Chapter One: Cocos Island – 1821
A finger of flame stabbed the evening air amidst clouds of grey smoke. The iron ball hurtled towards its target and buried itself into one of the swells 150 feet behind the American schooner. The cannon came to rest in its recoil position. The gun crew immediately inserted another fuse, loaded a charge of gunpowder, an 18-pound cannon ball and then rammed it home with a wad of sacking. The barrel of the cannon was lifted and slid back so that the two spigots on each side rested on the next step of the yokes, raising the trajectory. They then heaved the cannon back to its firing position and lit the fuse.
Another fountain of water erupted immediately to port of the fleeing ship as it started on a starboard tack.
“Keep her close hauled,” Captain Henry Schmid of the small American-built schooner Black Witch shouted to his first mate, “We’ll clear the island without another tack.” The frigate carried more sail than the schooner, but she couldn’t pinch the wind like the American ship could.
Typically, square-rigged ships of the era had difficulty sailing into the wind because most of the sails were arranged perpendicular to the ship’s hull, and were limited in how much they could be turned on their axis to catch the wind. The ships usually carried an aft sail on the mizzen (rearmost) mast that was arranged along the axis of the ship’s hull, typically the way modern sailing ships are arranged. It was this sail that allowed them to sail close hauled – or into the wind. The Baltimore Clipper ships (of which the Black Witch was), carried a very large sail on the mizzen in proportion to the total sail area. It was this arrangement that allowed the ships to out-manoeuvre the larger galleons.
The ship was riding low in the water due to the massive cache of gold and silver on board and the fresh supplies of food and water carried in her hull reduced speed significantly.
Schmid knew the area around Cocos Island very well and realised that the course they had chosen would take the ship through a shallow coral reef outcrop extending west of Cocos.
“Captain!” the first mate said with concern. “The reef!”
Schmid knew that the ship should clear the reef at high tide – and that was four hours away. “They’ve no chance of following us through the reef.” He said with an apprehensive tone. “They’d be forced to navigate around it. We’d gain at least six hours on them and by that time the sun will have set.”
The first mate nodded in reluctant approval. The thought of plying through shallow reefs with the ship so low in the water was not an appealing option, but he realised it was the only viable one. “At the moment they can only use the two forward-facing guns, probably 18 pounders. They can’t afford to go broadside on to bring more guns to bear. They’re still about a mile away and unlikely to hit us at this range”
Geysers of white foam shot skyward around them as the Spaniards attempted to find their range and distance. Strategically, one would alter course regularly to prevent the enemy from finding the range. Schmid, however, realised that this would allow the galleon to gain on them. They were almost out of range and their only defence was to outrun their pursuers.
Earlier, the American ship’s crew had spent several days of shore leave on the island. The crew was getting restless. They were now considered pirates after plundering a cache of treasure from Lima, Peru, and the Spaniards would be sure to track them down, even though they stole the treasure from the Peruvians. They used the time to re-supply the ship with fresh fruit and water. No one knew where they were headed. The captain was not about to disclose their final destination to anyone. The cry from the lookout atop the hill overlooking Chatham Bay sent the shore party scurrying to the longboats. Bare backs glistened with sweat as everyone frantically pulled at the oars to return to the ship anchored in the bay. Even before the last of them reached the Black Witch, the anchor was weighed and the sails were being set. The last boat barely made it as the strong breeze filled the sheets and the ship got under way. They emerged from the bay and saw the galleon approaching from the west on a broad reach. Their only avenue of escape was to the east around the island.
“The winds are southerly. We’re in the lee of the island”, the first mate commented. This robbed the ship of much of the available wind.
