X marks the spot

Pirate scholarship approaches the problem of buried treasure with a dour mien, as I discovered while reading for my New Yorker review-essay "Bootylicious." Here's Patrick Pringle, representatively dispiriting:

Presumably people believe in pirate treasure because they want to. There is no other reason for the belief. Pirates did not bury their treasure. They shared out their loot as they got it. This hardly needs to be explained. The pirates did not trust one another sufficiently to leave the plunder in a common hoard once they left the ship. Besides, each man wanted to use his share, either to invest in a business or, more generally, to spend.

Pirates facing execution sometimes hinted that they had stashed something away for a rainy day, but historians for the most part suspect them of fibbing in order to encourage the greedy to spare their lives. Are we to deprived of all our illusions? At most, the skeptical Pringle concedes that the buccaneer Bartholomew Sharp once mistook a large quantity of silver for tin and heaved it overboard, only to regret the error afterward. Perhaps that silver remains undisturbed.

But the pirate Samuel Bellamy's vessel, the Whydah, was found, along with some treasure, off the coast of Cape Cod in 1984. And now new hope is held out by the blog of the Rhode Island Historical Society, which reprints from the society's archives a set of directions for retrieving a buccaneer's buried treasure, dating from the early eighteenth century. Once you locate a certain old hollow oak with one limb missing, a ruby, a silver candlestick, and 2200 pieces of eight, among other riches, will be yours.

(Actually, the hope isn't perfectly new. Evidently the society has reprinted the directions once before—in its ink-on-paper historical journal back in 1949.)