The outline of the story that follows appeared in Edward R. Snow’s volume The Fury of the Seas, which was published in 1964. Snow relates that he first became aware of its details in 1934. His book is now long out of print, so it will be a pleasure for us to retell it here.
In November 1816, the British ship Harpooner was sailing to Quebec from London, carrying about 385 passengers. Most of them were family members of soldiers of the British Army’s Fourth Veteran Brigade. But the ship was doomed. On November 8, a terrible storm engulfed the Harpooner, causing her to be wrecked near the Newfoundland cliffs of Saint Shotts. Some of the passengers managed to escape, but most did not; of the original 385, only 177 survived. It was a terrible tragedy. But from the wreckage emerged a compelling narrative of buried treasure hidden in the mountains of Spanish South America.
Several days after the wreck, a local resident named George Stratford noticed, while walking along the beach, a small wooden chest nearly buried in the sand. He brought it home and opened it; inside were some common nautical odds and ends, a few garments, a quadrant, maps, a Bible, and several very old pieces of vellum inscribed with texts in Spanish. On one of the pieces was written this ominous warning:
Ustedes que han llegado a éste sitio, retirense. Este lugar está dedicado a Dios Todopoderoso, y aquél quién se atréva a entrar encontrará una muerte dolórosa y la condena eterna en la otra vida. Las riquezas que pertenecen a Dios Nuestro Señor, no son para los humanos. Retirense y viviran en paz y las bendiciones del Señor harán sua vida dulce y morirán rodeados de las cosas buenas de este mundo. Obedezcan a dios Nuestro Señnor Todopoderoso en las vida y en la muerte.
En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, del Espiritu Santa. Amen.
This may be translated as follows:
You who have reached this site, withdraw. This place is dedicated to Almighty God, and whoever dares to enter will meet a painful death and eternal damnation in the afterlife. The riches that belong to God Our Lord are not for humans. Withdraw, and you will live in peace, and the blessings of the Lord will make your life sweet, and you will die surrounded by the good things of this world. Obey God, Our Lord Almighty, in life and in death.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
But this was not all. There was a second message written on another piece of antique vellum. Its text read:
Mas de 60,000,000 reales, están enterrados en una mina por los Jesuitas, a dos millas del rio Sacambaja situado al noreste de La Paz en Sud America. El mensaje tomado del tope de la mina está con está communicación.
These words mean:
More than 60,000,000 reais are buried in a mine by the Jesuits, two miles from the Sacambaja River located northeast of La Paz in South America. The message taken from the top of the mine is with this communication.
Stratford was fascinated by the ancient inscriptions, but he never mustered the will to act upon his curiosity. The years rolled by; before he died, he passed on the contents of the chest to his daughter Vivian. She also made no effort to look into the possibility that these messages might mean something. When she died, the documents found their way into the hands of a cousin. Eventually a descendant showed them to a man named Cecil Prodgers, who was known to be experienced in evaluating nautical antiques and historical curiosities. A representative of Prodgers purchased them.
Prodgers decided to travel to Bolivia to investigate further. He interviewed Doña Corina San Román, the daughter of General Miguel de San Román, who was president of Peru from 1862 to 1863. Prodgers had heard that Doña Corina was in possession of some antique documents, dating back to the days of the Spanish Empire, that might possibly be connected to the ones he had purchased from the descendants of George Stratford in Newfoundland. She showed Prodgers a long manuscript that tantalizingly read, in part, as follows:
Si usted encuentra una escarpada colina totalmente cubierta por un espeso bosque cuya cima es plana donde crecen altas hierbas, y desde dónde usted pue de ver el rio Sacambaja por tres lados, usted descubrirá en la misma cima y en medio de la alta hierba, una gran piedra con la forma de un huevo, tan grande que fueron necesarios 500 indios para colocarla allí. Si usted cava cinco yardas debajo de esta piedra, encontrará elel techo de una cueva profunda la cual tomó a 500 hombres 2 años y medio cavarla…
Si usted sigue por el pasaje encontrará, en el primer salón, treinta y siete enormes montones de oro y muchos oranmentos deo oro y plata y piedras preciosas. Al entrar en el segundo salón encontrará, en la esquina de la derecha, una caja grande cerradea con tres barras de hierro; dentro de esta caja hay 90,000 piezas de ocho en monedas de plata y treinta y siete grandes montones de oro. Distribuidos en las cavidades a cada lado del tunel y en los dos salones, hay en conjunto ciento sesenta y tres montones de oro cuyo valor ha sido estimado en 60,000,000 reales.