“We’ll have to keep this northerly tack until we clear Manuelita Island,” said Schmid. “Then we can take an easterly heading.” As the schooner emerged from Chatham Bay, they felt the full effect of the southerly winds at their back, giving the ship more headway. The wind caused wisps of foam to fly from the wave tops. The Spanish ship, however, was bearing down on them from the west, closing the distance between them. Schmid had ordered all sails to be set and the sheets strained under the force of the strong breeze. The masts creaked under the pressure, but the order to reduce sail would not come. Their pursuers would soon be in the lee of the island, robbing their sails of precious wind. The frigate was closing on them all the time they maintained this course, but they could not turn to the east until they could clear Manuelita Island without having to tack.
Everyone was on edge as the plumes of water erupted around them. Sooner or later one could find its mark. Slowly, the cliffs of Manuelita Island eased by them to starboard, but they could not turn yet. The wind was off their port tack and they would have to turn to starboard, meaning a jibe would be necessary. The crew knew what the pending manoeuvre was and stood ready, sheets and tackle in hand. An improperly performed jibe could snap the mast with the strength of wind that was blowing, with disastrous results. Schmid nervously calculated the correct moment to order them to come about, then gave the nod to the first mate.
“Ready about!” the first mate shouted. There was a scurry of activity on the deck as some sheets were pulled taught while others were slackened. Anxious crew waited for the order.
“Jibe Ho!” He shouted as he spun the wheel to starboard. Each man had his job and the sails were realigned for the new heading. The mizzen sail was hauled in tight and the main sails set to keep them full as they turned. The ship heeled from a port tack to a starboard tack as the wind spilled from one side of the mizzen sail and directly to the other. The wind was now directly abeam of their starboard. Timbers creaked as the sheets strained under the pressure and the ship picked up speed.
This time the projectile found its mark and slammed into the rear deckhouse. The 18-pound iron ball crashed through the transom, splintering the bulkhead and deck of the Captain’s quarters. It careened through several more bulkheads; finally smashing into a water barrel on the lower deck that exploded in a spray of splintered wood and water. Captain Schmid rushed below decks to his cabin to survey the damage. The internal bulkhead was smashed and the two crew left to guard the treasure lay motionless amongst the splintered remains. He stepped through the opening. Most of the contents of the cabin, including furniture, poured out of the gaping hole in the transom. More to his dismay, all of the treasure kept in his quarters for safe-keeping had also disappeared through the opening.
Schmid reappeared on deck after surveying the damage and peered back at the warship. Several more shots fell short and he knew they were now out of range. Their only hope was that they could find a route through the coral reef and into clear water beyond.
Nervously, the crew stood on deck as the colour of the water changed from turquoise to light blue-green, signifying shallower water. Dark patches began to appear as the coral reef came up to meet the fragile wooden hull of the fleeing ship. They had now emerged from the calm waters in the lee of the island and the swells of the Pacific were menacing to the small ship.
“It might be deep enough in calm seas,” commented the first mate nervously, “but we lose a fathom in the troughs.”
Captain Schmid shared his first mate’s concerns. He casually stroked at his goatee and paced apprehensively on the poop deck. The lookout in the crow’s nest shouted alternately, “hard-a-port” or “hard-a-starboard,” as he tried to steer a course through the reefs. Suddenly, the ship lurched to starboard as it plunged into a trough and impacted an outcrop of coral. Anxiety overcame the crew as they listened to the wrenching sound of the timbers scraping the sharp surface as the ship glanced off the spiked coral. “Check damage below,” barked Schmid to a nearby crewmember.
“Aye, aye sir,” he responded as he disappeared down the hatch. He first saw significant water below decks but soon realised this came from the damaged water barrel hit by the cannon ball. Surveying the port side of the hull below the water line, he observed some buckled planking and water seeping through the fractured joints. He determined that the seepage could easily be handled by constant use of the pumps, but they would need to put into a port soon for repairs. He reported to the Captain his findings and a pumping crew was dispatched immediately.
They continued through the treacherous reefs for fifteen more minutes without further incident, when the waters became darker and they were clear and free of the underwater hazards. Looking back at the galleon they saw that it had already turned away to manoeuvre around the reef – they were home free – for now!
