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? 🙂