One of the most marvellously romantic pirate cipher stories I’ve heard concerns the famous French pirate Olivier Levasseur (1688/1690-1730) AKA “La Buse” – ‘the buzzard’, so called because of his speed and ruthlessness. When about to be hanged, Levasseur (allegedly) took a necklace containing a 17-line cryptogram from around his neck and threw it to the attendant crowd, calling out “Find my treasure, ye who may understand it!”

Fabulous stuff, for sure… but in the absence of even a nano-shred of evidence to support it, probably utter b*ll*cks. But you guessed that already.

As so often happens, Levasseur’s reputation outlasted his death, to the point that he was played by the sword-swinging Basil Rathbone in the 1935 film “Captain Blood” (perhaps better known for starring Errol Flynn).


Incidentally, it’s a little-known fact that Errol Flynn wanted his tell-all autobiography to be called “In Like Me“, but his publishers refused. What an own goal! 🙁

Still, there remains a long-standing tale that the later (also real) pirate Bernardin Nageon de L’Estang (also known as “Le Butin”, i.e. ‘The Booty Man’, who died many years after Levasseur) was somehow linked with La Buse’s treasure, a story that was partially reinforced by Le Butin’s last will which resurfaced in the Seychelles in 1923. I couldn’t find an English translation of it, so what follows next is my own [admittedly fairly free] translation. Note that “20 floréal an VIII” is a date in the French Republican calendar which I think I’ve converted correctly to ‘1st May 1800’, but please tell me if I’m wrong! is the 10th May 1800 [thanks Helmut!]

I’m about to enlist to defend the motherland, and will without much doubt be killed, so am making my will. I give my nephew the reserve officer Jean Marius Nageon de l’Estang the following: a half-lot at La Chaux au Grand-Port, île de France, plus my treasures saved from the Indies. Having been wrecked in a creek near Vacoas, I walked up a river and deposited riches of the Indies in a cave which I marked with my initials BN. My writings are deliberately difficult to read as a precaution; I would tell Justin if I were to retrieve them first.

1st 10th May 1800. Dear Justin, if I die before seeing you, a true friend will give you my will and my papers. I recommend you follow my instructions and execute my last will and God bless you. With help from our influential friends, get yourself to the Indian Ocean and the île de France at the location indicated by my will. Climb the cliff going eastward; twenty-five or thirty steps along, in accordance with the documents, you will find typical pirate marks forming a circle with the river a few feet east from the centre. That is where the treasure is. Strangely-combined enciphered figures at this place yield the initials “BN”. Near my wreck, I lost a lot of material, and I have already removed several treasures, so there remain only four buried in the same way by the same pirates, which you will find using the cipher key and the other papers that will reach you at the same time as this. The second treasure is located in the northern part of the île de France with similar marks. With the combination of the circle at the scene and following these recommendations, you will retrieve it like that of Rodrigues.

Beloved brother, I’ve been sick since the fall of Tamatave [i.e. the Invasion of île de France, where the French finally surrendered on 3rd December 1810], despite the care of my friend the commander. I am weak, I fear death from one moment to the next, I wish to talk to you one last time dear Étienne and give you my greatest recommendations. When I am dead, Captain Hamon will give you the little that I possess that I saved during my adventurous life at sea. You know, dear Étienne, that my life’s dream was to amass a fortune to bring back our family’s splendour. With the benevolence the First Consul showed me after a glorious feat of arms, I had hoped to return. But as God will not allow me to perform this duty and I feel close to death, swear to me dear Étienne that you will execute my wishes. In my adventurous life before embarking on the Apollon, I was one of those pirates who did so much harm to our enemies Spain and England. We made many splendid captures from them, but at our last battle with a large British frigate on the shores of Hindustan, the captain was wounded and on his deathbed confided to me his secrets and his papers to retrieve considerable treasure buried in the Indian Ocean; and, having first made sure that I was a Freemason, asked me to use it to arm privateers against the English. But I abhor this wandering life, so I decided to enlist permanently and wait for France to calm down before finding these treasures and return back there. Swear to me that your eldest son will carry out my wishes and one day return to our house with the fortune. The captain will give you the documents about the treasures, three of them. The one buried on my dear île de France is considerable. According to the documents, you will see: three iron barrels and jars full of minted doubloons and thirty million ingots and a copper box filled with diamonds from the mines of Visapur and Golkonda [from whence many famous diamonds such as the Koh-i-Noor came].

