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Bonito 'Bloody Sword' Bonito Bonito 'Bloody Sword' Bonito.
Legends and Lore
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Another treasure that supposedly still lies buried somewhere on the island is that of Benito "Bloody Sword" Bonito. Bonito terrorized the west coast of the Americas beginning about 1818, looting and burning Spanish galleons and taking his hoardings to Cocos Island. In his most infamous exploit, Bonito, learning that Spanish gold was transported by uniformed guard from the Mexican cordillera to Acapulco, simply captured the guard, put their uniforms on his own men, and loaded the treasure onto his ship—without firing a shot. His most infamous mistake was to let two Englishmen from a British ship he hijacked join his band of pirates. Years later, these two Brits were arrested by the authorities and sentenced to hang, but were released after leading their captors to Bonito's West Indian hideout, where this notoriously blood-thirsty pirate was finally cut down. The two Englishmen apparently never managed to return to Cocos, and the "captain's cut" of Bonito's cache sits there to this day. Its estimated modern value: $300 million.

The most famous Cocos hoard of all is the "Great Treasure of Lima." In 1820, as the revolutionary José de San Martín advanced on Lima, the Spanish Viceroy realized he had better remove the stores of gold and silver under his command. Officials of the more than 50 Spanish churches in the city came to the same conclusion about their ecclesiastical riches, which included a solid-gold, gem-encrusted, life-size image of the Virgin Mary. Figuring that hiding this wealth anywhere near Lima would be foolish, the Viceroy entrusted it to a British sea captain named William Thompson, a known and respected trader in the region. The Viceroy's plan was to have Thompson sail around for several months, with the treasure stowed aboard his merchantman, the Mary Dear, until the political situation improved. Big mistake. A load of such value—at the time, Spanish officials deemed it worth between $12 and $60 million—proved too great a temptation to Thompson and his men. Once out of sight of land, they cut the throats of the Viceroy's appointed guard, tossed their bodies overboard, and made haste to Cocos, where they duly buried the treasure.

Classic Cocos jungle Classic Cocos jungle.

Thompson and his crew decided to split up until things simmered down, then reconnoiter to divvy up the spoils. But not long after leaving Cocos, the Mary Dear was picked up by a Spanish man-of-war. The crew was put on trial for piracy, convicted, and hung—all except for Thompson and his first mate, who agreed to lead their captors to the stolen goods if their lives were spared. Soon after they stepped on Cocos under an armed guard, however, Thompson and the mate suddenly hotfooted it into the jungle. Despite a protracted search, they were never found, and their frustrated captors finally left the island. According to some versions of the story, the pair were later picked up by a whaler and taken to Puntarenas, in Costa Rica, where the mate contracted yellow fever and died. For his part, William Thompson seems to have vanished from the pages of history shortly thereafter, and there is no indication that he ever returned to Cocos Island.

August Gissler August Gissler
Since that time, more than 300 expeditions have tried to locate these and other treasures on Cocos. American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, visiting on three fishing trips between 1935 and 1940, even let his crew give it a whirl. Alas, all these efforts failed—or at least those that chose to make their findings public. (Would you, if you dug up a pot of gold?) The most earnest seeker was one Captain August Gissler, a German who lived on the island off and on for almost 20 years beginning in 1889. Gissler remained there so long scouring for the lost loot that the Costa Rican government made him governor of the island and granted him permission to establish a colony there. The colony failed, and in two decades of intense searching, Gissler turned up nothing more than a few Spanish pieces-of-eight. He left the island in 1908, a broken man.

Giant hawkfish on a Cocos reef. Giant hawkfish on a Cocos reef.

Today, visitors to Cocos Island recongize that its real treasure lies in its natural wealth, both above and below water. The island is now part of Costa Rica's renowned national park system, and in 1997, UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site. It has become one of the world's top scuba-diving destinations, for the titanic schools of hammerhead sharks and other large oceanic fish that congregate in its tropical waters. With the Costa Rican government refusing to issue any more licenses for treasure-hunting, Cocos Island has returned to its sleepy, deserted self, just the way Johan Cabeças found it more than 450 years ago.

Peter Tyson is Online Producer of NOVA.

Photos/Illustrations: (1,5,7) ©Michele Hall; (2-4,6) from La Isla del Coco by Christopher Weston.

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