CAPTAIN KIDD’S TREASURE.©
Since evidence was first discovered of underground workings on Oak Island, belief has persisted that the island is the possible location of Captain Kidd’s treasure. Before he was taken to the gallows in 1701 Kidd claimed to have buried treasure on an ‘island in the Indies’ amounting to £100,000, a fortune at the time. Because his hoard of illicit wealth has never been found (at least officially) speculation has been rife that Oak Island is the repository. This speculation was fuelled by the discovery, prior to World War II, of a number of charts now known as the Kidd-Palmer charts. This article, based on findings first published in Treasure and Intrigue – The Legacy of Captain Kidd, examines some of the evidence, and draws the conclusion that Kidd was never anywhere near Oak Island, nor did he cache any treasure there. His treasure was recovered three centuries ago.
The story of the Kidd-Palmer charts begins in Eastbourne, a seaside town on the south coast of England, where Hubert Palmer lived in quiet retirement with his brother Guy. The two men, both wealthy bachelors, had developed a keen interest in acquiring nautical relics, particularly those possessing a link to piracy. Their unique collection of books, artifacts and assorted relics of one kind or another was considered unrivalled for the age in which they lived and Hubert Palmer became a recognized authority on matters relating to piracy. He was discriminating regarding the items selected for their collections, being careful to authenticate provenance as far as possible. In 1929 he bought a heavy seventeenth century oak bureau bearing a much worn brass plate inscribed with the words ‘Captain William Kidd, Adventure Galley 1669′. This item of furniture was to reveal the first of the four charts to become known as the Kidd-Palmer charts.
Knowing that furniture of the period often contained secret compartments, Palmer subjected the bureau to intensive examination and found three secret compartments all of which proved empty. While using the bureau one of the runners supporting the lid broke off, and carved upon it he noticed the barely decipherable words ‘William Kidd, his chest’. Impressed upon one end coated with wax was the sign of an anchor, and guessing the runner to be hollow he broke the seal. Inside was a slender brass tube round which was rolled a scrap of yellowed parchment. When carefully unrolled the fragment depicted the outline of an island with an ‘X’ in the centre. Above were the words ‘CHINA SEA’, and below was ‘W.K. 1669′. There was also a north point shown, together with the words ‘of me Sarah-W’. Understandably the Palmer brothers were excited with their finding, believing this to be the first solid evidence that Kidd had indeed buried his treasure as he had claimed, but doubtless puzzled regarding the whereabouts of the island the chart depicted as well as the other sketchy information given.
Hubert Palmer now concentrated his collecting activities upon seeking out other possible Kidd related artifacts, in the hope of discovering other scraps of information which would help in deciphering the mystery upon which he had stumbled. He advertised for seventeenth century items of furniture without, of course, revealing the nature of his interest. In the process he recruited antique dealers and agents to search on his behalf. Three subsequent items of furniture were to reveal charts as fascinating, and as enigmatic, as the first.
The second chart was discovered in an ancient sea chest purchased in 1931 from an antique dealer. The chest was 26¼ inches long, 13 inches wide and 16 inches deep, and purported to have been left by Kidd to his boatswain before eventually passing into the possession of Captain T.M.Hardy who served on the famous battleship HMS Victory. Carved upon the lid was a Black Flag carrying the date 1699, a cutlass and the words ‘Capn Kidd his chest’. A false bottom was found, within which was discovered a slim book relating to a sermon preached on May 29th 1662 by a Daniel Cudmore of Tiverton, Devon. In addition there was a map, but this second map was a duplicate of the first and revealed no more information regarding the whereabouts of Kidd’s island.