Before I go on (in Part Two) to examine the cryptogram itself, I should point out that the Invasion of île de France did actually happen, so this final section of the will (if genuine) implies that Le Butin lived not only beyond 1st 10th May 1800, but also beyond 3rd December 1810 (when Tamatave fell).

Moreover, there was a Captain Hamon in the French fleet (in 18th January 1805, he was in Admiral Villeneuve’s fleet off Toulon in charge of La Naïade, an 18-cannon corvette). And the French India Company had at least four ships called “Apollon” before that time, so it is entirely plausible that Le Butin served under Capitaine Hamon on a ship called “Apollon” in the Indian Ocean.

So I wondered… which French sea captain was it who Le Butin said had been mortally wounded off Hindustan? There can’t be that many possibilities, because the loss of Tamatave was one of the last great naval events of the Napoleonic Wars, and without any substantial bases in the Indian Ocean to sail from, the French naval forces struggled to mount any more significant strikes against the British.

I believe there was a skirmish off the coast of Diu earlier in the Napoleonic Wars, but I haven’t been able to find any trace at all of one after December 1810. Perhaps a passing naval historian will be able to put me right on this, as these were wars that were intensely well-documented on both sides. Hopefully we shall see!

More (much more!) in Part Two


Just so you know, though I found the original text of the above in the French Wikipedia entry for Trésor de la Buse, it came from Robert Charroux’s (1962) “Trésors du monde” Edition J’ai lu 1962 – yes, the same book where the story about the Templars and l’Ile des Veilleurs came from. And for the sake of completeness, here it is, so feel free to offer a better translation if you think I haven’t done it sufficient justice…

Je pars m’enrôler et défendre la patrie. Comme je serai sans doute tué, je fais mon testament et donne à mon neveu Jean Marius Nageon de l’Estang, officier de la réserve, savoir: un demi-terrain rivière La Chaux au Grand-Port, île de France, et les trésors sauvés de l’Indus, savoir: j’ai naufragé dans une crique près des Vacoas et j’ai remonté une rivière et déposé dans un caveau les richesses de l’Indus et marqué B.N. mon nom. Mes écrits sont difficiles à lire par précaution; je dirais tout à Justin si je le retrouve.

Lettre du 20 floréal an VIII. Mon cher Justin, dans les cas ou la mort me surprendrait sans te voir, un ami fidèle te remettra mon testament et mes papiers. Je te recommande de suivre mes instructions et d ‘exécuter mes dernières volontés et Dieu te bénira. Par nos amis influents, fais-toi envoyer dans la mer des Indes et rends-toi à l’île de France à l’endroit indiqué par mon testament. Remonte la falaise allant vers l’est ; à vingt-cinq ou trente pas est, conformement aux documents, tu trouveras les marques indicatives des corsaires pour établir un cercle dont la rivière est à quelques pieds du centre. Là est le trésor. Par une combinaison étrange, les figures cryptographiques donnent à ce point nom B.N. Par mon naufrage, j’ai perdu beaucoup de documents; j’ai déjà retiré plusieurs trésors; il n’en reste que quatre enfouis de la même manière par ces mêmes corsaires, que tu trouveras par la clé des combinaisons et les autres papiers qui te parviendront en même temps. Le deuxième trésor de l ‘île de France se trouve dans la partie nord de cette dernière avec des marques pareilles. Avec la combinaison du cercle sur les lieux, et suivant les recommandations tu y parviendras comme pour celui de Rodrigues.

