Who was the mysterious French sea captain who Le Butin (Bernardin Nageon de L’estang) got his pirate cipher from?

Le Butin claimed that this captain was mortally wounded in a naval battle with “a large British frigate on the shores of Hindoustan”, and on his deathbed – and having confirmed that Le Butin was a Freemason – he passed Le Butin his pirate treasure secrets, now widely presumed to be La Buse’s pigpen cryptogram.

All in all, taking this at face gives us a pretty specific historical puzzle to solve – we know where it happened (off the coast of Hindustan, so not too far from the ports of Surat, Diu, and Daman), broadly who did it (a large English frigate), and broadly when it happened (sometime in the 1790s). But can we be more specific?

Trying a little too hard for a quick answer, I drew up a list of Indian Ocean French corsairs who died during that period (perhaps surprisingly, many of them seemed to live to a tidy old age – crime may not pay, but state-licensed crime apparently does). For example, the French corsair Claude Deschiens de Kerulvay died on 11th September 1796 on his ship the Modeste having been wounded in a sea-battle with two well-armed English whalers the previous day… but that was off the coast of Mozambique. So, no real match there, it would seem. And the same proved to be the case with just about all the others.

I also previously dug up a mention of a sea battle of the coast of Hindustan that happened on 9th February 1796, where three French warships sailing under false flags engaged with the coastguard ship Real Fidelissima just off Diu. But that was a small Portuguese ship, guarding a Portuguese port in India… once again, “close, but no cigar”.

Even so, I worked out that two of the three French warships that attacked Diu were almost certainly the Cybèle (under Captain Renaud) and the Prudente (under Captain Tréhouart). The third ship might have been the brig Coureur (under Lieutenant Garaud), the corvette Pélagie (under Lieutenant Latour-Cassanhiol) which had joined Renaud’s division in 1795, the Jean-Bart (formerly the Rosalie, under Captain Loyseau), or even Deschiens de Kerulvay’s Modeste. Incidentally, the Modeste was laid up in May 1796, which would be broadly consistent with its having been the ship that the Portuguese coastguard and fort cannons damaged in the action off Diu… but that’s a bit thin as inferences go.

I think we can be a little more specific about the timing, though. Specifically, it seems very unlikely to me that it would have been after the summer of 1796, when the truly formidable Admiral de Sercey (who is commemorated on the Arc de Triomphe!) took control of the French Mauritius fleet. And given that the number of attacks by French corsairs on the British East India ships ballooned after 1793, the date range we’re interested in is probably from late 1793 to July 1796. That’s a reasonably good start… but not quite good enough. And so it was there that my train ran out of steam.

But then a copy of H.C.M. Austen’s (1934) “Sea Fights and Corsairs of the Indian Ocean” arrived through the post (the Cipher Mysteries budget only stretched to the 2003 paperback 2nd edition, but even that was hard enough to find). Having this lovely old slab to hand allowed me to cross-reference everything I’d found so far with Austen’s detailed accounts of the various Indian Ocean naval actions [even if some parts of it have clearly been superseded by modern research].

Even though I’m only half-way through it (it’s a big old thing, really it is), I’m now pretty sure that Le Butin’s dying captain will turn out to be none other than Jean-Marie Renaud, head of the French Navy’s Indian Station.

Renaud’s main claim to naval fame came from the action of 22nd October 1794, when he proposed a way to break the British blockade of Mauritius’ Port Louis. The Cybèle and the Prudente were badly damaged in the sea fight (and Renaud himself was wounded, though not fatally), but Renaud’s plan worked, and the blockade was lifted… for a few weeks, anyway.

Austen continues (p.64)…

Early in 1795, as soon as the two frigates had been repaired, Renaud took them out as naval corsairs. On 30th June, in the Straits of Sunda, they captured the Sea Nymph; on 8th July, in the mouth of the Palimban River, a Dutch and many other ships, one of which, the Acheines of 400 tons, was ransomed by the Nabob of Arcot for 120,000 francs.

…before finishing with a sentence that is both mysterious and unsatisfying…

No historian has as yet been able to trace the ultimate fate of Renaud.