A year later (1932) Palmer was introduced to a Captain Dan Morgan of Bristol who claimed to be descended from Sir Henry Morgan, the noted buccaneer. Morgan possessed a sea chest he said his father had obtained from Kidd when incarcerated in Newgate Prison. The chest was adorned with a brass plate engraved with the letter ‘K’ and the insignia of a skull and crossbones. Inside was a plaster skull fixed to a bible, which was popularly imagined to have been used during swearing-in ceremonies of pirate crews. A false bottom was found, which though empty had some beading around a small mirror. After removal of the mirror a shallow well was found in the floor of the box in which there was a piece of parchment. It was the same island as had been depicted on the other two charts, but this time there was a real difference. The map showed hills, a lagoon, reefs, four conspicuous looking ‘dots’ and a ‘cross’. A red zig-zag line joined the cross and the dots. There was a compass bearing and some cryptic wording considered to have been the directions for recovering the ‘treasure’.
Two years later (1934) the fourth and final chart was found in a small workbox believed to have been once owned by Mrs Kidd, as inscribed upon a brass plate were the words ‘William and Sarah Kidd, their box’. It was located in Jersey, Channel Islands, and was 12½ inches long, 7½ inches wide and 7 inches deep. Withdrawing some nails from the beading around the base of the box Palmer discovered a narrow cavity and extracted from it an oblong piece of faded parchment. The parchment depicted not only the same island as the three other charts but, most importantly, gave details of latitude and longitude, the figures for the latter being less well-defined, as well as other information which, regrettably, has defied interpretation to the general satisfaction and consensus of scholars. In addition to the general topographical features previously shown, the fourth chart showed reefs, wrecks, an ‘anchorage’ and a ‘smugglers cove’ This, undoubtedly, was the definitive map to the whereabouts of Kidd’s ill-gotten hoard, or so the Palmer brothers must have thought.
It requires little imagination to visualize the mounting excitement during the period when these discoveries were being made by Hubert Palmer. Apparently every effort was made by him to authenticate the findings and, it has been stated, a number of experts were consulted which included those of the British Museum. Palmer’s actions under the circumstances were perfectly natural. At no time did he, or his brother, attempt to profit from their acquisitions by attempting to sell the maps, or the information they contained. In fact they were extremely secretive at all times. They did, however, plan an expedition to the island they concluded was represented by the charts. For reasons best known to themselves the Palmer brothers thought this lay among the Sequeiras, an island group in the Philippine Sea, which appears and disappears above sea level with bewildering frequency. Regrettably World War II intervened and their planned expedition had to be postponed indefinitely, and never took place. It was not until after the cessation of hostilities that speculation was renewed among a much wider public as to the whereabouts of Kidd’s ‘treasure island’. That speculation is just as rife today as it was a half-century ago.
Hubert Palmer died in 1949, bequeathing his huge collection of pirate relics and books to the woman, Mrs Dick, who had been his companion and nurse for the eleven preceding years. Faced with increasing taxes and rising costs in her own old age Mrs Dick was forced to sell many of the articles she had inherited. These included the original Kidd-Palmer charts which, eventually, were purchased in peculiar circumstances by a Maurice Taylor in 1959 and, purportedly, promptly disappeared in as strange a manner as they had first appeared thirty years earlier.
In the process of following up all available evidence related to the Kidd-Palmer charts a visit was made to the Map Room of the British Library, now the repository of the maps, books and manuscripts previously housed in the British Museum. It proved an interesting visit with curious implications, for on approaching the desk and enquiring about the whereabouts of the Kidd-Palmer charts, I was met with a indulgent smile from the pretty young lady who remarked “We get an awful lot of enquiries about these.” She handed over a plastic envelope extracted from a ring-binder taken off a shelf behind her desk. It was stuffed with oddments of all kinds, with little order to the miscellany contained therein. There were photocopies of extracts from various pirate books, old letters from enquiring researchers, and a copy of British Library letter of more recent date stating quite categorically that the charts could not have been seventeenth century and were, most likely, twentieth century forgeries which more resembled R.L.Stevenson’s fantastic ‘treasure island’ than anything else. In fact the letter contained the explicit suggestion that the charts were probably forged by someone possessing a copy of the famous classic Treasure Island, and this person likely was Hubert Palmer. Palmer had been dead for over forty years so was in no position to refute such allegations. But where were the detailed reports, memoranda and photos of the original charts to which reference has often been made, that would have been kept by an institution like the British Museum when called upon to voice a professional opinion? The shambolic contents of the file looked as if they were an acute embarrassment to the owners, who fondly might be imagined to have welcomed their removal by larcenous researchers.
