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Killorain's Treasure Island

Killorain's Treasure Island

By mudswimmer

When I left school in 1957, I worked aboard a tramp
ship in the South Pacific. One morning, as we passed
a group of low-lying palm fringed atolls about a day
from Tahiti, the Captain pointed towards them and
said, ‘There’s supposed to be a hoard of pirate’s
treasure buried on one of those islands but no one has
ever found it.” I was intrigued by the thought of
buried treasure just lying there waiting for someone to
dig it up and, as the atolls gradually disappeared over
the horizon, made up my mind to return one day and
find it. But life unfolds in unexpected ways and I
never returned. I did, however, research the story
extensively and wrote about it for a magazine
around nine years ago. Last year, I received a letter
from an Australian explorer who had read my
account and had visited the atolls with his family in
search of the treasure. On one island, he made an
amazing discovery but let us first revisit and update
the story of Killorain’s treasure island.

In 1912, Charles Edward Howe, an Englishman living
in Australia, was disturbed one stormy evening by the
sound of someone outside his front door. He looked
out and saw an old tramp sheltering from the rain.
Howe took pity on the man, who was Irish, and gave
him a meal and some dry clothes. When the storm
abated, he took him to the nearest bus station and
gave him the fare to Sydney. Several weeks later, he
received a message from a hospital asking him to visit
a patient who was dying. Puzzled, he went to the
hospital where he discovered that the dying man was
none other than the tramp he had briefly befriended.
Lying in the darkness of a deserted ward, the old
fellow summoned the strength to tell him an
astonishing tale; a tale which led Howe, and may even
lead you, to an atoll in the South Seas in search of
buried treasure.

The man was called Joseph Killorain and that he was
born in 1825 in County Clare. In 1858 he deserted a
sailing ship along with three unsavoury colleagues:
Alvarez, a Spaniard, Brown, an Australian, and
Barret, an American. They made their way to Pisco, a
seaport on the coast of Peru, where they had heard of
a church with a huge quantity of gold and other
treasures concealed within its vaults. The four worked
around the harbour and became regular worshippers at
mass. Having won the trust of the local priest, they
told him that they had overheard a conversation in a
bar between two thieves who were planning to rob the
church. Why Joseph had even heard one of thieves
mentioned by name! The parish priest recognised it as
that of a young curate who had served in the church
some years earlier but who had left the priesthood.
This convinced him that evil deeds were afoot and he
sought the four men’s help in transferring the gold to
another church further up the coast. They solemnly
swore not to tell another soul and they had every
intention of keeping that promise! The gang made its
move when the gold was safely aboard a small sailing
ship, the Bosun Bird, in transit to Callao. They
overpowered the other members of the crew and
threw them overboard. Then, having disposed of the
the two priests who were guarding the gold, they fled
westwards into the Pacific Ocean.

In December 1859, the Bosun Bird anchored in the
harbour at Tahiti to take on fresh water and
provisions. The port records show that officials did
not board her as she carried a signal indicating there
was fever aboard. From Tahiti, she sailed east to the
Tuamotus, an area of several hundred small atolls and
reefs. Many of these small islands were uncharted
and most were deserted. Killorain and gang decided to
bury their ill-gotten gains on a deserted island and
return later when any hue and cry had died down.
Having found a suitable island, they buried some gold
on the beach close to a large column of coral, which
overlooked the entrance to the lagoon. Then they
dropped the rest of the gold into a pear-shaped pool to
the side of the lagoon. Crossing to a distant island,
they asked a native the name of the island they had
visited. He told them that it sounded like Pinaki or an
island near it. Leaving the Tuamotus, they followed
the trade winds to Australia and scuttled the Bosun
Bird on a reef near Cooktown. The quartet rowed
ashore to begin new lives in preparation for their
return to the island, but then their luck ran out. By
February 1860, two had been killed in a fight, and two
were in jail for manslaughter following a brawl in a
bar. Brown died before completing his sentence and
Joseph Killorain was the sole survivor. He never
returned to the Tuamotus but, after many years in
prison, drifted penniless around Australia and New
Zealand.