The the Wikipedia page on Renaud asserts that (and:-
* “capitaine de vaisseau Renaud” was in Guyane in 1799 [BB4 139. CAMPAGNES. 1799. VOLUME 10]
* “capitaine Renaud”, captaining the Frigate Syrène in 1801 as per this quote from Guerin’s “Histoire maritime de France” (p.211) [note that “Cayenne” was the French colony in Guyana]:-

La corvette le Berceau remplaçait, dans la station de Cayenne, la frégate la Syrène, capitaine Renaud, qui, après un beau combat contre deux frégates anglaises, était allée déposer dans cette colonie le commissaire Victor Hugues, et elle avait en levé, le 10 juillet 1800, une bonne partie d’un convoi anglo-por tugais, amariné une corvette et mis en fuite un brig d’escorte, lorsque ayant conduit à bon port ses prises évaluées à plus de quatre millions, elle fut rencontrée par la frégate le Boston, de 32 canons, avec laquelle il lui fallut soutenir trois combats successifs à portée de pistolet.

I also found one further possible Renaud reference listed in the French Marine archives:
* “cdt. Renaud, enseigne de vaisseau” was commanding a ship called the Unité full of prisoners between Toulon and Mahon in 1801 [BB4 156. CAMPAGNES. 1801. VOLUME 6]

But no, I don’t believe that any of these references are to the same M. Renaud who sailed the Indian Ocean. For a start, I don’t believe that Renaud ever returned to France – the hero of the 1794 naval action would surely have merited some kind of official response, whether a pension or an honour. And for another, I simply don’t believe that he would have gone completely silent for 3-4 years at what was essentially the peak of his career.

No, the French marine archives of the period are sufficiently detailed and complete that any move by a well-thought-of figure would have been carefully noted (particularly by the enthusiastically bureaucratic Admiral de Sercey, whose letters fill the French Marine archives), but honestly, there’s nowt t’see there. OK, you may say that “absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence”: but here we do have plenty of evidence in the archives, all saying nothing about what Renaud was doing. To me, that’s arguably as close to “evidence of absence” as you’re likely to get.

I’d agree that a man about whose family, birth (place and date) and death (place and date) we currently know nothing is always going to be an easy lapel to pin a mystery medal on. But if I’ve got him figured out right, what’s the next step, hmmm?

Well… so far, I’ve played most of this from the French archival side: but now it’s time to (you’re way ahead of me) jump ship over to the British archives.

Hence my plan (such as it is) is to try to work out what large British frigates were anywhere near the Hindustan coast between 9th February 1796 (when Diu was attacked) and late March 1796 (when Captain Galloway of the American ship Restoration said “the Prudente, the Cybèle and a corvette returned to Port Louis … without any prizes.“). It’s a pretty tight window.

Really, the list of possible British ships who were in the exact place at the exact time must surely be quite short (no more than three or four?), so finding those out should be relatively straightforward. The carrot on the stick is that the papers of many British ships of this period are still accessible, along with contemporary Admiralty reports etc: so once those ship names are in hand, I believe it should be possible to go straight to the primary evidence and see what it tells us. There may be quite an unexpected story to be found there, you never know… 🙂

PS: there may possibly be more to see in BB4 86. CAMPAGNES. 1795. VOLUME 23 in the French Marine archives, as I’ve only seen the item summary: “Frégate la Prudente (croisière autour de Sumatra ; Saint-Denis-de-la-Réunion), cdt. Renaud, capitaine de vaisseau à titre temporaire. 2 frim. an IV” (i.e. cruising around Sumatra, 23rd November 1795). Even so, I suspect that’s where Renaud goes off the French radar and possibly onto the British radar… hopefully we shall see!

26 thoughts on “So, Le Butin probably got the pirate cipher from…

  1. bdid1dr on May 18, 2013 at 2:44 pm said:

    Nick, with this last report you refer to Reynaud in the French archives. Would your English material / naval records possibly make reference to “The Fox”??

  2. Diane on May 20, 2013 at 8:10 am said:

    Well, now I’ve done it!

  3. Mike Hurburgh on October 18, 2013 at 1:29 pm said:

    Nick, I’m also interested in the activities of the “Fox”, that is HMS Fox. I only have a brief summary at present. Thanks in anticipation.

