HOW romantic it would be to think that a dreamy South Pacific atoll that Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife fell in love with in 1890 would inspire him to write his immortal Treasure Island.
But in truth he had published his famous tome some seven years before they set eyes on this South Pacific treasure from aboard the old iron steamer Janet Nicoll, on their way to a new life in the Cook Islands in the hope the forever-poorly author could regain his health in warmer climes.
Yet that tiny half-square kilometre speck that Fanny Van de Grift Osborne wrote of as “the most romantic island in the world,” was indeed a truly treasure island – with as many mysteries, shootings, intrigues and treasures that her master story-teller husband could ever dream of.
For while Robert Louis may have mused that Fanny had discovered her treasure island in the little dot of land called Suwarrow, little was he to know that 38 years earlier treasure had been found there in the way of a rusty steel box laden with gold and silver coins, precious necklaces, brooches and other jewellery.
Nor that there was more to come.
In 1850 an American ship, the Gem loaded with barrels of whale oil had run aground on Suwarrow Island’s fringing reef. The crew was unharmed and made their way to Tahiti, from where a salvage team was sent to recover the whale oil.
But the captain of the recovery vessel, Livingston Evans already knew rumours of buried treasure on Suwarrow, and while his crew recovered the oil barrels, he himself went off in search of that treasure – remarkably finding a cache of Mexican and Spanish coins buried behind a beach and believed to have been worth then (1852) around US$15,000.
Wisely, after returning to Tahiti, Evans quietly disappeared with his considerable fortune.
Then three years later in Samoa, a German trader bought details from a drunken beachcomber of other treasure he said lay buried on Suwarrow. When the trader arrived there he followed those leads… to uncover US$2,400 worth of Spanish coins at the base of a tree.
Meanwhile others were showing an interest in the tiny atoll as a trading outpost, one company building a defensive fortress surrounded by coral walls on which it mounted two cannons facing into the atoll’s lagoon.
But two of the traders fell out and in 1878 in an attempt to hose-down a dangerously escalating feud another vessel was sent to sort out the problem. A gun fight broke out as yet a third vessel arrived with a New Zealand crewman aboard named Henry Mair, a friend of one of the protagonists and thus ordered by his captain to remain aboard.
But in dead of night, Henry Mair slipped overboard to help his friend, and after a long swim crawled up the beach on Suwarrow, momentarily laying there to regain his breath. But startled by a scraping sound, in the moonlight he saw a turtle digging in the sand – it’s flippers scratching on a battered metal box, from one end of which spilled countless coins and sparkling jewels…
Mair hurriedly dragged the box to a safer place and buried it deeply in the sand with his bare hands before going off to help his friend, and eventually returning to his ship; he later wrote to his brother about his buried treasure and said he had left instructions as to where it lay in a box of his personal possessions to be opened only upon his death.
Sadly Mair was murdered soon after in the New Hebrides while recruiting labour – his box of personal possessions with its precious leads to his buried treasure, never found.
It’s believed Suwarrow’s treasures most likely came from Spanish ships that foundered there while returning to the Philippines after raids on then-wealthy Mexico.
But untangling the web of how to find Henry Mair’s treasure on Suwarrow today – and any others buried there as well – would seem more the provenance of the fertile imaginings of Robert Louis Stevenson himself, than that of reality itself.
(Suwarrow is a National Park of the Cook Islands 825km north-north-west of Rarotonga; its population is two – caretakers who maintain basic facilities for occasional visiting yachts or charter vessels from Rarotonga.)
Written by David Ellis