Stevenson’s ‘treasure island’ is named Skeleton Island, and the fourth chart has a word written in its margin which might be construed as ‘skeleton’ or a reasonable facsimile of the word. When Long John Silver first looks at the map of Skeleton Island he remarks “Ay, here it is: ‘Capt. Kidd’s Anchorage’ – just the name my shipmate called it.” The fourth chart also has ‘Anchorage’ marked upon it. It also has a ‘Smugglers Cove’ and, strangely Skeleton Island had a ‘Rum Cove’, rum being a favoured liquid commodity of pirates. An even stranger coincidence is that a Mr. R.A.Skelton had joined the staff of the British Museum in 1929, during the period when the Kidd-Palmer charts were being discovered. Was there a connection? Was this all some preposterous hoax?
Raleigh Ashton “Peter” Skelton was born in Plymouth, England in 1906. After taking modern languages at Cambridge University he joined the British Museum and remained with them until 1967 when he retired suddenly for no apparent reason. Skelton’s service of 38 years with the museum was broken during World War II when he served with the artillery in North Africa and Italy. After the war he developed his interest in maps and cartography and became an acknowledged authority in this field. One of his most challenging involvements during his career was an involvement in the studies of the so-called Vinland Map after it came to light in 1957.
The Vinland Map is now considered to be bogus, not because of the parchment, but because of the ink. Space does not permit the evidence for this conclusion, but what is most significant is the Vinland Map could not have existed prior to about 1928. This date is important, because it precedes by only one year the discovery of the first of the Kidd-Palmer charts. There is an interesting coincidence also in the fact that the Vinland Map came into the possession of Yale University by a path as tortuous as that by which the Kidd-Palmer charts came into the possession of Hubert Palmer. There is, however, a notable difference – the purchaser of the Vinland Map paid a small fortune for his forgery which, if authentic, would now be valued at over $20 million!
If there is a connection between the forgery of the two sets of maps it is natural to ask – who did it? Forgers are by their very nature secretive, shy of advertising their abilities, but often the most confident cannot refrain from hiding their ‘mark’. It is, therefore, noteworthy that on the fourth Kidd-Palmer chart, the one the British Library claims is based upon Stevenson’s Skeleton Island, the initials ‘TA’ can be clearly discerned amidst the hachures to the northwest. Who was ‘TA’? Two letters on file are suggestive. The first letter is dated June 1965, from Peter Skelton replying to an enquirer and typed on British Museum letterhead. It states emphatically he had examined only the fourth Kidd-Palmer chart some 14 to 15 years earlier, i.e. about 1950, and the chart in his words “was drawn on the back of a perfectly genuine will apparently of the eighteenth century….” The second letter is dated October 1974 addressed to the same enquirer, but written by a man once employed by the British Museum, and typed upon letterhead of a dealer specializing in ‘rare maps and prints’. This letter, which appears to have been composed with deliberate vagueness, states categorically “The charts were not photographed by the Museum, but an infra-red lamp was used to ascertain some of the figures which were indistinct. I do remember Mr. Skelton having an opinion that they were authentic 17th century charts …” The writer’s initials are ‘TA’! The content of these two letters contradict each other in that ‘TA’ in his letter implies Skelton to have seen and authenticated all the maps, whereas Skelton himself admits to having seen only one. This is a big difference and suggestive of a deliberate falsehood! Written nine years after Skelton’s death the implications made by ‘TA’ obviously cannot be refuted by Skelton.