Four weeks earlier, Schmid was in Lima, Peru, where he was a well-known and respected trader in the region. At the time, Peru was at war with Chile, and the Chilean revolutionary, José de San Martin, was advancing on Lima. The Spanish Viceroy realised 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 a decision about their ecclesiastical riches, which included a solid-gold, gem-encrusted, life-size image of the Virgin Mary, cradling Jesus. Figuring that hiding this wealth anywhere near Lima would be foolish, the Viceroy entrusted it to Captain Schmid. The Viceroy’s plan was to have Schmid sail around for several months, with the treasure stowed aboard his schooner, until the political situation improved. Big Mistake! A load of such great value - estimated by Spanish officials at the time to be worth between $12 and $60 million - proved too great a temptation for Schmid and his crew. Once out of sight of land, they cut the throats of the Viceroy’s appointed guards, tossed their bodies overboard, and made haste to Cocos. Schmid, upon arrival in Cocos, assembled several of his most trusted men and devised a plan for the treasure.
Sending men ashore in longboats, they collected supplies of coconuts and fresh water, along with other fruits and vegetables for the next leg of their journey. While most of the crew was ashore, Schmid, with the assistance of an elite group of three crewmen, emptied the chests of treasure and placed it in the captain’s cabin, unbeknownst to the rest of the crew. They then loaded the empty chests with a few cannon balls and placed them in one of the longboats; one of the elite crew proceeded ashore with Schmid on a ruse to bury the treasure on the island and to return for it later. This accounts for the many rumours about the “Lost Loot of Lima” being buried somewhere on the island, but to date has never been found. The life-size statue was difficult to conceal, and so they left it in the captain’s cabin, with no attempt to fake burying it ashore.
When the cannon ball hit the stern quarters, two of the elite crew guarding the treasure were killed. Only one other person, the first mate, now knew that the treasure, including the statue, was lying on the ocean floor. In the excitement eluding their followers, neither the Captain, nor the first mate, had an opportunity to fix a position on where the spoils were. They guessed that with the colour of the water, and the fact that the bottom was visible, the treasure lay between 40 and 60 feet below the surface just outside Chatham Bay.
“We’ll have to set sail for the nearest port where we can affect repairs,” Schmid said.
“That would be San Francisco on the Californian coast,” said the first mate.
“News of our piracy may have reached America by now.” Schmid said. “We’d have to be cautious about who we talk to when we reach port. We can’t use any of the commercial ports of course because of the navy and shore police presence. I know of a small shipyard just south of San Francisco with enough depth to handle the draft of the Black Witch. They also have a marine railway to hoist her out of the water for repairs. I’ve dealt with the proprietor before and know that for a few pieces of gold he will keep quiet.”
The first mate unrolled a chart of the Californian coast around San Francisco. Schmid pointed out the location of the shipyard. The first mate said, “We’ll anchor offshore here, behind this point, and take the longboat into the shipyard. According to the charts, there will be a quarter moon when we arrive. We could bring the ship in under cover of darkness – let’s hope for clear skies.”
“Once there,” Schmid interjected, “we’ll replace the ship’s name with another name – how about ‘Taurus’?” The first mate nodded in agreement. It now remained to convince the crew of the importance of keeping a low profile. A story was therefore contrived in order that each would give the same account of their experiences at sea in the local beer houses and brothels.
“Once repairs are completed, we will return to Cocos and search for the treasure,” Schmid said, looking around to check that no-one was within earshot. The crew, of course, thought that it was buried on the island. They would be keen enough to return for their promised share. They wouldn’t find out until they reached Cocos that the treasure was lost overboard, and that in order to retrieve it, they would have to search the seabed. At that time, it would be explained to them that the ruse to bury it ashore was for security reasons, in case anyone jumped ship and arranged their own retrieval plans.