Frère bien aimé, je suis malade depuis la prise de Tamatave, malgré les soins de mon commandant et ami. Je suis faible, je crains la mort d’un moment à l’autre, je viens te parler une dernière fois cher Étienne et te faire mes recommandations suprêmes. Quand je serai mort, le commandant Hamon te fera remettre le peu que je possède et que j’ai économisé dans ma vie aventureuse de marin. Tu sais, cher Étienne, que le rêve de toute ma vie était d’amasser une fortune pour relever l’éclat de notre maison. Avec la bienveillance que le premier consul m’a témoigné après un fait d’armes glorieux, je serais parvenu. Mais comme Dieu, ne me permettra pas d’exécuter ce devoir et que je sens la mort près, jure-moi cher Étienne, d’exécuter mes volontés. Dans ma vie aventureuse et avant d’embarquer sur l’Apollon, j’ai fait pari (partie) de ces corsaires qui ont fait tant de mal à l’Espagne et à notre ennemi l’Anglais. Avec eux nous avons fait de jolies prises, mais à notre dernier combat sur les côtes d’Indoustan, avec une grosse frégate anglaise, le capitaine a été blessé et à son lit de mort m’a confié ses secrets et des papiers pour retrouver des trésors considérables enfouis dans la mer des Indes et en me demandant de m’en servir pour armer des corsaires contre l’Anglais; il s’est assuré auparavant si j’étais franc-maçon. Mais j’avais cette vie errante en horreur, j’ai préféré m’enrôler régulièrement et attendre que la France soit calme pour retrouver ces trésors et y retourner. Jure-moi que ton fils aîné exécutera ma volonté et avec cette fortune relèvera un jour notre maison. Le commandant te remettra les écrits des trésors, Il y en a trois. Celui enterré à ma chère île de France est considérable. D’après les écrits, tu les verras: Trois barriques en fer et jarres pleines de doublons monnayés et lingots de trente millions et une cassette en cuivre remplie de diamants des mines de Visapour et de Golconde.

14 Thoughts on “La Buse’s / Le Butin’s Pirate Cipher (Part 1)…

  1. Helmut Winkler on April 16, 2013 at 6:16 am said:

    My knowledge of the French Republican Calendar is very limited, but the two conversion tables I was using say it is 10 May 1800 (,

    Helmut Winkler

  2. Helmut: you are, of course, correct. I’ve corrected the date, thanks! 🙂

  3. Russell on April 16, 2013 at 1:31 pm said:

    Just a few thoughts on the French part.

    « je dirais tout à Justin si je le retrouve. »
    IMHO “I will tell Justin everything if I find him.”

    et les trésors sauvés de l’Indus, savoir: j’ai naufragé dans une crique près des Vacoas et j’ai remonté une rivière et déposé dans un caveau les richesses de l’Indus

    I think that the ‘Indus’ was a boat which he had been shipwrecked on. There are quite a few boats that have carried the name ‘Indus’ and a few have been shipwrecked.. but the dates don’t correspond.

    I’ll have a look at the rest when I get home.

    Sennecé les Macon, France
    PS. Im having trouble with the cipher “B*ll*cks”. Any clues?? (Russell takes tongue out of cheek to stick stamp on letter)

  4. Tricia on April 16, 2013 at 1:54 pm said:


  5. Russell on April 16, 2013 at 5:18 pm said:

    Im a little tired (long day) but here is my translation attempt
    I leave to enlist myself and defend the “homeland/country/motherland”. As I will be probably killed, I make my testament and give to my nephew Jean Marius Nageon Estang, reserve officer, namely: half of a land “rivière La Chaux au Grand-Port, île de France”, and the treasures saved from the Indus, namely: I have been wrecked in a Cove near Vacoas and I have gone back up a river and deposited in a vault the riches of the Indus and marked B.N. my name. My writings are difficult to read as a precaution; I will tell everything to Justin if I find him.

    Letter of the 10th May 1800 (Note: On the 25 floréal an VIII, the 15th of May 1800, Napoléon Bonaparte invaded the Italy, so the date 10th May 1800 is correct). My dear Justin, in case death will surprise me without being able to see you, a loyal friend will give you my testament and my papers. I recommend you to follow my instructions and to execute my last wishes and God will bless you. By our influential friends, be sent to the Indian Ocean and go to the “île de France” at the place indicated by my will. Go back up the cliff eastward; at twenty-five or thirty steps east, according to the documents, you will find “privateer / pirates” indicative marks for making a circle of which the river is a few feet from the center. There is the treasure. By a strange combination, the cryptographic figures give at this point the “name/initials” B.N. Because of the shipwreck, I have lost a lot of documents; I have already taken many treasures; There are only four left buried in the same way by the same pirates, that you will find using the key combinations and other papers that will arrive at the same time. The second treasure of the “île de France” lies in the northern part of the latter marked in the same way. With the combination of the circle on the “premises/site”, and following the recommendations you will succeed like that of Rodrigues.

