Here is as good a collection of pre-1800 maps of Mauritius as I have been able to put together. If you have others (or even better quality versions of the same), please leave a comment below and I will update the page accordingly, thanks!

1601 – Gelderland

The Dutch colonized Mauritius (quoth Wikipedia): landing in 1598, they initially named the Island after Prince Mauritz of Nassau (hence “Maurice” and “Mauritius”). However, when in 1615 governor Pieter Both was shipwrecked and killed on his way back “from India with four richly-laden ships in the bay”, Dutch sentiment shifted against the island, thinking it was “cursed”.

This is a map of a bay in the southwest of Mauritius, drawn from aboard the Dutch ship the Gelderland.


This is historically notable because it mentions dodos, which almost certainly gets ornithology historians a-twitching (in a nice way, I’m sure).

16xx – Portolan

A very early (but undated) Portolan map of the island, courtesy of Harold and Maryse.


1702-1707 – John Thornton

This is “A chart of the Island of MAURITIUS” by John Thornton: and though it was reprinted a number of times during the 18th century, it was first drawn between 1702 and 1707.


This scan was from NYPL, who have very kindly posted up an even higher resolution TIFF image of it if you want to download that.

Note that North is to the right, so Mauritius’ modern-day Black River district sits across the top left edge of the map, though few (English-language) landmarks here have names recognizable to a modern cartographer. Barely any internal details of the island are filled in: all in all, it’s more of an outline than a map.

1726 – François Valentijn

Here’s an early Dutch map of Mauritius, which this seller calls “the earliest large map of the island”. The cartography seems a bit suspect to my eyes, but perhaps others will disagree:

Valentijn Mauritius 2

17xx – Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville

This undated map of Mauritius was allegedly drawn for Monsieur de Noyon, who was (it says here) the Governor of the island (though I’m not sure about this myself). I found it on Harold and Maryse’s site, in their nice collection of old maps of Mauritius.


1751 – Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Denis d’Apres de Mannevillette

This next map is “Plan de l’Isle de France, suivant les observations de M. D’Après de Mannevillette” by Nicolas-Louis de La Caille (1713-1762), which you can download from Buchfreund, while the matching bibliographic detail is on Gallica.


Once again, North is to the right: but some rivers, internal details and many modern names are now visible – la Riviere Noire, Flic en Flac, and so forth. Nice quality draughting, but still somewhat sketchy.

1753 – Van Keulen

Here’s a Dutch map of part of the coast dating to 1753:


1764 – J.N. Bellin (Part 1)

Bellin was the Hydrographer at the Depot de la Marine: I found this copy courtesy of Harold and Maryse’s site.


1764 – J.N. Bellin (Part 2)

Bellin adapted his map for the Duc de Choiseul, adding a few useful extra cartographic bits round the edges:


Once again, this was courtesy of Harold and Maryse’s nice site.

1788 – Rigobert Bonne (First Map)

Rigobert Bonne (1727-1795) was a French engineer and cartographer who was the Hydrographer at the Depot de la Marine after J.N. Bellin. This map was a part of “Cartes générale et particulières des Isles de France, de Bourbon et de Rodrigue” (a good copy is here, courtesy of DePaul University), and appeared in a number of places, such as Abbé Guillaume-Thomas-François Raynal’s “Atlas de Toutes Les Parties Connues de Globe Terrestre”, and Bonne’s own “Atlas Encyclopédique” (2 volumes, 1787-88).


Even though this is recognizably Mauritius and Bonne has obviously tried to develop a topographical angle (by adding mountains), there’s not a lot of named detail: hence this seems to have been drawn independently of la Caille’s 1751 map and even possibly of Bellin’s 1764 map(s).

1791 – Rigobert Bonne (Second Map)

It’s hard to say whether this is genuinely a second Bonne map, or just a kind of merging (say) of the toponymic detail from La Caille’s 1751 map into Bonne’s first map of 1788. There’s a good quality scan downloadable courtesy of Wikipedia.


I’ve been working away behind the scenes on the crowdfunding documentary proposal I mentioned here a few days ago, and it’s now starting to take shape. Here’s a sneak peek of the (first draft) image I’ll be putting on Kickstarter:


However, I’m finding it hard to pin down a good title for the documentary, because I want it to cover so much ground:
* pirates and corsairs in the Indian Ocean, and of the truths and lies surrounding them: about desperation, sea-faring, trade, riches, and greed;
* the secret history of Bernardin Nageon l’Estang (and indeed of the missing corsair I’ve blogged about several times);
* early 20th century treasure hunters in a country wracked by poverty and racial inequality;
* the dynamiting and despoiling of a country’s natural resources in the name of treasure;
* modern day Mauritian treasure hunters, maps, and technology;
* the various versions of the treasure documents, and what is (and isn’t) genuine;
* using ground penetrating radar (GPR) to look for lava tubes; and perhaps even uncovering the real history…

Anyway, here are some possible film titles, please leave comments below to let me know what you think what would be best:

(1) Hunting Pirate Treasure
(2) Dreams of Pirate Gold
(3) What Lies Beneath Mauritius?
(4) Does X Mark The Spot?
(5) Thirty Million Ingots
(6) Pirate Truths, Pirate Lies
(7) Gold! Diamonds! Pickaxes!
(8) The Gold Bug

All alternative suggestions gratefully received too! 🙂

There are two big problems with the Voynich Manuscript handwriting: (1) it doesn’t flow like normal handwriting; and (2) there are apparently a number of different “hands” in play.