‘TA’ was employed by the British Museum for a period of almost fifty years, a period which overlapped with Skelton’s tenure. During the initial period of his service a mammoth cataloguing process, begun by the Manuscripts Department in 1898, was finally accomplished in 1922, a span of a quarter of a century. This task, of nightmarish proportions, was intended to create order out of chaos from the vast accumulations of uncatalogued files, letters, book collections and maps that had been bought by, or bequeathed to, the Museum. It may be assumed that ‘TA’ was actively engaged in this activity where surprisingly valuable documents were often discovered. Consideration of the dubious provenance of the Vinland Map is beyond the scope of this article, however, this provenance suggests that the medieval texts associated with the map, namely those known as the Tartar Relation and the Speculum Historiale, dating back to about 1434, may well have originated within the walls of the British Museum in a form far different from that in which they subsequently materialized at New Haven, Connecticut in 1957-58. The British Library may be perfectly correct in their recent assertion that the Kidd-Palmer charts, especially the fourth chart, is reflective of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. However, if ‘TA’ was of a whimsical disposition the appearance of a young Peter Skelton on the staff of the British Museum in 1929 may well have inspired the preparation of that last chart upon which the reference is made to a ‘skeleton’.
Are all the Kidd-Palmer charts forgeries? Not necessarily. The first chart was discovered in a bureau bearing the date 1669 upon a brass plate. This is the same date as that given upon the chart found inside. However, in 1669 Kidd would have been about 18 years old and unlikely to have possessed much treasure, least of all any he was inclined to bury. If he did, then why didn’t he recover it years earlier before he undertook that fateful voyage in the Adventure Galley, a voyage that led to a painful and untimely death? Furthermore, he didn’t marry his wife, Sarah Oort, until 1691. However, if there had been a mistake in the engraving of the brass plate to be fixed to the bureau, whereby ‘1669′ had been erroneously engraved upon it instead of ‘1699′, then the first chart is an obvious forgery, and the second identical chart can be concluded to be forged also. The fourth chart has already been discussed having been concluded as the last forgery ever made. But what about the third chart? This appears to be the most realistic of all four of the Kidd-Palmer charts because of the topographical features the map portrays. It is likely to have been used by the forger for preparing the fourth chart with its Stevenson ‘touch’. Furthermore, it will be recalled that the only one of the charts personally examined by Skelton was the fourth chart, which he stated was drawn on the back of a perfectly genuine will, apparently of the eighteenth century. We know nothing as to how Skelton arrived at this conclusion (obviously there wasn’t a date on the will), but the eighteenth century was not very old when Kidd was hanged in 170l. It is plausible that the parchment upon which the chart was drawn, as also with the other charts, was carefully selected by the forger with the intention of maintaining credibility by selecting old parchment of a date approximating to Kidd’s death.
If the charts are mostly forged what was the forger’s objective? A great deal of trouble (and associated expense) was doubtless undertaken to ensure the items of furniture containing the four charts were funnelled into Hubert Palmer’s possession, in a fashion unlikely to raise suspicions on his part. This was, therefore, no act of revenge, nor act of spite on the part of the forger, and unlikely to yield much profit in selling items of antique furniture by creating a fraudulent belief the items might contain secret compartments. To maintain this fiction over a period of five years suggests more serious intent behind the deceit, and bearing in mind that Hubert Palmer had an international reputation as being one of the most serious collectors of piratical relics, the plot carries significant overtones. Once Hubert Palmer had been convinced that Kidd had indeed buried his treasure upon that “island in the Indies”, then world opinion would sooner or later swallow the same bait in the belief the treasure still awaited recovery. It may, or may not, be significant that the letterhead used by ‘TA’ in his letter of 1974, referred to earlier in this article, carries an address in the same area of Sussex where the Palmer brothers resided.
The publicity surrounding the Kidd-Palmer charts in the aftermath of World War II spawned a series of wild goose chases into isolated corners of the globe in search of Kidd’s treasure, including reinforcing speculation about Oak Island. George Edmunds, in his book Kidd – the Search for His Treasure, documents many of these expeditions, often in humourous fashion. Space forbids dealing with this aspect of the charts, but the ardent enthusiast may like to refer to George Edmunds’s book.
