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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 20, 2003

'Pirates' movie increases interest in treasure hunting

• Ocean has yet to surrender jewels

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

"It's all about following leads, finding a real basis in history for something that was just passed along from person to person. All it takes is time."

Stanley Santiago, treasure hunter

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

What Stanley Santiago knows — or hopes he knows — is this: In 1821, as revolution brewed, the Spanish viceroy in Callao, Peru, arranged to have gold, silver and other valuables loaded on a series of ships bound for other Spanish territories.

One such ship, the Peruvian, was to deliver its bounty to Guam, but it headed instead for Hawai'i on the orders of an officer named Robinson.

This, Santiago knows, is the beginning of a great story.

With the recent box-office success of "Pirates of the Caribbean," interest in shipwrecks and lost treasure is on the upswing. Traffic on the various treasure-hunting Web sites is up, and local dive-tour operators say they're receiving more inquiries about shipwreck locations.

Santiago and other longtime treasure hunters in Hawai'i believe the Peruvian eventually dropped anchor somewhere off Ka'ena Point.

Through a series of intrigues, Robinson, another officer named Brown and three crewmen somehow trapped the rest of the crew in the ship, unloaded six chests of gold coins onto a longboat, and sank the Peruvian with the men still inside. The ship's quartermaster, a man named Monks, accompanied the men but apparently was unaware of their plans.

Once on land, Monks was told to stand by the getaway boat while Robinson, Brown and the three crewmen made two trips inland to hide the chests. Monks would later say he heard gunshots shortly after the group left on the second trip; Robinson and Brown returned later without the crewmen.

A month later, Robinson and Brown left by ship for Australia, intending, perhaps, to retrieve their stolen gold at a later date. Monks was found a few days later, stabbed and beaten but alive. He refused to say who attacked him.

For whatever reason, Robinson and Brown never made it back to Hawai'i, and Monks, afraid for his life, never looked for treasure himself, Santiago says.

Monks died in 1928, spending the last year of his life in the care of an elderly Hawaiian couple. In return for their kindness, Monks supposedly told the couple what he knew of the hidden treasure.

And here is where Santiago's eyes go wide.

"But nobody knows the name of that old couple!" Santiago says. "That's the missing link in solving the mystery!"

Enticingly impossible

Santiago, a retired firearms instructor, has been researching the legendary case for years, diligently poring through historic archives, visiting sites and interviewing anyone who might provide some tiny, invaluable kernel of information.

Like many stories of lost treasure, the tale of the Peruvian is a muddle of spurious facts, dubious connections and hopeful extrapolation.

Its mysteries are all but unsolvable, and that's precisely what makes it so irresistible for people like Santiago.

"It's all about following leads, finding a real basis in history for something that was just passed along from person to person," he says. "All it takes is time, and I've got a lot of time."

To Santiago, the process of hunting down the truth about legendary treasure tales is its own reward. And that's a good thing, particularly in Hawai'i, where the average treasure hunt is more likely to yield oxidized pennies than gold doubloons, and where shipwrecks,

although plentiful, have much more to offer in historical insight than in financial windfalls.

Santiago does all his treasure hunting inland — a conscious decision informed by a close encounter with a shark at Kaiser's on October 18, 1972.

He will dive into ponds and streams, however, as long as the leptospirosis threat is low.

On a hot July day, Santiago is perched on a rock high above a popular swimming hole in Nu'uanu, watching where the tourists gather and noting just how the current flows.

When he isn't nose-deep in documents in the state archives, Santiago often explores the streams and wooded areas of the neighborhood where he grew up. He knows where the old carriage trails lead, where the remains of historic homes are, and where — if one were so inclined — one might have a good chance of finding a lost watch or jade ring or gold necklace.

"Gold won't go anywhere," he says, gesturing to a spot in the pond below. "Rocks and other stuff will wash away, but gold will find a spot and stay, no matter how small."

Over the years, Santiago has happened upon all sorts of unexpected things in all sorts of unlikely places.

He found a tiny gold bar at the Hilton Hawaiian Village lagoon. He found human remains in a cave in Palolo Valley and drugs in the middle of a desert. He's explored ghost towns in Nevada, and he's found 80-year-old coins sifting through discarded dirt at Kawaiaha'o Church.

Still, the treasure of the Peruvian — so fraught with history and mystery — is constantly in his thoughts. And he knows he might never learn its true disposition.

"Maybe the old Hawaiian couple found it themselves," he says. "Or maybe someone else came across it. I know if I found it, I wouldn't tell anyone."

Scholarly search

Hans Van Tilburg, one of a handful of maritime archaeologists working in Hawai'i, has a keen interest in locating and identifying the various shipwrecks that rest in Hawaiian waters. But his intentions are strictly academic, not mercenary.

Van Tilburg has extensive experience locating, recording and, most importantly, preserving Hawai'i's underwater archeological treasures.

Such efforts have become more difficult with the dissolution of the University of Hawai'i's Maritime Archaeology and History Program, a 2002 budget casualty. But Van Tilburg and his colleagues continue to work through marine sanctuary and other programs.

According to him, the bulk of Hawai'i's wrecks are commercial or military craft, some dating back to the historic whaling and sandalwood trades. Because of Hawai'i's relatively late contact with Europe and the Americas, island waters are not believed to hold vessels typically associated with piracy and treasure.

"The heyday of piracy spans the late 1600s to the mid-1700s, and (Capt. James) Cook didn't arrive here until the late 1700s," Van Tilburg said.