The first researcher to properly foreground the idea of different “Voynich hands” was the US WWII codebreaker Prescott Currier: he noted not only that there were different types of handwriting (which he called “Hand 1”, and “Hand 2”), but also different types of contents, to the point that he grudgingly dubbed them different ‘languages’ (e.g. “Currier A” and “Currier B”, though it should be born in mind that his angle on them was overtly statistical/cryptanalytical rather than linguistic).

Rene Zandbergen has long written about numerous issues that arise from Currier’s A/B insights, as well as with the limits of what you can conclude from them (e.g. here): generally, it is more sensible to talk of Herbal-A, Herbal-B, Pharma-A, Bio-B, etc, because the differences between A and B taper and lurch around rather than abruptly switch.

What emerges from this is a far more nuanced and subtle picture than, say, Gordon Rugg ever assumed, as evidenced in particular by Mary D’Imperio’s interesting paper on cluster analysis (declassified in 2002).

Hand 1 vs Hand 2

But the same kind of thing turns out to be true of Currier’s initial Hand 1 / Hand 2 dichotomy: for when you look a little more closely at the pages, you find that there could easily be several different hands in play.

Certainly, few would disagree that there appears to be a broad division to be made between large-hand A pages (such as f8v, the last page of the first quire)…


…and tiny-hand B pages (such as f33r, the first page of Quire 5)…


It is certainly conceivable that Hand 1 and Hand 2 were both written by the same person (say, using different types of quill, or with different types of content, etc etc): moreover, some researchers (such as Sergi Ridaura and others) have specifically asserted that this is the case.

Yet the more that I have tried to work with the Voynich Manuscript’s pages as 15th century palaeographical artefacts, the less comfortable I have become with this suggestion. There are similarities between Hand 1 and Hand 2, for sure: but those similarities also sit at broadly the same kind of level you would expect to see from different scribes working in the same town, or taught by the same teacher. Further, I’d argue that there is no palaeographic ‘tell’ to be seen that links 1 with 2 in a definitive way: and that’s precisely the kind of thing you’d need to properly form the logical core of a “Hand 1 == Hand 2” argument.

More Than Two Hands?

Even though Currier started from this two-hand viewpoint (and was also not working with anywhere near as good a set of images as we now have), he eventually found himself pushed to a radical conclusion:

Summarizing, we have, in the herbal section, two “languages” which I call “Herbal A and B,” and in the pharmaceutical section, two large samples, one in one “language” and one in the other, but in new and different hands. Now the fact of different “languages” and different hands should encourage us to go on and try to discover whether there were in fact only two different hands, or whether there may have been more. A closer examination of many sections of the manuscript revealed to me that there were not only two different hands; there were, in fact, only two “languages,” but perhaps as many as eight or a dozen different identifiable hands. Some of these distinctions may be illusory, but in the majority of cases I feel that they are valid. Particularly in the pharmaceutical section, where the first ten folios are in a hand different from the middle six pages, I cannot say with any degree of confidence that the last ten pages are in fact in the same hand as the first ten.

Taken all together, it looks to me as if there were an absolute minimum of four different hands in the pharmaceutical section. I don’t know whether they are different than those two which I previously mentioned as being in the herbal section, but they are certainly different from each other. So there are either four or six hands altogether at this point. The final section of the manuscript contains only one folio which is obviously in a different hand than all the rest, and a count of the material in that one folio supports this; it is different, markedly different. I’m also positive it’s different from anything I had seen before. So now we have a total of something like five or six to seven or eight different identifiable hands in the manuscript. This gives us a total of two “languages” and six to eight scribes (copyists, encipherers, call them what you will).

So, might Captain Currier have been right about there having been so many contributing hands? Surprisingly, it’s not something that has been satisfactorily dealt with by palaeographers at any time in the last century. If you thought the silence following Mary D’Imperio’s paper was bad, the pin-drop-library-quiet surrounding Voynich palaeography is arguably even worse.

But perhaps we’ll start putting that right before too long…

Voynich Manuscript handwriting

Finally, the palaeographic problem with Voynich Manuscript handwriting is that it does not flow – for the most part, it’s not “joined-up writing”, as British children are taught to call cursive handwriting, but printed out, one letter (or short block of letters) at a time.

The reason I call this problematic is that this reduces our ability to do satisfactory palaeographical matching between Voynichese and other texts, simply because almost all other texts of the right kind of period are cursive. (So when we do comparisons between Voynichese and other texts, we are immediately at a disadvantage, because they are different kinds of things.)

The big exception to this sweeping generalization is, of course, humanist handwriting, which survives in numerous top-end Quattrocento examples much loved by palaeographers. While what we see in the Voynich Manuscript is most definitely not humanist handwriting, there is a strong case to be made that it is a “humanistic hand” – by which I mean something that borrows from the letter formation and ductus of both pure humanist hands and is yet close to more straightforward cursive mercantile hands of the time.

But a discussion of that will have to wait for a further post…

A little while back, the Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library announced that it would be allowing a specialist Spanish publishing house called Siloe to produce a short-run facsimile edition of the Voynich Manuscript.