  4. Mike: I have a fair few Fox photos from the National Archives, would be happy to share (say, via Dropbox). Will email you later…

  5. Callum on October 18, 2013 at 6:01 pm said:

    Sounds really interesting! Quite a mystery…

  6. vayid on March 12, 2016 at 6:44 pm said:

    le pirate a bel et bien exister et le cryptogram donne le site exact du trésor. l’histoire et reel mais chacun a apporter son lot d’interpretation au cour des siècles d’existence. comme on dit “chacun a mis son grain de sel” resultant a des divers source qui nous embrouille.
    Mais la substance du cryptogram et intact, mais la manière il a était fait restent équivoques, quoique non démontrée, doit être considérée comme vraie, car les conséquences qu’on peut en tirer sont conformes aux résultats que fournissent l’expérience et l’observation. Quoi qu’ils paraissent équivoques parce que c’était le but du cryptogramme de créer une situation ambiguïté à double sens soit suspect ou qui suscite de la méfiance
    Je mettrai

  7. vayid: it seems to me that it is only ever ciphers in literature that present the kind of romantic ambiguity you describe here.

    While it is possible that this cryptogram is a wonderful exception to this general rule, I don’t currently see a shred of evidence that supports such a suggestion. But perhaps you can see something extraordinary about the cryptogram that I have managed to miss… 🙂

  8. Surely you miss everything dear nick like we say “you beat around the bush” la buse was intelligent and has encoded his cryptogram not once but with several coding practice [4 in 1].YOu MUST take into consideration the Language spoken at that time a mixed of patois,french,english etc
    1 The description was in metaphore
    2 transposition of letter
    3 transcription into sign
    4 illustrations of drawing on the crypto [ A picture is worth thousand word ]
    Taking into consideration of all these you end up with a crypto of several page.
    YOU MIXED THEM ALL YOU GOT THE RIGHT PLACE TO DIG?

  9. vayid: ah, you are referring to the second version of the cryptogram. Given that one of its drawings appears to have been copied from Howard Pyle, and its extra lines of cryptogram adapted from Edgar Allan Poe, what makes you so certain that this is even genuine, let alone original?

  10. How can i believe you about what u say? you must not be sure yourself to say “one of its drawings appears to have been copied from Howard Pyle, and its extra lines of cryptogram adapted from Edgar Allan Poe,”. WHAT make me so certain is that if U interprete the crypto from 4 to 1 you will end up to a beautiful site
    1 ILLUSTRATION of picture
    2 Transcription to alphabetical
    3 use the appropriate word with transposition [good luck]
    4 DESCRIPTION IN METAPHORE OF THE SITE
    Give u a hint: the moon wiz 12 stars around it, match wiz line 18 ‘decode’

  11. vayid: using a decryption to validate that same decryption is a path that leads perilously close to madness, so be careful where you walk.

    Regardless of whether or not the first cryptogram is genuine (and that’s a different question entirely), there are extremely strong reasons to conclude that the second cryptogram is a fake – an elaboration built upon either the first cryptogram or a close predecessor of it. Which would make line #18 a fake as well.

  12. vayid on March 15, 2016 at 5:20 pm said:

    Nick all is fake for u. la Buse has reach his objective by putting you in doubtful situation whether or not to adopt a positive conclusion on his crypto “c’était le but du cryptogramme de créer une situation ambiguïté à double sens soit suspect ou qui suscite de la méfiance” u get caught by the doubt Nick. if you match the stars wiz line 18 you won’t believe your eyes.Give it a try.

  13. vayid: if you do not keep a healthy distance from cipher mysteries, you fool yourself much more comprehensively than any cipher maker ever achieved. The stars and line #18 may well match each other, but they’re both fake additions, and nothing to do with the first 17 lines.

  14. vayid on March 16, 2016 at 7:26 pm said:

    IF line 18 is fake according to you why does it refer to line 2 to confirm the site??. yr critics is that you don’t believe in it to give hints to indicate a site.

  15. vayid: your comment also refers to line 2 of the cryptogram, but that doesn’t make your comment hundreds of years old. So that part of your logic is back to front, sorry.

    My criticism of the second cryptogram is very specific and very direct: you can see for yourself that lines 18-22 are vastly more readable and understandable than anything in lines 1-17, so you should already have a broad suspicion that they were part of a different “layer”. And the fact that lines 18-22 reprise Poe’s cryptogram makes it very hard to see them as anything other than modern additions to an older cryptogram.

