Pirates have had a lot of visibility throughout 20th and 21st-century popular culture. When people think of pirates, they often think of eye patches, wooden legs, and or some incarnation of Jack Sparrow. This imagery largely stems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island, who’s Long John Silver embodied this very image. However, the one aspect about piracy that has dominated their popular image above all else is the idea of “buried treasure.”
This may come as a surprise, but pirates generally did not leave hoards of riches and jewels hidden throughout the world. Gold and jewels are heavy and ships had to sail long distances at high speeds. When pirates robbed ships, they were interested in commodities such as spices, silks, alcohol, medicine, and food. They used these items to trade and sell on-shore and this is how they gained their wealth.
If that is the case, then where did the idea of buried treasure come from? The origin of this myth stems from a real pirate named Captain William Kidd, who was executed for his crimes in May 1701.
Captain William Kidd was not always a pirate and he never considered himself to be one. He worked as a privateer for the East India Company. While sailing in the East Indies, he robbed a ship called the Quedah Merchant, which reportedly had a vast amount of gold, cash, and jewels. Ever since the English became involved in trade in the East Indies, piracy had increased and the Mughals were angry about the loss of their goods. The stolen Quedah Merchant was the last straw and the Mughals told the English that if they did not capture Kidd, they would cease all trade and consider his crime to be an act of war. The English could not afford to lose this trade route so they began the first manhunt for a pirate in history.
Kidd was unaware of this and continued to sail as directed. As a privateer for the East India Company, he had letter of marque that allowed him to capture ships should they benefit the Crown. However, Kidd was a polarizing leader and he and his crew disagreed on almost every aspect of their job. This led to a fight between him and his first mate. The fight ended with Kidd striking the first mate across the head with an iron bucket, killing him almost instantly. Now Kidd faced mutiny and a murder charge. He needed help and refuge so he sent word to his friend in New York, the Earl of Bellomont, who offered him safety. Unfortunately for Kidd, Bellomont had already agreed to turn him over to the English because he did not want to be known as an associate to a pirate.
Bellomont had heard from an acquaintance who claimed that Kidd’s prizes totalled over £10,000 worth of gold and goods. However, upon Kidd’s capture, evidence of this treasure’s existence could never be found. Rumours grew and they were helped by letters written to the Lords Justices in England from the East India Company that claimed that Kidd had sailed to America “with a great Treasure of Gold, Silver, Jewells, and other Merchandize being the Produce of his Piracies.” However, Bellomont later denied the existence of any pieces of treasure despite a newspaper report dated September 1699 that claimed Kidd had sent Bellomont’s wife several thousand pounds worth of jewels.
This story circulated throughout the American colonies and when it became known that many members of Kidd’s crew were on shore in Philadelphia, the governor of Pennsylvania (William Penn) that he had never seen “one piece of silver” and that the gold taken from his ship only measured 3 ounces – hardly close to the amount in which it was claimed.
Many investigations between 1699 and 1700 yielded nothing. There was no treasure to be found. However, by the time of Kidd’s death in 1701, news had circulated about a rumoured buried treasure for over three years. The idea that there could be a hoard of wealth somewhere in the world available for the taking spurred a great interest in piracy in England the American colonies.
Rumours about Kidd’s buried treasure continued into the nineteenth century when newspapers claimed that Kidd’s inventory lists had emerged, which contained gold dust, gold bars, gold and silver coins, and precious stones. These rumours came to a head in 1849 when a set of maps, known as the Kidd-Palmer Charts, was “discovered”. These maps pinpointed the precise location of Kidd’s buried treasure in the China Seas compete with an X on the spot. Despite the fact that Kidd had never sailed anywhere near the China Seas, people leapt at this information. Expeditions were funded in attempts to find this treasure as recently as 1951 until the British Museum proved these maps to be a hoax.
These long-standing rumours were a direct inspiration for the writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who used historical accounts of pirates as direct inspirations for Treasure Island. It is likely that the rumours of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure directly influenced his novel and thus carried on our image of pirates’ gold and treasure maps where “x marked the spot.”
Neither Captain Kidd nor any other pirates ever buried a hoard of treasure and they were not even that interested in gold. However, thanks to rumours about Kidd’s treasure dating back to the end of the 1600s and the popularity of Treasure Island, we now associate pirates with gold and jewels.
Further readings about Captain Kidd, buried treasure, and the influence of Treasure Island:
- Graham Harris, Treasure and Intrigue: The Legacy of Captain Kidd (Toronto, 2002).
- Neil Rennie, Treasure Neverland: Real and Imaginary Pirates (Oxford, 2013).
- Robert C. Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (Cambridge, 1986).
 Liz Covart, “Episode 099: Mark Hanna, Pirates & Pirate Nests in the British Atlantic World,” Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History. http://www.benfranklinsworld.com/episode-099-mark-hanna-pirates-pirate-nests-british-atlantic-world/
 For a full summary of Kidd’s life, see Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates, ed. Manuel Schonhorn (New York: 1999), 440 – 452.
 Robert C. Ritchie, Captain Kidd and the War Against the Pirates (Cambridge, 1986), 194.
 “Governor Lord Bellomont to the Council of Trade and Plantations,” Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series 17:621 (July 8, 1699).
 “To Their Excellencies the Lords Justices of England The humble Petition of the Governour & Company of Merchants of London trading into the East Indies,” BL, IOR/H/36 (September 21, 1699).
 The Post Boy, September 7 – 9, 1699.
 “William Penn to Mr. Secretary Vernon,” Calendar of State Papers: Colonial Series 18:156 (February 27, 1700).
 “Captain Kidd, the Pirate,” The Charter, June 30, 1839.
 “From the Springfield Republican,” The Semi-Weekly Eagle, February 15, 1849.
 “Attempts to raise money to finance expeditions to search for Captain Kidd’s Treasure in the China Seas,” TNA, MEPO 2/9166.