There is no reason why the Kidd-Palmer charts do not truly reflect the actual island upon which Kidd really did bury his treasure as he claimed. The charts appeared after the prodigious task of cataloguing the numerous manuscripts in the British Museum had come to a close in 1922. What if this process had unearthed documents disclosing the fact that Kidd’s treasure had been recovered following his execution? And important men in the government of the day had pocketed this wealth? This would have proved an acute embarrassment to the British government of the 1920s, especially as India was becoming an increasingly difficult colonial possession to administer. Legally Kidd’s treasure, the property of the Mogul of India, should have been returned to its rightful owner on recovery. One way out of any dilemma in this regard would be to lay a trail suggesting Kidd’s treasure was still out there – somewhere! All that was required was one map, chart or sketch, from which all the others could be copied in outline; that original document is believed to have been the third of the charts discovered by Hubert Palmer in 1932. However, it is the fourth and final chart, discovered by Palmer in 1934 that contains the vital information enabling the island to be located. In his position within the British Museum, ‘TA’ would have been aware that Palmer had obtained three of the charts by 1932 and was frantically in search of yet another chart containing the final clues enabling the island to be identified. The forger could take liberties in his preparation of the fourth chart, therefore, and perhaps poke a little fun at his youthful colleague, Peter Skelton.
The most important aspect of the fourth chart is, of course, the reference to latitude and longitude. There is no dispute about the latitude, it is plainly given as 9-16N, which is interpreted as 9E 16N North. The reference to longitude, on the other hand, is open to a number of interpretations; variously +31.30E, 431.30E or 43.30E for there may be a broken “4″ preceding the figures which since it looks more like a “+” sign is confusing, perhaps intentionally so. The figure of 431.30E is meaningless and is promptly discounted. Mariners of the seventeenth century had no means of measuring their longitude by reference to a meridian such as Greenwich, however they would track their voyage by making reference to the last point of their departure. Numerous examples of this can be quoted from ships’ logs of the period, Dampier and Narbrough being notable contemporaries of Kidd who consistently advocated this practice. Thus, it is reasoned, the longitude quoted on the fourth of the Kidd-Palmer charts must represent the departure, i.e. difference in longitude, from the pirate base of St. Marie from which Kidd sailed after he had accumulated some worthwhile treasure.
The longitude of the pirate base at St. Marie is 49E 52N E of the Greenwich meridian, thus the island on the Kidd-Palmer charts is variously 49E 52N E + 31E 30N = 81E 22N E (which is close to Mullativu on the northeast coast of Ceylon), or 49E 52N E + 43E 30N = 93E 22N E (which is slightly north by a few sea miles of Car Nicobar in the Nicobars). Car Nicobar is an isolated island off the beaten track of vessels plying the trade routes between India and the East Indies. Many of the topographical features shown on the Kidd-Palmer charts can be identified on Car Nicobar. As mentioned the third chart, considered the most authentic, shows a number of dots linked by a dashed line – the dots appear to represent inter-visible high points along the route which is represented by the dashed line. The route leads from a sheltered anchorage, circumvents an extensive swamp, and terminates on the southern flank of a prominent spur of limestone. As everyone knows limestone is a rock type renowned for its caverns. The conclusion would seem obvious.
When Kidd and his crew finally returned to North America from the Indian Ocean they made their first landfall at Anguilla (Leeward Islands) at the beginning of April 1699, and two months later arrived in New York where they were later arrested. Some of this time was spent in various backwaters of Hispaniola and the Mona Passage, offloading some of their remaining booty (in the form of bales of cloth) to traders, and obtaining and fitting out a small sloop to take them to New York. There is insufficient time, and less reason, to sail north to the waters of Nova Scotia and find a repository for the illegal gains remaining in their possession.
Captain Kidd’s treasure appears to have been recovered from the Indian Ocean region in the first years of Queen Anne’s reign. A number of noblemen, including one who had been an original sponsor of Kidd’s voyage, became immensely rich all of a sudden, and some exceptionally fine gemstones appeared of doubtful provenance. The inference suggests that Captain Kidd’s treasure was recovered three centuries ago, and it was never cached in any quantity in North America.