The story was covered in El Pais back in December 2015, months before Siloe’s people had set their painstaking 18-month production process in motion. (Annoyingly, the second illustration that El Pais included was of a modern reinterpretation of a Voynich Manuscript drawing, *sigh*.) But even then, Siloe’s owners could clearly see the financial upside of the project:

“What really excited us about it was that it is one of the most requested books in the world for exhibitions, so it’s much simpler for an institution like the Beinecke Library, rather than having to loan the codex out all the time, to be able say that there is an exact replica that a Spanish publisher has printed that you can use. This was a good argument for persuading them to give us the project.”

In fact, few people outside of academia or museums even know properly what a facsimile edition is – it’s a copy of a book (usually a rare manuscript) that reproduces the original’s physical state as closely as practical. That is, it is not so much a printed set of scans of the original book’s pages as a brave attempt to reproduce the original object’s overall physicality – its page feel, page weight, waterstains, holes, stitches, binding stations, and all.

As you can imagine, this bravery takes a great deal of time and effort to achieve, not only in terms of the actual printing (which is extremely hard for normal pages, but the Voynich Manuscript also has a number of unusually complicated fold-out pages to deal with), but also in terms of things like getting the basic shape, texture and feel of the pages right, and even scanning the pages in a completely different way from normal. It’s a big, tough old job, however you look at it.

£6000 and up

In due course, the plan is for Siloe to place 898 facsimiles of the Voynich Manuscript on sale for around £6000 each: which, if they sold them all, would net them several million euros. All of which is surely enough to make a crypto guy or gal struggling away in their research garret wonder whether he or she is in the right bloody business. 🙂

But all the same, £6000 is a lot of money for a book, however much hard work has gone into making it. So apart from a small handful of (oxymoronic) cash-rich museums or libraries, who exactly would be ponying up their painfully-amassed cash for one of these improbably splendid facsimiles?

Well, it’s fairly hard to say. The Beinecke itself would want one to palm Voynich tourists off with: but it would be a remarkably inept set of negotiations that didn’t allocate at least one of the copies as complimentary. Siloe say that they have not far from “300” clients already eagerly splashing their cash for a copy: but in the ever-bullish world of press releases, it’s hard to be completely trusting of what any publisher asserts about pre-sales.

Even so, I’d personally be surprised if they had pre-sold a lot more than a hundred up until last week: which was when the all-wise Goddess of PR made them a gift they could not refuse…

The AFP Story

Two weeks ago, I was contacted by Madrid-based AFP journalist Marianne Barriaux, who was about to go to Burgos to interview people at the Siloe publishing house about the Voynich facsimile project, asking me if I might be available for a phone interview on the subject. Three days later, she emailed back to say not to worry, she’d since found Rene Zandbergen’s site and so now had no need to speak with me. Which was nice. 🙂

So really, it wasn’t a huge surprise to me that when the AFP story broke a couple of days ago, it was quickly picked up by numerous newspapers – Guardian, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Washington Post and so forth.

What did AFP do right in August 2016 that El Pais do wrong in Dec 2015? August is renowned in the UK press as the “Silly Season”, when the paucity of content (and a lack of journalists not on holiday) can lead B- stories to get trumpeted as if they were A+ stories… and sadly, this is what seems to have happened here. Timing is everything!

Still, the AFP news story is probably the best thing that could have happened to Siloe: chances are that they’ve had a load more pre-orders arrive over the last weekend. Break open another bottle of cava, chaps: happy days.

BBC World Service Newshour

For a 3-minute audio version of my take on the whole story, I was interviewed last night by Julian Marshall for the BBC World Service’s Newshour programme.

The point I tried to make (and that managed to somehow survive the edit) was simply that the Beinecke wasn’t making this Siloe facsimile available to encourage amateur codebreakers to take on the challenge of cracking Voynichese: really, it had done that extremely effectively back in 2004 when it had released its first set of high-ish resolution scans of the Voynich Manuscript’s pages. One might argue, from the continuous attention from the whole crackpot spectrum the Beinecke has had ever since, it was wildly successful in that regard. Success isn’t always what you want it to be, it would seem. 😐

Yet the Beinecke, I believe, would now dearly like to wrest control of the Voynich away from the nutters, and instead hand it over to academics: and so the real point of allowing top-end facsimiles to be made, I would argue, is that its curators want to legitimize the Voynich Manuscript in the eyes of academics as a genuinely interesting historical artefact, one well worthy of study and close analysis (even if we still can’t read a word of it).

However, up until now, the Voynich has been something far closer to Kryptonite for those of Academe who dare to step up to the line: its quicksand of uncertainty sucks in and annihilates reputations, not makes them. And so – sadly – it is hard not to conclude that it will probably be a very long time before the crackpot contingent leave the Beinecke and its forlorn manuscript behind… a very long time indeed.

But What About *The Other* Facsimile?

The first sort-of-but-not-really-a-facsimile edition (i.e. just a set of colour images) was published by Jean-Claude Gawsewitch in 2005 (I always bring my now rather tatty-from-overuse Gawsewitch to Voynich pub meets and talks), though now there are a whole load of similar books, and of wildly varying quality. But if you want to see the best quality images, download them for yourself from the Beinecke’s website.