They reached the Californian coast and sailed up to the point where they planned to anchor. They had only a few hours to wait until dark and Schmid went ashore to make the arrangements for the repairs. As suspected, he was able to make a deal with the owner of the shipyard and payment would be made in gold. He returned to the ship and arranged a detail of oarsmen in two longboats to tow the ship into harbour under clear skies and a bright moon. The boats bobbed in the swells caused by the westerly winds as backs strained against the oars. When close to the railway hoist, they fastened the mooring lines to the dock. It would be impossible to position the ship on the rail dollies without daylight. Several carriages were arranged for the crew to take them into town – they had not been ashore for several weeks.
It took two weeks to replace the damaged hull and repair the rear quarterdeck and Captain’s quarters. During this time, Schmid planned his methods for retrieving the treasure from the seabed 60 feet below the surface. Free diving without breathing apparatus was limited to about 30 feet, and little time was available for staying on the bottom. Unfortunately, deep-sea diving techniques were not abundant in 1821, although references to breathing apparatus in diving go back to Aristotle, in the fourth century BC. The first practical aid, a watertight leather case holding about 60 cu. ft. of air was invented in England in 1810, and was used by the British Navy. Schmid made a trip into San Francisco and decided he would cash in some favours with his Navy friends. Several British ships were there and he was pleased to learn that his long-time friend and former first mate Dave Paterson, now Captain, was there with the frigate H.M.S. Devonshire. Schmid relayed the story of the Lima incident, but told him that it was pirates attacking him rather than the Spanish. He confided in him regarding some treasure being lost overboard, but admitted that it was only a small casket, and the rest was buried on the island. He asked about the breathing apparatus and learned that all British Navy ships were now equipped with them. Paterson would have to come up with a plausible excuse for ‘losing’ four units, but Schmid will likely have them returned before an inventory was taken. They bade each other farewell and Paterson wished Schmid luck with his search.
Schmid paid for the repairs with several gold pieces worth way more than the cost of repairs, and gave the shipyard owner a further ‘tip’ for his discretion. Surprisingly, the story of his escapades in Peru had not yet reached this part of America, although it would not take long before it did, and he was anxious to depart as soon as possible. His trip back to Cocos would take about 20 days, depending on winds, and he was a little concerned that he was approaching the time of year that served up some very unpleasant weather in that area. He estimated that he could spend up to 4 weeks searching for the treasure, and it could only be done when the seas were calm. Six days into the journey, a violent storm swept in from the west Pacific.
Schmid could read weather better than any maritimer, and he was concerned with the look of the front that was descending upon them. The winds were increasing now and he ordered sails to be furled. He retained some head-sails on the mizzen in order to maintain steerage and had ready a drogue, which would be let out the stern to act as a sea anchor to keep the bow on to the winds in heavy seas. As the seas worsened and wind increased he reduced sails to a minimum to maintain headway and let out the drogue. The helmsman was lashed to the wheel and fought to keep the vessel head-on to the winds, although with no apparent forward motion, the rudder was of little use, and the sea anchor was all that was keeping the bow into the wind. For several hours, the Taurus was pummelled by the raging storm. Swells approached 60 feet in height. The tops of them were whisked away by the gale-force winds, driving the spray horizontally. The vessel would climb a wave, pivot on the crest, and crash down into the trough. The whole ship shuddered as the bowsprit and front decks became completely submerged. For a few seconds, the weight of water on the decks held the bow low in the water until it could spill over the sides, only to repeat the process with the next wave. The wind was now howling as it steadily increased in speed to over 100 knots. The top of the main mast snapped just below the crow’s nest, and crashed down onto the deck, narrowly missing the helmsman. Crew immediately appeared on deck with safety tethers and proceeded to cut away the rigging and haul the splintered remains of the mast overboard. As quickly as the crew appeared, they disappeared below decks again to the safety of the cabins.
The winds eventually subsided after 6 hours and the seas steadied to a gradual swell. “We’re in the eye of the typhoon,” Schmid commented to the first mate, “and the winds will start up again soon. Batten down any loose items and cut away all damaged rigging.” The first mate barked orders and crew swarmed on the decks.
