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? 🙂

5 thoughts on “On ciphers, history, and documentaries…

  1. Nick,
    I really like your charming description of the ideal historian, moving baby-steps and testing the stone-work and light at every step. But the plain truth is that when theory-weeds and distractions have choked that path, a bit of machete work is needed to clear the ground. And that’s exactly what you’ve already done in previous posts: identify and remove the rubbish before you can see how solid the ground is beneath.

    But what I can’t help wondering – given the obsessive interest in this subject by persons past and present in Mauritius, is what is to prevent their using the same instruments and performing the same experiments, especially those who rather like the idea of posturing in front of someone else’s tv or film cameras.

    Might it not be an idea to enlist a couple of locals (even including local media) to ensure that the whole idea isn’t simply gazumphed?

  2. nickpelling on August 19, 2016 at 8:08 am said:

    Diane: conversely, I like your charming description of an intrepid historian machete-ing his or her way through the “theory-weeds and distractions [that] have choked that path.” But to get to the point where you know that what you are holding is genuinely an historical machete and not a highly decorated (but blunt) pencil is something that takes a great deal of doing.

    Doesn’t happen often, to be honest. I do get to see a lot of beautiful blunt pencils, though. =:-o

  3. nickpelling on August 19, 2016 at 9:00 am said:

    Diane: as far as being “gazump[h]ed” by Mauritians goes, I’m not worried at all. The chances that anyone (including me) will find pirate treasure are so staggeringly small that it’s not worth losing sleep over. I just want to push the limits of what we know, and have a little fun in the process: that’s not too much to hope for, is it? 🙂

  4. Nick, of course not too much to hope for. And let’s hope the general belief that there’s nothing to find will work for you.

  5. Nick:
    “while I couldn’t genuinely make a breathless treasure-hunting documentary, that’s probably what many people would expect”.
    Sadly, the garbage reality format with its phoney leads, misleading editing, frankenbiting, and scripted “discoveries” has become the norm these days: I’d say expectations are actually quite low.
    If that Curse of Oak Island mess can be dragged out for three seasons (with an upcoming fourth) in spite of its participants not having found anything or disproven anything definitively, I’m pretty sure there must be a way to get your documentary done.
    It would actually be refreshing to watch a treasure hunt that isn’t 90% editing-room generated tease.

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