But lost in all the painstaking mire of Siloe details is the fact that the Beinecke has also produced its own mid-market coffee-table-style photographic facsimile-stylee reproduction, and will be publishing “The Voynich Manuscript” on 6th December 2016, just in time for Santa Claus to get some stock in for your stockings (or alternatively, Yale Books will happily take your £35 pre-orders now, so feel free to step right up, Good Ladies and Gentlefolk of the Interweb).

The publisher’s blurb for this (other) Voynich Manuscript facsimile says:

The essays that accompany the manuscript explain what we have learned about this work-from alchemical, cryptographic, forensic, and historical perspectives – but they provide few definitive answers. Instead, as New York Times best-selling author Deborah Harkness says in her introduction, the book “invites the reader to join us at the heart of the mystery.”


So fear not! Even if your book budget won’t stretch (as mine certainly won’t) to a Siloe-style Voynich Manuscript facsimile, Yale Press’s coffee-table sort-of-facsimile will be far less likely to break your bank.

For me, it’s probably time to replace my ten-year-old Gawsewitch: the only downside is that I’m likely to have to grit my teeth in sharp disagreement with at least half of the essays at the front… but you knew that already. 😉

I grabbed a long-overdue day at the British Library yesterday. Apart from looking at Indian Ocean French pirate books (much more on which in future posts), I patiently worked my way through several thousand pages of the BL’s palaeography dating source books (most of which are on open shelves in the far end of the Manuscripts Reading Room, shelfmark MSS411.7), as I had intended to do back in 2009.

There were plenty of familiar authors’ names to keep me virtually company there – Charles Burnett, Malcolm Parkes, and Andrew Watson, to name but three – but in the end, it was just a matter of picking a date range (I chose 1400 to 1550) and ploughing through each book in turn to see what you find.

Palaeography dating books contain a long succession of images of manuscript pages (where the date of each image is known), usually arranged by date (though some have a miscellaneous section at the end containing images of handwritten pages whose date isn’t known exactly). Though some images have clearly been cherry-picked for their interesting content (e.g. nice marginal illustrations, ciphers, notable layouts, etc), there is rarely any more organization: the contents of the pages are a function not of any particular style but of the manuscripts the archives happens to have in them in that date range.

I went through the Swiss archives book set, the Austrian archives book set, and several of the 20+-volume Italian archives before running out of time. As you’d expect, much less than 1% was of specific interest to Voynich Manuscript researchers, but… I did find at least one thing that may well be worth looking more closely at.

Basel. Univ. Bibl. A X 132

In its section on Universitätsbibliothek Basel‘s manuscripts, Paul Oskar Kristeller’s “Iter Italicum” vol.5 says:

“A X 132. Steinmann, pp. 419, 457, 548. misc XV. Joh. Gualensis O.F.M., breviloquium philosophorum de virtutibus antiquorum principum (f.83). Vocabularius hebraico-latinus (202). Vocabularius graeco-latinus (220).”

Kristeller’s reference to (Martin) Steinmann appears to be to “Die Handschriften der Universitätsbibliothek Basel, Register zu den Abteilungen A I – A XI und O”, Basel, 1982: unfortunately, I ran out of time so didn’t get a chance to see this. But I did find the 1907 listing for the manuscript in Die Handschriften der Oeffentlichen Bibliothek der Universität Basel : Erste Abteilung : Die deutschen Handschriften : Erster Band : BASEL 1907″:

244 A. X. 132.
9. Johannes Gallensis, Breviloquium de virtutibus antiquorum principum et philosophorum.
Vgl. Histoire litter. de la France, T. 25, p. 182. Der Name des Verfassers findet sich in unserer IIs. im alten Inhaltsverzeichnis: a Johanni Gallensi editum.
Bl. 83v: Breuiloquium de virtutibus principum antiquorum et philosophorum. Quoniam misericordia et veritas custodiunt regem…
Bl. 101r Schi.: vbi vis permanere ego vita. Amen.
Completus est libellus de virtutibus principum et philosophorum Anno | a nativitate domini 1465 tercia die mensis septembris que | fuit dies martis

Hence the date that this section of the manuscript was completed was “3rd September 1465”.

And there is a mention in the handschriftencensus page to “Katalog der datierten Handschriften in der Schweiz in lateinischer Schrift vom Anfang des Mittelalters bis 1550, Bd. 1: Die Handschriften der Bibliotheken von Aarau, Appenzell und Basel, Text- und Abbildungsband”, Dietikon-Zürich 1977, S. 110, by Beat Matthias von Scarpatetti, which is where I found it.

It’s listed on Google Books: the text description of A X 132 is in section 296 of the “Text-” half of volume 1, while the handwriting is reproduced in Abb. 463 of the “Abbildungs-” half of volume 1.

Breviloquium de virtutibus antiquorum

Incidentally, Johannes Gallensis is one of the names that the thirteenth century Franciscan theologian John of Wales” was known by. His “Breviloquium de virtutibus antiquorum…” was a well-copied work: at least fifty copies are listed here, and there may well be many others.

But sadly…

Even though the handwriting we’re interested in runs from fol. 83r through to fol. 101r of Basel Univ. Bibl. A X 132, there are no images of this that I could find online at all, not even on the e-codices database doesn’t have a copy of in it.