Hay que tomar grandes precauciones al entrar en estos salones, pues en ellos ha sido dejado suficiente veneno como para matar a unregimiento. Las paredes de los salones han sido reforzadas con grandes bloques de granito…
In English this reads:
If you find a steep hill totally covered by a thick forest whose top is flat where tall grass grows, and from where you can see the Sacambaja River on three sides, you will discover on the very top and in the middle of the tall grass, a large stone in the shape of an egg, so large that it took 500 Indians to place it there. If you dig five yards under this rock, you will find the ceiling of a deep cave which took 500 men 2 and a half years to dig…
If you continue along the passage you will find, in the first hall, thirty-seven huge heaps of gold and many gold and silver ornaments and precious stones. As you enter the second room you will find, in the right corner, a large box locked with three iron bars; inside this box are 90,000 pieces of eight in silver coins and thirty-seven large piles of gold. Distributed in the cavities on each side of the tunnel and in the two rooms, there are a total of one hundred and sixty-three piles of gold whose value has been estimated at 60,000,000 reais.
Great care must be taken when entering these halls, for enough poison has been left in them to kill a regiment. The walls of the halls have been reinforced with large blocks of granite…
What could it all mean? Was this an actual treasure map, or the idle outpouring of a mischievous Jesuit from three centuries ago? The document also mentioned a monastery and a church; these buildings, Doña Corina told Prodgers, could be identified. The monastery had been built by the Jesuits in 1635, but was abandoned a century later. Doña Corina told the incredulous Prodgers that the treasure described in the document was the product of the El Carmen and Tres Titilias gold mines. Eleven years of labor had been needed to produce the quantity of gold that had been buried. The treasure hoard also included gold and precious stones mined near Santa Cruz by nearly two thousand Indians under the direction of about ten priests. The labor of nearly five hundred Indians had been needed, said Doña Corina, to bury the treasure.
But there was more. Doña Corina said that her father, the former Peruvian president, believed that the only living man who knew the location of the treasure was an old Indian named José Maria Ampuera. He was paid a stipend to watch over the area where the treasure was buried, and to report to the authorities any explorers or treasure-seekers who might be searching for the hoard. General San Román scrupulously guarded all information related to the treasure during his lifetime. When he died, the relevant document came into the possession of his daughter. Prodgers and Doña Corina made efforts to organize an expedition to hunt for the treasure.
Failure followed failure. An expedition mounted by Bolivian president Mariano Melgarejo was unsuccessful, as was an unrelated effort that set out from Valparaiso in 1894. In March 1905, Prodgers mounted his own expedition. He left La Paz and headed to Cochabamba; his goal was to find the old Indian, José Maria Ampuera. Ampuera, if he was still alive, would have been the only person with knowledge of the treasure mountain’s precise location. But Ampuera turned out to be harder to find than expected. He would also have been nearly one hundred years old, if he in fact still lived. Eventually one of Prodgers’s companions, one Macedonia Zambrana, located the ancient Indian.
Ampuera still retained an excellent memory. He showed Prodgers and Zambrana a place where, around 1862, he had found a bell made of gold that weighed forty pounds. He and his sons sold it, but then misfortune arrived at his doorstep. “We sold [the bell], and bought land and cattle. Later some rocks fell and killed one boy. I and my remaining son took this as a bad omen and we never tried to find any more [treasure].” Eventually Ampuera showed the treasure-seekers where he believed the golden hoard was located. Excavations then began. Prodgers related these details in his book Adventures in Bolivia:
On the third day I started uncovering the top of the hill, working downwards in a V shape from where I had left off. Exactly fifteen feet down I came to a solid mason work, one big square stone; and then a slab of slate stone; this formation went on for twelve feet down. Then I came upon a stone cobble path, which I concluded was the bottom of the cave, but there was no sign of any door, so I decided to drill a hole between two blocks of stones…We drilled a hole for three feet and a half, and then pushed a thin bamboo twelve feet long through. It appeared to touch nothing except in one corner where it seemed to prod something soft.
Suddently a very powerful smell began, so strong that it made us all feel bad; it smelt like oxide of metal of some sort. Mendizabal and his son both went home feeling bad, but he got over it in two days; his son felt unwell for a week, but I got over it in a few hours. Three of my men left feeling bad and never returned.
These events took place on June 3rd, 1906. Prodgers also notes that he was worried, mindful that Doña Corina’s document had said there was “enough poison inside [the underground chamber] to kill a regiment.” But nothing ever came of Prodgers’s searches. He hunted fruitlessly for months. He was poisoned during his underground explorations, just as the ancient documents had warned of. When Prodgers returned to the site for one last effort in April 1907, he learned that old Ampuera had recently died. He never went back. In 1912, one Colonel Trollope of Lord’s Castle, Barbados, organized an expedition to look for the treasure, but he died suddenly before leaving. Four years after Prodgers’s death in 1923, another expedition was raised to comb the region. It found nothing.
Was the Jesuit hoard a fantastic myth? Or is there a colossal treasure still hidden in Bolivia’s mountains? And if so, is the hoard protected by a curse on all who seek to claim it? These questions must be left for the reader to decide. But it is an amazing story.
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