Emperor" of that lonely island. Sir Francis Drake, one of the most successful of treasure-seekers, though he had to jettison a great part of his precious cargo for the sake of lightening the Golden Hind, brought back a very respectable amount to London; but his memoirs record that he was "greatly troubled" because some of the "chiefest men of the Court" refused to accept the gold on the ground that it had been won by piracy—squeamshness that does them great credit.
As time goes on and we reach the nineteenth century, piracy loses some of its glamour; men like Charles Gibbs (hanged in 1831) seem like common criminals. More interesting than the pirates themselves are the accounts of expeditions undertaken to recover their various treasures. It is no easy task among so many wonderful tales to select the most enthralling. Nothing could be more romantic than the history of the golden altar in the treasure of Panama, which has survived to the present day, thanks to the coat of white paint which deceived the sharp eyes of Sir Henry Morgan. Very lovely and romantic is the story of “El Dorado," the "Gilded Man," who gave his name to a great city. Every year the King and his people visited Lake Guatavita, to make sacrifice to its presiding deity; the people bearing their most precious possessions, the King smeared with gum and anointed with gold dust. Embarking on a raft, the King was rowed to the middle of the lake. Then he plunged in and washed off his golden coat, while the multitudes around sang and threw their offerings into its waters. How ignoble, by comparison, seems the action of the British company which, in 1903, obtained permission to drain the lake! The operation proved easy enough, for the lake is a small one. But the goddess was not to be robbed of her treasures. No sooner was the water drawn off than the mud at the bottom set as hard as cement, defying the picks and shovels of the excavators. Like nearly all treasure-seekers, they had to retire discomfited.
I have no space to describe the search for the mysterious treasure of Oak Island, the most extraordinary story of the whole collection, and one which shows Mr. Verrill's narrative gift at its best. His literary style is not impeccable; it contains some curious phrases—e.g., "he kept his level head." But no one can read his book without longing, a score of times, to leap from his chair and set out incontinently for Cuzco or Cocos Island. L. P. H.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.