And (worse) my mobile phone ran out of battery taking photos of pirate treasure books before I got this far. So all I can do for the moment is tell you about it rather than show it to you. But I thought you’d like to know anyway…

So: if anyone has access to a copy of “Katalog der datierten Handschriften in der Schweiz in lateinischer Schrift vom Anfang des Mittelalters bis 1550, Bd. 1: Die Handschriften der Bibliotheken von Aarau, Appenzell und Basel, Text- und Abbildungsband”, could I ask them to scan in a copy of Abb. 463 and email it to me? I’ll post it here as soon as I can, thanks very much!

Even though I now have a very clear idea of the documentary I’d like to make in Mauritius about the whole “Le Butin” pirate treasure mystery, there’s something about it all that still sits a little bit awkwardly.

I guess the key problem is that I’m just not a treasure hunter: I don’t have that secret inner dream of fabulous riches, or the kind of inner fire to keep on searching that could burn for decades. Reginald Cruise-Wilkins (who believed that Olivier “La Buse” Levasseur’s allegedly fabulous treasure was concealed inside a cryptogram beneath many layers of mythological symbolism, and hunted for its location in the Seychelles for nearly forty years) passed on one such flaming baton to his son John, who then spent almost as much of his life on essentially the same quest. More recently, an American called Robert Graf searched in the same set of places for at least a decade, and also without success: doubtless many more names could be added to this list.

(The story goes that in 1940, Cruise-Wilkins bought some documents from the captain of a Norwegian whaling ship: these included a copy of the cryptogram that had not long before been reproduced in Charles de la Roncière’s book “Le Flibustier Mystérieux”. However, he didn’t actually start searching for it until 1947. Commenter “Rookie Observer” noted here that this was (something like) Captain Gulvorg (?), and that the cryptogram had much earlier been owned by a Captain Rocco (?), but please leave a comment here if you can clarify these names at all, thanks!)

What I’m after is rather different: I want to see through the veils to what really happened, to strip away the hopeful lies and the mythopoeia that almost inevitably get slathered all over these historical mysteries.

It would be nice to think that history is no more than a gigantic logic puzzle where there is only one answer – after all, only one set of events did happen, and that can always be assigned an after-the-event probability of 100%. But that’s no more than an unhelpful tautology: history is actually about the complex processes which you try to follow to approach that ideal… even though this often fails to run to plan.

Treasure hunters take this to extremes: typically, they firmly grasp what they happen to think is a telling clue and wield it not so much as a talisman as a machete, swinging it from side to side to clear a path through the evidential jungle surrounding them. But, as with Cruise-Wilkins and his Labours of Hercules ‘key’, the truth of the matter is very much subtler and far less amenable to such reductionistic heuristics.

For me, history is more about doing the best job you can with the evidence you have, and constantly trying to do just a little bit better in each respect – slightly better evidence, slightly better reasoning, slightly clearer vision. And then, with a good bit of wind in your sails, to travel just a tiny bit further in the right kind of direction. It’s not hugely glamorous, sure, but there is still a sense of forward motion gained by accumulating genuine insights.

So the underlying tension is that while I couldn’t genuinely make a breathless treasure-hunting documentary, that’s probably what many people would expect, given the whole pirate-treasure-in-Mauritius subject matter. But… in practice, perhaps what that means is that I would have to make quite a different kind of film from that same starting point.

Give ’em what they want, just not in the way they expect, eh? 🙂

In my last post, I included a scan of the earliest known image of a cave entrance in Mauritius: but I wasn’t really satisfied by its quality. And so I decided to track down the original source (and why not?): it turned out to be one of a long series of drawings made by the French painter Louis Auguste de Sainson (1801-1887), who travelled on board the corvette l’Astrolabe on its journey around the world in 1826-129 as the voyage’s official painter.

The resulting images – which included splendid depictions of body art observed on numerous Pacific islands – are well worth a look, and were printed in two volumes as:

Voyage de la corvette l’Astrolabe : exécuté par ordre du Roi pendant les années 1826-1827-1828-1829, sous le commandement de M. J. Dumont d’Urville,… publié par ordonnance de Sa Majesté : Histoire du voyage / rédigé par M. Dumont-d’Urville.

The Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de Toulouse has copies of both of these (shelfmark A 55(1) and A 55 (2) respectively): from its website, you can download PDFs of Volume 1 and Volume 2 for yourself, highly recommended!

Here are scans of the engravings of the drawings de Sainson specifically made on Mauritius, all taken from Volume 2:

Une Grotte au Quartier de la Grande Riviere

Une Grotte au Quartier de la Grande Riviere Louis Auguste de Sainson (1801-1887)

Vue des Pamplemousses

Vue des Pamplemousses Louis Auguste de Sainson (1801-1887)

Vue de la Montagne de Pieter Bot

Vue de la Montagne de Pieter Bot Louis Auguste de Sainson (1801-1887)

Vue Prise sur la Route de Port-Louis

Vue Prise sur la Route de Port-Louis Louis Auguste de Sainson (1801-1887)

Chute de la Grande Rivière

Chute de la Grande Rivière Louis Auguste de Sainson (1801-1887)

Geologically speaking, volcanic activity rocks the house: land appears almost ex nihilo from volcanoes, spewed out as lava at (geologically) great speed, and occasionally explosively so. A fair few places on Earth (such as Mauritius) can only properly be grasped in terms of multiple lava onslaughts: studying these layers is arguably closer to codicology than to geography, if you like.

