French Pirate Olivier Levasseur Left Behind a Curious Cryptogram – Does it Lead to his Long-Lost Treasure?
Olivier Levasseur (known also by his nicknames ‘La Buse’, meaning ‘the Buzzard’, or ‘La Bouche’, meaning ‘the Mouth’) was a French pirate who was active during the 1st half of the 18th century. Whilst Levasseur was a notorious and much-feared pirate during his days, his greatest legacy is the alleged treasure that he had hidden. Before his execution, Levasseur supposedly revealed the whereabouts of his buried loot through a cryptogram. Whilst attempts have been made over the years to decipher the coded message, and to track down Levasseur’s treasure, none of these have actually succeeded.
From Privateering to Piracy
Olivier Levasseur was born in Calais during the closing years of the 17th century (between 1688 and 1690). Hailing form a wealthy bourgeois family, Levasseur attended the best schools and became a naval officer. He received a letter of marque from the French King, Louis XIV, during the War of the Spanish Succession, and became a privateer in the service of the French Crown. It has been claimed that during this time Levasseur received a scar across one eye, causing him to wear an eye patch over it. Needless to say, this peculiarity of Levasseur’s has become one of the most iconic features in today’s popular imagery of pirates.
Depiction of a pirate with an eye patch. (Brave Heart/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 )
At the end of the war, Levasseur had no intention of giving up his activities, and therefore turned from privateering to piracy. Levasseur began his new career as part of the Flying Gang, a group of pirates who were based in Nassau, on the island of New Providence, in the Bahamas. In early 1716, Levasseur was the captain of a pirate sloop called Postillion, and seems to have collaborated with the pirates Samuel Bellamy and Benjamin Hornigold. Levasseur eventually parted ways with Bellamy and Hornigold and conducted raids on his own.
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Jolly Roger flag of pirate Olivier Levasseur (La Buse), described as a "white ensign with a figure of a dead man spread in it". (TheLastBrunnenG/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Levasseur’s Pirating Peers
In 1718, Levasseur narrowly avoided capture by Captain Francis Hume of the HMS Scarborough off the coast of La Blanquilla in the Eastern Caribbean. Nevertheless, the pirate lost his ship, and with only sixty of his crew left, escaped on a small sloop. Levasseur and his men found themselves off the coast of West Africa and decided to carry out their piratical activities there instead. Numerous ships were captured, and Levasseur was voted to be captain of a ship again in 1719.
During the period when Levasseur was operating off the coast of West Africa, he was working together with such pirates as Howell Davis, Thomas Cocklyn, John Taylor, and Edward England. It was in 1721 that Levasseur and Taylor captured the Nossa Senhora della Cabo, a Portuguese treasure ship that had been sitting on a sandbar as a result of damages sustained during a storm. The ship was carrying the treasure of both the Bishop of Goa and the Viceroy of Portuguese Indi, and was one of the greatest hauls in the history of piracy.
Example of British sailors fighting pirates. ( Public Domain )
Treasure Hunting with a Cryptogram
Several years later, Levasseur settled down in Seychelles, an island off East Africa, in the Indian Ocean. In 1730, Levasseur was captured and sent to Saint-Denis, on the island of Réunion, where he was hung for piracy. According to legend, as Levasseur was standing on the scaffold with the noose round his neck, he managed to throw a cryptogram into the crowd, telling them that his treasure would belong to the person who manages to decipher his secret message.
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Grave of Oliver Levasseur, "La Buse" Pirate in Saint-Paul, Reunion. (Tonton Bernardo/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
To date, Levasseur’s treasure has yet to be found. In spite of the numerous failed attempts to locate the treasure, there are those who have dedicated their lives to finding it and are not ready to give up just yet. However, there are some problems with the cryptogram itself.
For a start, there are actually two cryptograms in existence today. One of them has been established to be a fake. The other, which is a 17-line cipher, became known due to its publication in a 1934 book entitled “Le Flibustier Mysterieux”, by Charles Bourrel de la Roncière, a French marine historian. It is unclear, however, if this was indeed the cryptogram that Levasseur had thrown into the crowd watching his execution, as the deciphered text seems to have little to do with either Levasseur or his treasure.