We know little about Olivier de Vasseur other than that he was a French pirate who preyed upon ships in the Indian Ocean. He made two rich captures, the Portuguese vessel, Vierge du Cap, carrying the Viceroy and the Archbishop of Goa, the Portuguese colony on the Indian coast, and an Arab ship. She carried a princess on her way to marry in Zanzibar, on the coast of Africa. Both vessels were transporting rich cargoes of gold, silver and jewels.
De Vasseur's own ship, Le Victorieux, was captured by the French frigate Meduse. He was taken to the island of Reunion, where he was hanged on July, 1730. From the scaffold de Vasseur tossed a paper to the spectators, crying `Find my treasure who can!' The paper proved to be a chart, with directions how to find the treasure he had hidden in a cave in the Seychelles Islands.
This chart came into the possession of a family named Savy who lived on the island of Mane, one of the Seychelles group. These islands became a British colony in 1814 The chart led the Savy family to the beach at Bel Ombre. They found other papers in the Archives at Mauritius. Few people have seen these papers, and we are told only that they contain a cryptogram.
The Savy family dug the beach at Bel Ombre between 1913 and 1923. An old man, it is reported, adept at cryptograms, spent twenty years studying these signs and symbols without arriving at any solution. A cryptogram is another way of describing a cipher, but with one difference: a cryptogram uses signs and symbols rather than letters and words. To interpret a cryptogram it is necessary to `see into the mind' of the person who drew it. That is why our ignorance of de Vasseur is so galling.
The search for de Vasseur's treasure might have ended had not an Englishman arrived in the Seychelles in 1948. This man, Reginald Herbert Cruise-Wilkins, had been an officer in the Guards and had been living in Kenya, in East Africa, for some years. He visited the Seychelles on holiday without realizing that he would have to wait three months for a boat to take him back to East Africa. He went to stay at Bel Ombre, where he met Mrs Charles Savy and the man who had been working on the cryptogram. They showed him the chart and pointed out on the beach rocks and cliffs on which had been drawn pictures of dogs, serpents, tortoises, horses, and human beings. Cruise-Wilkins was hooked. The more he studied the cryptogram and these rock markings, the more convinced he became that they formed a crude code invented to show the place de Vasseur had hidden his treasure. `My first study of the documents convinced me,' he told a visitor in 1967, `that the plan for burying the treasure had been based on stories from Greek mythology, and on the position of the stars'. De Vasseur, he thought, had devised a game to `befuddle' those who might seek to find his treasure.
If Cruise-Wilkins is right, de Vasseur must have been a very well-read pirate. He had based his cryptogram on the Seven Labours of Hercules. For example, Hercules had been given the task of killing the water-snake, Hydra. De Vasseur, Cruise-Wilkins, believed, had used this classical parallel to explain that he had had to divert an underground stream to protect his treasure cavern. Another rock carving depicted the goddess Andromeda, chained to a rock, waiting to be devoured by a monster.
La Buse's Grave on the Island of Reunion
Early in his search, Cruise-Wilkins realized that much money would be required to pay the cost of excavating the beach at Bel Ombre, so he returned to Kenya where he raised £24,ooo.
Back at Bel Ombre again, he learned that Mrs Savy had found that six compass bearings given on the chart intersected on the beach at a certain point. She and her helpers had unearthed two coffins containing skeletons and another body, possibly the remains of the pirates de Vasseur had killed to prevent their disclosing the secret of the treasure's hiding place.
Cruise-Wilkins has been digging and tunnelling on the beach at Bel Ombre since 1950. Two visitors found him at work in 1952 and 1967. The first watched a professional mineral diviner scanning the sand with rods and ` something that looked like a ping-pong ball on the end of a string'. The surrounding hills echoed to the sounds of blasting and a small gang of Negroes were busy digging holes. They were searching, he was told, for the supposed cave which was believed to lie beneath a great area of granite rock.
The second visitor, fifteen years later, found the beach honey- combed with man-made tunnels which ran below sea level. A high stone wall had been built to hold back the sea. Cruise-Wilkins told him that getting at the cavern, in which the treasure was supposed to lie, was a massive and dangerous engineering job. The cavern is protected by a huge slab of rock and is guarded by the sea. It can be approached only from one direction, which is indicated by three stones depicting the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, another ancient Greek myth.
The entrance to the treasure cave is many feet underground, possibly beneath an overhanging rock, and is protected by manmade tunnels which carry the sea to flood it, should the searcher attempt to enter it from the wrong and the dangerous direction.
`De Vasseur has led me almost in a complete circle', CruiseWilkins told his visitor. `But I believe that at last I have him.' Wisely, Cruise-Wilkins is disinclined to describe his progress, as I found in 1972 when I corresponded with him.
Cruise-Wilkins believes that the treasure is contained in three chests, each about seven feet long and three feet wide. Almost more interesting is his description of hew he thinks de Vasseur looked. He pictures him as a small man with a limp. He was nicknamed La Buse, the Buzzard.
Cruise-Wilkins is still digging and tunnelling. Whether or not he finds treasure, he will have spent twenty or more exciting years, occupied by a hobby which has become an obsession. That is the way of treasure hunting.