Most of Hawai'i's earliest known wrecks are located in waters around traditional harbors and trading ports, which were often near where cargo was produced and gathered. Ships sometimes ran aground in narrow channels or reef areas.

While local shipwrecks aren't of interest to serious treasure hunters, Van Tilburg says, looting can be a problem. Local laws prohibit the taking of archaeological artifacts, but that doesn't stop some people from taking a souvenir when they come across a wreck. (The result can be permanent loss of the artifact to deterioration in air if it is not properly cleaned, a complicated process best left to expert hands.)

"There is a romantic notion about what we do," Van Tilburg says. "But a lot of what we do is slow and time-consuming. It's not all going out in the field."

The rewards remain substantial in Van Tilburg's eyes.

"The treasure is the history of our maritime past," he says.

Lifelong passion

Sometimes the impulses that drive the treasure hunter and archaeologist are closely related.

Richard Rogers, author of "Shipwrecks of Hawai'i," has been exploring and tracking Hawai'i shipwrecks for 27 years. A former Army salvage diver and now a Hawaiian Airlines captain, Rogers has devoted himself to cataloging wrecks and, where possible, linking their stories to island history.

His self-published book is a journal of his efforts to locate and record some 50 wrecks around the Big Island. He has another book, "Shipwrecks of Maui County," nearly completed.

Rogers estimates there are roughly 400 sunken vessels around the state. Many are near O'ahu because of the island's dense boat traffic. The highest density of wrecks is off the north shore of Lana'i, which has been used as a dumping ground.

Like Van Tilburg, Rogers has used his underwater expertise to further archaeological preservation efforts. (He participated in the extensive Smithsonian research project on the wreck of Kamehameha II's yacht Cleopatra's Barge in Hanalei Bay). Like Santiago, he has a strong interest in making personal contact with history and reeling in hard truth from obscure legend and hearsay.

He also has his own elusive quest to pursue. He says there is good reason to believe that one, possibly two Spanish galleons are resting in Hawaiian waters, a theory hinted at by Hawaiian legend and loosely supported by historical record.

"What first got me were the Hawaiian legends," Rogers said.

"If you listen to them enough, you hear strands about foreigners. When Cook came, he was seen as a returning foreigner, which would mean that there were people who came through before. There are lots of references to foreigners and two very specific references to shipwrecks."

Rogers, who studied Hawaiian, has sought help from Hawaiian history experts, read texts by 19th-century historians David Malo and Samuel Kamakau, examined maritime history resources, and followed the latest research into the movement of Spanish ships along the U.S. West Coast.

"It was easy to find records of the ships," he says. "If a ship went down, it could destroy the economy for two or three cities for years. It was a big deal. So there are records."

If Rogers is correct, two of 10 missing Spanish ships could have run aground in Hawai'i: the San Juanillo in 1578. near Maui, and the Santo Cristo DeBurgos in 1693. off Kona.

Because of Hawai'i's dynamic ocean conditions, Rogers says, he might never be able to prove the ships sank here. ("The ocean munches things up all the time," he says.) But he hopes his research will be useful to other scholars.

"A lot of dates in Hawaiian history are just guesses, and I think they're skewed back way too far," he says. "My contribution is that

I have stories that are ID'ed to certain chiefs. If I can pin down the dates of certain wrecks and connect them to a chief, I can establish a sort of benchmark that can help tidy up the datelines."

• • •

Ocean has yet to surrender jewels

Martha P. Hernandez • The Honolulu Advertiser
There are an estimated 400 shipwrecks in the waters off Hawai'i's inhabited islands. There also are dozens of tales of treasures lost on land and in the ocean. Here are four mysteries yet to be solved.

The SPEC (1846)

After delivering an illegal shipment of Chinese opium to a contact in Honolulu, this schooner hit bad weather in the Kaulakahi Channel and sank, taking with it as much as $100,000 in gold.

The Peruvian (circa 1923)

Bound for Guam with a shipment of gold, it supposedly changed course for Hawai'i, where a group of sailors looted the stash, sank the ship and killed the rest of the crew.

Lost Tokens (1883)

In an attempt to buy refuge in the islands, three AWOL Japanese sailors robbed a merchants' courier, only to find out their hijacked loot was nothing more than plantation tokens. The sailors were murdered soon after, but their loot, now worth as much as $350,000, is believed still hidden.

Santo Cristo de Burgos (1693)

Some experts believe this Spanish galleon may have sunk off Kona.

Lost but not forgotten

Hawai'i has its share of lost-treasure legends, all enticing and all fairly questionable. A couple of them have been repeated in various forms for years.

In 1883, a trio of Japanese merchant sailors jumped ship on Maui. They made contact with local criminals who agreed to arrange for refuge in exchange for money. The sailors then robbed a boy who worked as a runner for downtown merchants. They took their hijacked loot to a hiding place near "an active volcano area with steam vents." Their deal with the criminals went sour when it was discovered that their loot was nothing more than Haiku Plantation tokens, worth only a few dollars. Two of the sailors were murdered; the third died shortly after confessing their crime and providing authorities with a map to the stolen tokens. The tokens, supposedly worth as much as $350,000 today, remain missing.

Source: Anthony Belli, The Treasure Hunter's Newsletter

In 1846, the schooner SPEC rendezvoused at Honolulu Harbor with a ship bound for San Francisco, exchanging a supply of Chinese opium for a payment of gold coins. The next morning, the SPEC was caught in a storm and broke up somewhere in the Kaulakahi Channel between Kaua'i and Ni'ihau. Two men survived, but the gold (valued at $100,000) is believed to have sunk with the boat.

Source: Paul Michael Henson, Lost Treasure Magazine