    Add that to the presence of a drawing of a trunk apparently copied from one of Howard Pyle’s pirate drawings, and you have a fairly solid case (if you’ll pardon the pun) that it’s not as old as Emmanuel Mezino would like it to be.

    The first cryptogram remains a genuine mystery (albeit one that looks to me as though it may well have been enciphered by someone who couldn’t actually read French): but in no way does that mean we should just accept the second cryptogram as genuine when there are very strong reasons to think otherwise.

  16. vayid on March 18, 2016 at 6:19 pm said:

    I agree that lines 18-22 is more readable, but it hide the truth of what he was met for u to understand. So no need to encipher more, as for line 1-17 it relate the story of the hidden booty n has been encipher in 4 in 1. The line 18 is like the image from a mirror which u think is a real one but in fact it not true.JUST divide the line 19 n 20 / 2 u got the answer of LINE 21 what la BUSE WANT U TO LOOK 4

  17. vayid on March 24, 2016 at 5:37 pm said:

    hope u find it ????

  18. vayid on March 28, 2016 at 4:58 pm said:

    what happen nick u r not replying ?

  19. Vayid: I think lines 18-22 are roughly a hundred times clearer than lines 1-17, and that this poses a very large challenge to anyone – such as you – who needs them to have been written at the same time for their cipher theory to make sense. Making lines 18-22 less clear as a response to this challenge doesn’t make sense to me, sorry.

  20. vayid on March 29, 2016 at 9:22 am said:

    It want be a challenge anymore if u dare to look for the result of my LAST post.
    no need to be sorry, make yr mind clear.
    thank for yr reply

  21. vayid: you wrote “The line 18 is like the image from a mirror which u think is a real one but in fact it not true.JUST divide the line 19 n 20 / 2 u got the answer of LINE 21 what la BUSE WANT U TO LOOK 4.”

    [18] un bon verre dans l’hostel de l’eveque dant(S)
    [19] le siege du diable r(Q)uarar(N)te siz(X) degrès
    [20] f(S)iz(X) minutes deuz(X) fois
    [21] pour celui qui le decouvrira
    [22] juillet mil sept cent (T)rente

    Line [18] and the first part of line [19] are painfully close to identical to “A good glass in the bishop’s hostel in the devil’s seat” from Poe’s “Gold Bug”, so I struggle to see what kind of mirroring you think is going on there. And the “46 degrees 6 minutes twice over” used in place of Poe’s “twenty-one degrees and thirteen minutes northeast and by north” almost certainly refers to Reunion: BUT that doesn’t necessarily make it in any way original.

    Sorry once more, but I don’t believe that La Buse could possibly have had anything to do with lines 18-22 (and I strongly doubt he had anything to do with lines 1-17, but that’s a separate argument entirely).

  22. vayid: sorry, I meant to correct my previous post – it is Madasgascar that is a better match to “46 degrees 6 minutes”, not Reunion… but unfortunately Mayotte (which is volcanic) is only 45 degrees east of Greenwich, and Comoros (also volcanic) only 43 degrees east of Greenwich.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_volcanoes_in_Madagascar

  23. vayid on March 30, 2016 at 5:47 pm said:

    [18] un bon verre dans l’hostel de l’eve que dant(S) – metaphore
    (18) un bon verre (o-o) dans l’hostel(logis) dant(s) la que(ue) l’e(o) ve
    I told u to look for the result of 46.6(10)/2 that is 23.5. You look for 46.10 instead of 23.5
    I would say that u r strongly wrong not 2 believe in these lines nick.
    solve the line 18

  24. vayid: that’s your reading (it’s certainly not mine) and good luck with it… but then again, I’m an historian rather than a treasure hunter, so what do I know? 😉

  25. vayid on March 31, 2016 at 5:11 pm said:

    Historian sure,Do check yr notes, on the basis of what u say that it fake n who copy who, la buse or poe’s In my opinion u don’t want to accept that the cyrpto do indicate a site wiz great precision. Do accept the critics to help for solving the enigme?
    that would be great. Solve the 23.5 u will find it. Historian search for truth, A Tips for u, illustration on the crypto ha ha

  26. VAYID on July 8, 2016 at 11:03 am said:

    Hi Nick
    Let me clear your doubt and even Emmanuel miss the right constellation just watch https://youtu.be/MeJIO4xuK9Y
    Awaiting yr comments

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