Priceless Treasures of the Incas may be Buried on Island in Palmyras

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Priceless Treasures of the Incas may be Buried on Island in Palmyras


In depth article discussing the legend of the pirate ship Esperanza, and the origins of the story. Covers details rarely found in other sources of the legend, including a direct connection between the evidence and original papers describing it, and the articles author.


Martin Connor


Hawaii State Library


Honolulu Star-Bulletin




Public Domain



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Buried on one of the islands of the Palmyra group, visited a year ago by a party of Honolulu men, there may be untold wealth—gold, silver and precious stones, treasure stolen from the temples of the Incas of South America. That it has lain there for 107 years, hidden from human eyes, and almost forgotten in the fog of time, is the story that is still current around the Pacific, where the "mystery of Palmyra" is often discussed in lonely trading stations, in waterfront hotels, and in the tiny cabins of island schooners moving from atoll to atoll in the deeper South Seas. The story of Palmyra has been told in vague outline and in fragments "many a time and oft." Some of it has made its way into print, here and elsewhere. Whenever the Palmyra island group comes into public notice—as it has done half a dozen times in the past few years—some parts of this story have been published.

But The Star-Bulletin is able now to give, in detail, the history of the supposed "buried treasure" on the little group which is almost exactly 1000 miles south of Honolulu. And now, after the lapse of more than a century the story of how this treasure of the Incas found its way from South America, across the blue expanse of the Pacific, to rest beneath a coral bed, has come to light in Honolulu. With the unrolling of the scroll of time, the chronicle of the looting of the temples of the Incas by pirates, their voyage on the Pacific and battle with another group of pirates, and the shipwreck that followed, has been revealed in all its colorful detail. Combined in one tale, it is material fit for the hand of a master fictionist.

To grasp the spirit of the story of the Palmyra treasure one must become something of a historian, and look back through the mist of years to 1816, a year after Napoleon had met defeat at Watrrloo. Before launching into the tale of pirates' gold it might be well to explain just how the story happened to come to light in Honolulu, a thousand miles from the "scene of the buried treasure. Credit for revealing the details Is due in a large measure to Cdpt. William R. Foster, harbormaster of Honolulu.

Collects Many Things

For years it has been the custom of Captain Fraser to collect ship data, newspaper clippings, old letters, stamps and pictures relating to the early history of Hawaii, Palmyra, Australia and the South Seas. In the course of time he has succeeded in collecting some unique stories, and much of the matter possesses real historic value. and In this material of Captain Foster is the story of the Palmyra treasure. It is contained in a package of yellow letters, and much of the writing, due to the fact that the letters for the last 20 years have been kept in an iron chest, is still distinct and legible. How these letters chanced to become the possession of Captain Foster is one of the strange tricks of fate which seem to follow in the wake of those men who go down to the sea in ships. Within itself it would be an interesting story, yet Captain Foster. true to the trust of two decades, refused to reveal the identity of the person who gave him the letters. The letters, however, were presented to the harbormaster by a bailor 20 years ago after Captain Foster had succeeded in obtaining a berth for the man on a sailing ship bound for the South Seas. Several months later the ship was wrecked in the Solomons, and as far as record goes, all hands were lost. The sailor never returned to Honolulu to claim the letters, and for two decades they have lain in the iron chest, owned by the harbormaster.

Breaks Silence of Years

Yesterday Captain Foster broke the silence of years, and permitted a representative of this newspaper to view the letters and to assemble notes for a story, with the understanding that the strange tale of the Palmyra treasure would be presented to the readers of The Star-Bulletin. This agreement was readily entered into, and The Star-Bulletin today prints the story.

The history of the Palmyra treasure a tale of greed and bloodshed, begins on January 1, 1816, in the harbor of Callao. On that day, the Spanish ship Esperanza lay at anchor, ready to take to the open sea at any moment. To all intents the Esperanza was an ordinary merchant ship, yet a glance at her motley and villainous looking crew, and at the cargo, which was hidden in the holds, would have told a far different tale. Suffice to say, however, she was a pirate craft, and her crew, in company with a number of natives, had just returned from looting the ancient temples of the Incas in northern Peru.

Looting Was Successful

The looting of the temples had been successful. After the natives, had been paid the amount they demanded for their services in plundering the temples, gold bullion valued at a million and a half pesos, and silver bullion of approximately the same value, were put on board the ship. The total value of this treasure would have been more than $1.000,000 in American money of today. Plans were then made to set sail for the Spanish West Indies, where the loot was to be disposed of and each man was to he given his share. Accordingly, the anchor was lifted and the Esperanza cleared the harbor and made her way out to the open sea. Little did those on board the ship realize that of all the crew, only one would live to tell the tale, of that fateful cruise, and it is due to the chronicle of this member of the crew—James Hines—that the full story of the Palmyra treasure has been revealed in Honolulu.

