When, as so often happens, a cipher mystery’s genuine history gets overlaid by multiple layers of wishful thinking, unpicking them all can prove extremely difficult. In many cases, those extra layers can end up offering at least as much of a barrier to research as the original artefact itself.

This is, essentially, where things stand with the historical mystery surrounding Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang. Originally referred to in the newspapers of the 1920s as the “Chevalier de Nageon” or Chevalier Nageon, he has now become better known as “Le Butin”, i.e. ‘The Booty’ (a cipher for raw greed if ever there was such a thing).

The three letters famously linked to him would seem in principle to place the man at the scene of all manner of Indian Ocean corsair / privateer / pirate / sea-action / derring-do circa 1790-1810: but in close to a century of searching, nobody has yet turned up a scrap of practical evidence that he ever existed.

What on earth is going on?

Dating BN1 – The Will

The first document is, without much doubt, a Will. It leaves possessions to “my nephew the reserve officer Jean Marius [Jean-Marie Justin] Nageon de l’Estang […] My writings are deliberately difficult to read as a precaution; I would tell Justin if I were to retrieve them first.”

According to sources on Ancestry.com, Jean-Marie Justin Nageon de l’Estang was born on the 8th August 1770 in Mauritius, and died on the 9th May 1798. So it would seem that we should be able to date this to before 1798: and if we could find out when this Jean-Marie Justin became a reserve officer, we might also be able to squeeze out an earliest date for this Will. But that’s about as far as we can go with it.

Dating BN2 – Letter to Justin

This letter begins “Dear Justin” (so was almost certainly to the same Jean-Marie Justin Nageon de l’Estang mentioned in BN1), and has a French Republican date at the top: “20 floréal an VIII”, i.e. 10th May 1800. However, given that Jean-Marie Justin Nageon de l’Estang died in 1798, this immediately seems problematic.

Emmanuel Mezino skirts this issue by asserting that the date must therefore have actually been “20 floréal an III” (i.e. 10th May 1795) and was mistranscribed. It is also possible that at the time of writing, the writer didn’t yet know that his nephew Justin was dead… it’s hard to be sure either way, given that nobody seems to have actually seen these documents in decades.

BN2 says that “a true friend will give you my will and my papers”, so we can also probably use this to date BN2 to after BN1.

Dating BN3 – Letter to Etienne

The third letter brings with it an abrupt change of tone: the writer is now concerned less about concealed booty than about what retrieving that booty can do for (French) patriotism in the hands of a (French) Freemason. The writer’s meagre possessions are also in the care of a Captain Hamon (Jamon?), which seems to run counter to BN1.

The writer of the third letter also notes that “I’ve been sick since the fall of Tamatave”: this marked the Invasion of île de France, where the French finally surrendered on 3rd December 1810. So this letter BN3 would seem to have been written in early 1811 or so.

The writer also mentions his “adventurous life before embarking on the Apollon” – the Apollo was built in 1796, sailed out of Boston, was then captured at Brest, was captained by Jean Francois Hodoul in 1797, but was then captured by HMS Leopard in 1798 (I’ve gone through the prize papers). The misadventure alluded to would therefore seem to be the capture of the Apollon in 1798. But there was no Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang in its final crew list.

All in all, BN3 doesn’t sound to me as though it came from the same person who wrote BN1 and BN2.

The Missing Pirate

Sifting through all this evidence, I find myself being led towards a new conclusion: that if Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang was indeed the author of BN1 and BN2, it now seems very probable to me that someone else entirely wrote BN3. That is, it seems more likely to me that BN1 and BN2 were the documents owned by the “captain […] on his deathbed”, and passed to the writer of BN3 (who wasn’t Bernardin but someone else entirely). Which is not at all to say that Nageon de l’Estang was the captain, but merely that the dying captain owned BN1 and BN2.

In which case, it would seem that we have perhaps identified a missing pirate: and so should be looking not for Bernardin Nageon de l’Estang, but for someone
* who was on the Apollo’s ill-fated last sea mission before being captured (there is a crew list still in existence);
* whose “glorious feat of arms” had been rewarded by the First Consul (Napoleon Bonaparte);
* who had a “beloved brother” called Etienne;
* and who was still alive at the Fall of Tamatave in 1810.
It’s not an insurmountable task, I think: and now that we can state it in such bald research terms, perhaps answering it will prove to be possible…

However, as far as BN1 and BN2 goes, there is one additional problem I really need to mention…

The Indus Problem

BN1 mentions “un demi-terrain rivière La Chaux au Grand-Port, île de France, et les trésors sauvés de l’Indus, savoir“. Reading this the other day, I wondered to myself where the by-now well-worn phrase “Trésors [sauvés] de l’Indus” originally came from, just in case it was a phrase ‘out of time’ in the same way that “stampeding” seems to be a phrase out of time in the Beale Papers.

According to Google Books, “Trésors de l’Indus” was from a couplet in the first part of the well-known 1804/1805/1806 poem “La Navigation” by Joseph Esménard:-

Et du golfe arabique échangeant les trésors
De l’Indus étonné reconnaissaient les bords

So: if the use of this phrase was inspired by La Navigation, it would mean that BN1 dates to after 1805 or so. Which would consequently make both BN1 and BN2 (which refers to BN1) fakes.

Ultimately, then, the evidence seems to lead us to suspect that BN1 and BN2 could well be post-1805 fakes, while BN3 may be a genuine letter by an as-yet-unidentified seaman, who had genuinely received BN1 and BN2 from a captain on his deathbed, who (in turn) had genuinely believed them to be real (even though they weren’t).

Thus is the twisted yarn of cipher mysteries oft arrayed.

PS: Revue des Deux Mondes

Incidentally, when I searched Google Books for the phrase “trésors sauvés de l’Indus”, it appeared in an article in one of the 1935 issues of the long-running French high-culture literary review journal “Revue des Deux Mondes” (Google lists it as being on “page 343”, though this seems to be of a collection of all 24 (?) issues published in 1935).

However, Gallica’s scans of Revue des Deux Mondes only currently go up to 1930: so I’d be extremely grateful if anyone can get access to what this says at some point, rather than the version of the letters given in a 1962 book by Robert Charroux (i.e. the ones on the Cipher Foundation page), just in case Charroux happened to have misquoted them, which is always possible with treasure hunters, sadly.

One thought on “Le Butin and the Missing Pirate…

  1. bdid1dr on April 15, 2016 at 12:46 am said:

    Nick, you may be able to locate a couple of late Victorian period (1800’s) Leather- bound-together magazines written for women: “Godey’s Lady’s Magazine”, and “Graham’s Magazine”.
    I vaguely recall that Graham’s would have many pages of discussion of the local Native American Tribes and beautiful illustrations of each tribe. The unpublished stories would be about inter-tribal wars and the scalping and torture of captives.

    Men’s clubs had their own magazines and books (which were ‘not suitable’ for ladies).
    So, you might find some writing/discussion of piracy and/or other nautical books in your local library and/or historical society. Who knows – even Yale’s Boenicke Library might have some interesting pirate-related material. (?)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Post navigation