“Anything unnecessary is to be thrown overboard to lessen weight. The remaining rigging is to be thoroughly checked and tightened.” Several cannon balls were rolling around the decks.
“Stack those balls back on the monkeys,” the first mate shouted to one of the young crew. A puzzled expression appeared on his face.
“What’s a monkey?”
“The brass rack the bloody cannon balls are stacked on,” was the first mate’s agitated reply.
“Oh!” he said. “I didn’t know it was called a monkey.”
“You never heard the expression ‘cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey’?”
“Well, you see, the cannon balls are made of iron, right? The racks now, they’re made of brass and are called ‘monkeys’. When it gets real bloody cold the brass sort ’a shrinks. You know?” He made a gesture with his hands to illustrate the shrinking. “The cannon balls then fall off.”
“Oh!” The boy said, pleased with his new-found knowledge.
The expression does not, as many people imagine, refer to a metallic primate who has suffered an involuntary orchidectomy.
Below-decks were checked for soundness in the bulkheads and hull. It was during this check that a crewmember reported seepage along one of the hull plates that was replaced during repairs. Schmid and his first mate crawled below the lower deck into the bilge with their lanterns to inspect the breach. There was water building up in the bilge and they could see that it was seeping through one of the joints of new lumber, which was obviously not properly treated or sealed.
“Better get that repaired,” Schmid told the first mate.
“Yes sir!” he replied. “We have some hemp and tar that will patch it. I’m not concerned about the repair in normal seas, but with the typhoon it will exert a lot of pressure on the plates when she crashes down into the troughs.”
Schmid rubbed his chin in thought. “Remove one of the mainsails and drape it under the front of the bow. It won’t stop the pressure from opening up the joint, but it will slow down the seepage. Also, prepare some braces to wedge against the hull plates. That will at least prevent the buckling in the heavy seas.”
“Aye, Aye, Sir,” he concurred and made his way to the hatch. Schmid stayed a few moments while he checked for more leaks and then returned to the hatch. As he made his way to the main deck he generally took note of everything below decks. He emerged into brilliant sunshine and watched as several men were already hacking away the rigging on the mainsail. It was hard to believe that the weather was going to return to the typhoon-force winds again, only this time in the opposite direction. The centre was about 50 miles wide and he predicted that this close to the tropics, the storm would be moving slowly towards mainland America. He estimated eight – ten hours of calm. With the help of his sextant, he determined that he was about 60 miles off course, but the reversed direction of the winds on the other side of the typhoon should bring him closer to his original course – if they survive the storm!
They enjoyed calm weather for almost 12 hours before the winds and seas picked up again. The problem now was that it was night time and pitch black. They set the drogue and headed into the wind - it was going to be a long night. Within an hour the winds were again at full force and the seas were rising. The merciless surf again buffeted the Taurus as she rose to the top of each swell and plummeted down into the trough, only to bury her bow into the following crest. For three hours the hull plates withstood the pressure of each plunge, and the makeshift mainsail cover stayed in place. It was the unexpected that spelled doom for the Taurus and her crew. During one of the plunges into a trough, the line securing the drogue snapped, denying her of any means to stay head-on into the wind. The next crest raised her until the wind caught her full force and turned her side on to the seas where she broached. She slid sideways down into the trough and the following crest rolled her over onto her side. She began to right herself when the next wave crashed into her side, completely inverting her. Defiantly, she tried to right herself again, but she had taken on too much water now and she was down in the stern. Successive waves mercilessly rolled her over onto her side until she could not right herself again. The sea became littered with debris, and sailors trying in vain to cling to any flotsam they could find. The Taurus, a.k.a. Black Witch, gave up the gallant fight to stay afloat and quickly sank below the surface, descending slowly to the ocean floor two miles below in the region of the east Pacific Rise, taking with her everyone who knew the true location of the buried treasure.