There are also many different types of lava: if you are an avid Scrabble-ist, you probably can at least spell aa (rough, rubbly lava), though you perhaps would be forgiven for not having used the eight-letter word pahoehoe (smooth lava, that can sometimes end up looking like coiled ropes as it cools). [Vulcanologists have countless technical terms for lava and lava-related features, *sigh*.]

However, what is far less well known is that as (typically pahoehoe) lava moves and cools, it often leaves behindvoids inside the lava flow: these can be long and thin (e.g. “lava tubes”), or small and round (“lava blisters”), or many other shapes. Hence the rocky basaltic landscape left behind by lava is defined not just by the overall topology of the rock itself as it moves and cools, but also by the eerie topology of the spaces left inside it.

For speleologists, these volcanic voids are wonderful and sublime: exploring and mapping the sinewy curve of a completely new lava tube is arguably just about as good as their hobby / profession gets. Lava caves are inhabited by bats, swiftlets, and all manner of curiously adapted species (including a number of Mauritian black magic altars). Yet it turns out that other, very different groups of people are also hugely interested in lava tubes…

As Below, So Above

Wonderfully, lava tubes and lava blisters are far from being a solely terrestrial phenomenon. Around 2009, a ‘skylight’ (a hole to the sky opening up at the top of a lava void) was discovered on the Moon, offering the theoretical possibility of ready-made shelter from radiation for future lunar astronauts, should (say) any future US President have broadly the same kind of scientific vision as John F. Kennedy once had (not that this seems particularly likely at the moment, admittedly). (Image from this AtlasObscura page):


And the same astro-vulcanological principles would seem to hold true for Martian geology as well. Future Martian astronauts not blessed with Matt Damon-ic fortitude may well end up sheltering inside the Red Planet’s lava tubes, wandering in awe through all the weird terraforming technology left there by ancient alien civilizations (hohum). 🙂 [“You are what you do“, indeed.] Here’s a picture courtesy of the European Space Agency, where the large dips would seem to be rilles (collapsed lava voids) and the black feature in the middle a skylight down to an intact lava tube.


Incidentally, there’s a GPR (ground-penetrating radar) rover called RIMFAX going to Mars soon, specific to look for voids: given that we have lava tubes on Earth that run for miles and miles, who knows what this robot will find there?

Looking For Lava Tubes…

Back on Earth, recent research suggests that there are many more lava tubes here than previously thought. Even though many groups of researchers want to know more about them, the practical problem is that that we typically only find these voids accidentally – one lava blister in the west of Mauritius was only discovered when a bulldozer driver bumped into it, knocking open the end of the blister.

And so I was pleased to find a paper where a large group of scientists developed a GPR system specifically for finding lava tubes and lava blisters non-invasively (and without the need for careless bulldozer driving). “Mapping the structure and depth of lava tubes using ground penetrating radar” (2005) by Miyamoto et al appeared in Geophysical Research Letters (Vol. 32, L21316, doi:10.1029/2005GL024159).

Having said that, Gaffney and Gater’s (2003) “Revealing the Hidden Past: Geophysics for Archaeologists” (which I finished reading this morning) shows a nice example of a void being found with normal GPR at 250MHz (p.173, of a railway tunnel), and also points (p.178) to Lorenzo et. al.’s (2002) paper “Selected Radar Images of Man-Made Underground Galleries” (Archaeological Prospection, 9(1), pp.1-8) as an exemplary study of looking for (admittedly) man-made tunnels and basements down to a depth of 7 metres. They conclude that GPR with a 100MHz centre frequency might well be the lower limit to use if you want avoid missing underground details.

But Why Lava Tubes, Nick?

If you’re wondering why I’m suddenly interested in lava tubes, the answer is actually painfully simple.

The most interesting section of Loys Masson’s copy of Le Butin’s papers that I blogged about recently runs as follows (my translation):

At the place indicated by my will, climb the river, and then climb the cliff eastward: twenty-five or thirty steps along according to the documents you will find corsair indicator marks to establish a circle of which the river is a few feet from the center. To the north and then four feet south you will find exactly the entrance to a cave once formed by an arm of the river passing beneath the cliff and blocked up by privateers to put their treasure in and this is the vault described by my will…

Prompted by insightful comments from Byron Deveson, it doesn’t take a huge leap of the geological imagination to see that what the writer was describing here was less likely to be an underground “river passing beneath a cliff” than a lava cave, lava tube or lava blister. And so for my proposed crowdfunding documentary, my plan is now to hire a suitable GPR rig, get myself trained up and go a-hunting on camera for any of these splendid lava void structures.

But how do I know there are any lava tubes on Mauritius at all? Well, that would be down almost entirely to the work of one determined individual… Greg Middleton. I’ll come back to his work in my next post, but to whet your appetite, here’s the earliest known drawing of a cave on Mauritius by the painter de Sainson (in D’Urville, 1830):


The matter of Bernardin Nageon l’Estang (“Le Butin”)’s papers and his (allegedly) buried treasure cache has exercised my mind greatly over the last few years, though not so much in the traditional “how can I get my eager hands upon his pirate loot?” way as a “what the heck is going on there?” way.