    Beloved brother, I am sick since the Tamatave, despite the care of my commanding officer and friend. I am weak, I am afraid of death from one moment to the other, I’ve come to talk to you one last time dear Etienne and give you my highest recommendations. When I am dead, the Commander Hamon will give you the little that I have and that I saved in my adventurous life of a sailor. You know, dear Etienne, the dream of my life was to raise a fortune to raise the splendour of our House. With the benevolence that the first consul testified to me after a glorious feat of arms, I would have made it. But as God, will not allow me to perform this duty and that I feel death near, swear me dear Etienne, execute my wishes. In my adventurous life and before boarding the Apollon, I was part of these privateers who made so much harm to Spain and our English enemy. With them we made nice catches, but at our last fight on the coasts of Indoustan, with a large English frigate, the captain was injured and on his death bed gave me his secrets and papers to find considerable treasures buried in the Indian Ocean and asking me to use it to arm privateers against the English; It previously assured tha I was a Freemason. But I had this horrible wandering life, I preferred to enlist regularly and wait until the France becomes quieter to recover these treasures and return. Swear me that your eldest son will execute my will and with this fortune will one day increase the splendour of our House. The Commander will present you the treasure documents , there are three. Those buried in my dear “île de France” is considerable. According the documents you will see: three barrels in iron and jars full of minted doubloons and thirty million and a copper box filled with diamonds from the mines of Visapour and Golconde.

    all the Best
    Sennecé les Macon , France

  6. Russell: thanks very much for that – our two translations are perilously close, but forgive me if I still slightly prefer my own. 😉

    As for the mysterious cryptogram, pay no attention to it, i.e. “never mind the b*ll*cks” 😉

  7. Blaise Nageon de Lestang on September 29, 2014 at 4:11 am said:

    This is very interesting stuff. Bernardin was on one of my ancestors (I believe I am a direct descendant of his brother Andre). I recently came across a number of family documents (all in French of course) that had some information on Bernardin’s naval career prior to becoming a privateer.
    I’m also told that one of my aunts who lives in England May have some old hand written letters from the first relatives to leave France for Mauritius and Seychelles. I could share them if you’d like. I would love to learn more about this.

  8. Help! I have read these Buse/Butin articles several times and I can’t figure out whether there are one or two cryptograms… was the one found in the archives with Butin’s will the same one that led to the Herculean tasks on Savy’s property? Or was there another cryptogram that had to do with his treasure on Mauritius?

  9. Suzanne: it seems very likely to me that the two cryptograms were independent copies of one or more earlier cryptograms (i.e. neither is in any way ‘the’ original), but then you have Emmanuel Mezino popping his head up to say that I’m a fool for suggesting such a nonsensical idea (though without any actual evidence or proof).

    So… there’s no good answer to these kind of basic questions just yet, sorry. But I’ll keep trying to gain some kind of clarity, wish me luck. 🙂

  10. Suzanne on October 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm said:

    Thanks, Nick. Clear as mud, right?

  11. Suzanne: actually, it’s all much clearer to me now than it ever has been. I’ll be posting more about this over the next few weeks.

  12. Arnaud Ernest on December 3, 2015 at 10:04 am said:

    Hi Nick,

    Extremely interesting information mainly when it concerns the ‘Isle de France’, where I was born. I’m a simple fan of history, love to research and just recently stumbled on your site while in search of…history, the real side of it!

    Although I haven’t had time to completely read through the other parts/topics yet, I had to stop here at ‘Pt I – La Buse Cipher’ where I believe the translation isn’t right and may bring confusion.
    So, reading through PtI… “j’ai naufragé dans une crique près des Vacoas”, and translated as “Having been wrecked in a creek near Vacoas…”, isn’t right to my belief.
    La Buse, I believe is in fact referring to the island’s native plant (in the plural stance – ‘des’) the ‘Vacoas’ – also called L’arbre du Voyageur (En: the Traveller’s tree). That rather than referring to Vacoas as a place, a town.
    That said he was surely still on the SE coast, upstream to River La Chaux from the bay (Grand-Port) where he presumably buried his treasure.

    Vacoas drew my attention since it’s the town where I was born, and in no way accessible by boat from the ocean as it is situated on the ‘Central Plateau’.

    …reading on with admiration.


  13. La Buse on December 25, 2015 at 6:08 pm said:

    You all still think, I am dead, dont you!

    The treasure is safe and sound I believe but I myself have been finding it. Those clues and all were all just a deception.

    -La Buse

  14. La Buse: nice to know there are plenty of sane people out there looking for mythical pirate treasure. 😉

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