Four days out of Callao a storm descended on the Esperanza. The ship was tossed about like a cork, and the repeated blows of the heavy seas broke a mast. Then to make matters worse, the ship sprung a leak. Just as the storm way lifting, a rakish looking craft, with the black flag at her masthead, appeared. It was a pirate ship, hungry for loot. Straight down the path of the Esperanza the strange craft came. Suddenly there was a flash of fire and a shot swept across the prow of the Esperanza. Then a battle royal begun. The Esperanza put up a valiant fight, but owing to her crippled condition and to the fact that she was outnumbered in guns, was forced to surrender at sundown on the fifth day out of Callao.

The Esperanza hove to and permitted the crew of the pirate craft to board the ship. The captain of the second pirate ship, however, quickly realized that the Esperanza would not remain afloat long. He decided to transfer the treasure to his ship. This was done; The Esperanza was sunk, and the second ship set her course for Macao. Alas for the plans of men! the forty-third day after the fight with the Esperanza, the ship met a storm and during the night her course was lost. The vessel struck on a coral reef. The sudden stoppage of the ship caused her main mast to break, thus rendering the ship helpless.

At daybreak the ship was found to be in the center of a reef of some three miles in diameter, with hillocks of land about one mile to the eastward. On clearing away the wreckage it was found possible to haul the ship off but the crew found it impossible to continue the cruise, due to several leaks which she had sprung. After four days of incessant toil the ship was warped close to the beach of a small island and then dismantled.

Danger Unites Pirates

Common danger united the Pirates. The treasure was removed from the wreck and fairly divided. It was then buried on a reef which forms a part of the Palmyra group. In hope of reaching the mainland the pirates built a small vessel and on the nineteenth day after the landing on the reef, launched their craft. Owing to the fact that fish and fresh fruit were abundant on the island the provisions from the wreck were practically untouched.

When the ship was wrecked on the island the total number of persons was only 90, the losses during the engagement with the Esperanza having been very heavy. Of this number 80 men embarked, each taking a small quantity of gold. These 80 men sailed on the one hundred and twentieth day from the date of the wreck, leaving 10 men behind on the island to be taken off when a suitable ship was found after they had reached the mainland. The 80 men were never seen again.

A year later, the 10 men, who had become weary of their life on the island, although they had built themselves comfortable quarters from the wreck of the ship, decided to make an attempt to reach the mainland. They drew plans for a small vessel, which they were three months building. After the vessel, had been completed lots were drawn, for it had been decided that only six men were to make the trip. Thirteen days after the six men had left the island a storm arose and the mast was blown away. Four men were washed overboard. The stock of provisions were almost exhausted, when the remaining two men were picked up by an American whaler. A few days after their rescue one of the men died. The other man, James Hines, lingered until the whaler arrived at San Francisco, then known as the Mission City. Thirty days after he had been admitted to a hospital at Mission City he died.

Told His Strange Tale

A short time before he died he confided to his attendant the particulars of the loss of the Esperanza and the pirate craft. He gave the latitude and longtitude of the island and described the spot where the silver and gold were hurled. And it is at this point, that the story of the Palmyra treasure, as contained in the sailor's letter, now owned by Captain Foster, ends. Whether or not the four men were ever saved from a lonely life and death on a Palmyra island and if the treasure was ever recovered has never been made known to man. The secret of the treasure and the ultimate fate of the men remains one of the unsolved riddles of human destiny.

Meanwhile, perhaps, on some uncharted reef in the Palmyra group, the sands of the sea, have shifted over the treasure stolen from the Incas and obliterated the greed and selfishness of the ancient band of villainous pirates who, tricked by fate or Providence, paid for their sins by death.

Islands Change Hands

The Palmyra group has changed hands several times. It was bought in 1885 by the Pacific Navigation Co. of Honolulu "for one dollar and other valuable consIderations,' from W. L. Wilcox, who had in turn bought it from relatives of a New Zealand family. The Pacific -Navigation Co. sold it to Attorney W. A. Kinney in 1890; he sold it to F. W. Wundenberg for $500. and Judge B. E. Cooper, Open circuit judge in Honolulu bought it in 1911 from the Wundenberg estate for $750. Last summer the group was purchased from Judge Cooper by Mr. and Mrs. 14. Fullard-Leo at a price said to have been about $15.000. Judge Cooper, it is understood. did some "prospecting" for the buried treasure but did not find it. In some quarters the story is scouted but it is generally believed that somewhere on the island there still is the pirate loot. The late Capt. F.D. Walker of Honolulu know the story of the treasure and Judge Cooper, it was believed, had spine documents dealing with it.

Original Format



Martin Connor, “Priceless Treasures of the Incas may be Buried on Island in Palmyras,” Palmyra Archive, accessed October 25, 2020,


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