The problem is simple: even though thousands (if not tens of thousands) of Mauritians have gone a-hunting for his treasure based on the description given in his papers, nobody has yet dug up so much as a brass earring, let alone (archivally) any scrap of evidence that proves that Bernardin Nageon l’Estang ever lived.

All of which has greatly encouraged those who like to conclude that such cipher mysteries are necessarily fakes or hoaxes. In this instance, however, the correct answer is that the case is “Not Proven”, neither for nor against. It would be nice if we could tell either way but (for now)… we simply can’t.

The Sea Fog Starts to Recede…

More recently, though, things have started to make a little more sense (well, to me, at least). It now seems highly probable that of the three “Le Butin” papers, Nageon l’Estang himself only wrote the first two (BN1 and BN2, a Will and a letter): it appears that the three documents that the writer of the third paper (BN3) mentions having been given (by a dying sea captain, somewhat melodramatically) were in fact BN1 and BN2, along with a (now probably lost) third document.

If this is correct, it is really helpful, because it helps us know how the three papers are (and are not) connected to each other: to be precise, the (unnamed and as yet unknown) corsair who wrote the third paper seems to have known no more about the contents of the other papers than we do. So the fact that Bernardin Nageon l’Estang’s name does not appear on the crew lists of the Apollon (as apparently referred to in BN3) would make sense: it is the “missing corsair” (the author of BN3) who was on the Apollon, not Nageon l’Estang.

It also now seems quite clear that “Le Butin”‘s papers have absolutely nothing to do with the treasure tradition associated with Olivier Levasseur (AKA “La Buse”, ‘The Buzzard’). This, too, helps keep our eyes focused on what we need to be looking at, and not distracted by other stuff.

Moreover, the version of the papers owned by Loys Masson (and described in print by him in 1935) turned out to be substantially different to the version given by Robert Charroux in 1962. Furthermore, it would not surprise me if the version described by long-time Mauritian treasure hunter Philippe Cherveau de Montléhu were to prove to be different from both. And again, it would not surprise me if the version described in Paul Fleuriau-Chateau’s book (which I’m hoping to see at the British Library this week, at long last) will turn out to have subtle differences from the others.

So… the first thing that would be good to see would be a set of transcriptions of the various copies of the papers.

Cladistics, Perhaps?

For those who study medieval manuscripts, the term ‘cladistics’ is sometimes used to denote the study of different versions of the same document, with the idea of trying to discover their relationships with each other: which is the original, which is the copy, which is the copy of the copy, or indeed might we reasonably hypothesize the existence of a missing original from which different copies were made?

Perhaps one next big step forward will involve collecting together the various versions of the “Butin” papers and applying this kind of analysis to them as a group. Can we do this to reconstruct what the original documents looked like? Or perhaps we would be able to identify one particular set as being most likely to be the original?

From what (little) I’ve seen so far, my prediction would be that Loys Masson’s copy of the papers are closer to the original set than Charroux’s copy: but this is still a very long way from certain.

Finally, it might be extraordinarily revealing to see the various copies of the letters (people must have photos of them, right?), because their internal evidence implies that we should expect BN1/BN2 and BN3 not to have all been written by the same hand. So if we find a set written by at least two hands, it is far more likely to be the original set than a (single-handed) set (i.e. probably copied by a later owner). Something to think about, anyway.

So… the second thing that would be good to see would be a set of photos of the various copies of the papers.

An Underground Riverbed…?

As far as the treasure expeditions go, Klondyke Company-style treasure hunting groups seem to have excavated in countless places along Mauritius’s West coast, as well as in numerous places along the island’s South and East coasts, though apparently without success. Phillipe Cherveau de Montléhu‘s fruitless 20-year hunt would seem to be entirely typical in this respect.

But given that the letters say (quite unambiguously, it has to be said) that the treasure was sealed in an underground river (between a river and a cliff, and apparently not too far from Vacoas), the right tool for searching would be not a huge team of guys with pickaxes and hungry eyes, but ground penetrating radar. If GPR can’t find something resembling an underground river void, you’d best leave your spades and trowels in the shed.

So… the third thing that would be good to see would be GPR scans of any areas in Eastern Mauritius between a river and a cliff.

And So… A “Le Butin” Documentary?

Even though I’ve been pursuing this whole story for some years, I suspect there’s little else out there that will be publicly available. I keep plodding away behind the scenes, sure: but the Law of Dimishing Returns seems to have firmly set in.

So I now suspect that the best way to try to bring new stuff into the open would be to take a bold step sideways, by crowdfunding a “Le Butin” documentary.

As part of the film, I’d like:
* to go through various Mauritian archives (e.g. in Curepipe etc) for documents and old photos
* to look for archival traces of the Klondike Company and other treasure hunting groups
* to interview Phillipe Cherveau de Montléhu (if he’s still alive?) and any other “Le Butin” treasure hunters out there
* to interview Mauritian historians who have taken an interest in this over the years (some must have seen copies of the papers, surely?)
* (of course) to carry out a GPR scan (to look for any sign of an old underground river between a cliff and a river in the Black River District)

Does this sound sensible? Is there anything missing from the list that you think would be interesting to see in a documentary? Can anyone advise about the most appropriate GPR setup to use (e.g. what frequency would be best for searching for underground river beds in a basaltic area)?

Once upon a time, Cipher Mysteries commenter Christopher Maggi posted a link (very kindly) to a page with some vintage photos of Mauritius, including the following image of a treasure hunt in the Baie de Corsaire (Klondike) in 1908:


However, the profusely-illustrated “Pirates & Privateers in Mauritius” (2014) by Denis Piat lists (p.71) a long sequence of excavations made on Mauritius in search of pirate treasure (though not including 1908):

* 1860 – east coast, near the “Grande Retraite dwelling house”
* 1902 and 1912 – Klondike [as per the Klondyke Company I blogged about here]
* 1925 – Walhalla
* 1926 – Grand Port area, Pointe Vacoas
* 1927 – Belmont, close to Poudre d’Or
* 1932 – Petit-Sable, Pointe Vacoas
* 1940 – Klondike
* 1950 – Tamarin
* 1960 – Pointe aux Roches [this “was explored by a diviner”]

Piat also shows part of a (somewhat fake-looking?) map courtesy of Patrick Ferrat, that he says “belonged to Philippe Chevreau de Montléhu, a Mauritian treasure hunter who searched and excavated the Barachois de Belmont for 20 years without success”. (p.59)


Sounds like an interesting character, but… Montlé-who, you may quite reasonably ask?

Philippe Chevreau de Montléhu

There seems to be almost nothing written about him. However, I did find an article in German by Sonia Shinde or Richard Dobson (it wasn’t clear to me who wrote it), from the online magazine Merian: it included a nice picture of Philippe Chevreau de Montléhu on a Mauritian beach:


Just to be kind, I translated the section of it (fairly freely, admittedly, but I don’t think it’s much the worse for the encounter) that related to him for you all. Enjoy!

It must be somewhere on the island. Somewhere along the Rivière Noire in the West, perhaps, or at least at Souillac in the south? Or maybe just behind the airport in the middle of the tomato and sugar cane fields? Philippe Chevreau de Montléhu is on the trail of the treasure of the pirate Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang.

The pirate buried three iron barrels filled with doubloons and ingots, as well as a copper casket overflowing with flawless diamonds from the Indian mines of Vizapoure and Golconda, the places where such legendary stones as the Koh-i-noor and the Hope Diamond were found. Half a dozen slaves helped him, their skeletons now guarding the treasure. The hoard will be worth nine million euros, if not more, and Chevreau feels he is extremely close. A sixth share will go to the five to seven financiers who helped him, and another share to the owners of the lands. “For me, then there is still more than enough. I will keep one to two million, the rest I will donate”, he promises.

Philippe Chevreau de Montléhu, an elderly man from a wealthy French-Mauritian family, seems to have spent his share of the booty before the treasure is found. Always elegantly dressed and with an air of serenity and composure, he has researched pirate treasure for over 20 years. Though his riches will probably die with him, according to the island gossip, he speaks of a good 6000 euros which he has already invested. He has – alas – found nothing yet: but success is surely only a matter of time. Ultimately, the directions to the treasure are precise: “Follow the course of the river, cross the gorge and take the road to the east until you see the signs of the corsairs.”

[Folge dem Lauf des Flusses, durchquere die Schlucht und nimm den Weg nach Osten, bis du die Zeichen der Korsaren siehst.]

The pirate Nageon himself wrote this down as a legacy for his nephew Justin: but unfortunately the nephew found nothing. When he finally stopped in the dark of night with his uncle’s testament in his hands, destiny hit him with the force of a axe-blow on the beach in Mauritius… his body was never found. But the story of the fabled treasure has haunted the island for more than 200 years.

No one knows how many treasure hunters there are in Mauritius today. A good handful is rumored to have devoted their life and career to the search for Lost Treasure, though many others armed with metal detectors wander at random through the basalt caves and on the beaches. And when their search has eaten up all their capital, they go to the beaches and tourist spots instead, and hunt there for lost watches, bracelets, rings and rupees. It’s not big money, sure, but it can be enough to keep their dream alive.

The other treasures – the proper ones – were left behind from busy times: the British and French fought bitterly in the 19th century to gain control of the Ile de France, nowadays called Mauritius. Privateers, legitimized by the letters of marque they carried, plundered and sunk everything flying the wrong flag. Robert Surcouf, the King of Corsairs, made life difficult for the English – making himself and his crew rich in the process.

This proverbial buck must finally have stopped somewhere. For what did not disappear on card tables, in taverns or onto the necklines of the harbor whores ended up hidden, buried in caves or buried in the sand, and marked with secret signs. For example, the outlines of boots or anchors were often found carved into the rock, as pirate symbols of money, as indeed were strangely shaped stones.

Chevreau has found just such a stone: it looks like a boot and now sits in his garden. For inexperienced visitors, this would seem to be no more than a freak of nature: but for him it is a clue, a fateful sign. The sugar barons, he says, flattened and bulldozed everything, even the signs left behind by the Corsairs. The river whose course he is trying to follow is no longer there, but you can still see the bright stripes of limestone which run through the dark rocks. Might this be a trail for treasure hunters to follow – or merely traces of the sedimented fertilizer the plantation owners used to treat their fields with?

Chevreau keeps his most precious treasures in a red tin with a rusted lid: stones and a few coins, which (I’m sorry to say) are too young to have come from the Golden Age of Pirates at the end of the 18th century.