Killorain thanked Howe for the kindness he had
shown him earlier and handed over a greasy piece of
cloth dated 1st December 1860, which contained an
outline of the island and the whereabouts of the
treasure. After Howe left, Killorain received the last
rites from a priest and died - or so Howe would lead
us to believe! From what we now know, Howe
certainly met the old pirate on his travels and listened
carefully to his tale but probably stole the map from
him. He made up the deathbed confession to impress
anyone who might give financial backing to his
treasure hunting activities: it was certainly very
effective.

At first, Howe was rather doubtful about it all, but he
checked up on Killorain’s story and found much of it
to be true. Having no family ties, he sold his property
and set off to search Pinaki which he reached in
February 1913. According to the map some of the
booty was buried near a tall column of coral near the
lagoon. On Pinaki, Howe dug a complex network of
trenches along the lagoon beach but didn’t find a
thing. There were many times when he cursed the
Irishman who had led him on what seemed to be a
wild goose chase, but he kept at his task. Indeed, the
writer Charles Nordhoff (Mutiny on the Bounty) was
becalmed off Pinaki in 1919 and, going ashore, was
astonished to discover Howe still hard at work and
furiously digging up the beach. After nearly fourteen
years, Howe decided to abandon his search and
returned to Tahiti. He then discovered that some
Polynesians pronounce T by placing the tip of the
tongue under the top lip so it sounds rather like a P.
You can try it with Tahiti or Tennessee. Could Pinaki
possibly have been Tinaki? Howe scanned charts of
the area and found a small island called Tuanake. He
visited Tuanake and its neighbouring islands and
discovered one, which contained all the features on
the treasure map.

Returning to Australia, he made contact with a group
of investors and told them that he had located the
treasure island. He offered to share the booty with
them if they would finance a well-equipped
expedition. Then, just before the expedition left
Australia, he went to visit some friends in the outback
and disappeared. At the time, it was assumed that he
had died but we now know that he had lost interest;
fourteen years digging must take the edge off one’s
enthusiasm. As his backers had the map, they decided
to go ahead and explore the island. Unfortunately,
they were ill prepared for conditions on the atoll and
suffered badly from heat stroke and coral fever, so
they abandoned the project and returned home empty
handed and bankrupt. Later, a member of the team
published an account of the expedition with numerous
photographs of the island but did not reveal its name.
The years passed and the search for the Pisco gold
was forgotten, and the atoll's identity remained a secret.

Some years ago, with the help of the Bishop Museum
in Honolulu, I obtained aerial photographs and maps
of the atolls in that region. One atoll in this labyrinth
of coral islands and reefs looks much like any other
and information about the smaller atolls is often
inaccurate or misleading. One winter’s evening, as I
sat studying a pile of aerial photographs with a
powerful magnifying glass, I found myself staring at a
photo that was oddly familiar; it was Killorain’s
treasure island. There, on the edge of the lagoon, was
the pear-shaped pool shimmering in the sun, and,
guarding the beach at the entrance to the lagoon, stood
a large column of coral. On a map of the atoll,
surveyors had used the column as a triangulation point
and gave its exact latitude and longitude. It is 16 49’
South and 144 16’ West. So now you have it!

It was to this atoll that the Irish Australian mentioned
earlier and his family travelled in search of the
treasure. Although I have called him Kevin, this is not
his real name because he is quite guarded about his
treasure hunting activities and prefers to remain
anonymous. I know his story is not a fabrication
because he has provided me with several photographs
and was able to answer certain specific questions
about the island. According to Kevin, the pear shaped
pool is still clearly visible from the air but over the
years has silted up until it is less than one metre deep.
Close to the entrance to the lagoon, he searched in the
coral debris with a metal detector and picked up a
strong signal, which indicated that something of a
non-ferrous nature lay below the surface. He started to
dig and to his amazement uncovered a hoard of silver
and copper medallions similar to that shown in the
photo. He found over one hundred and thirty of them
and each bore the inscription “Virgo Carmeli Ora Pro
me”.

Back in Australia, he had the content of the medals
analysed and this confirmed that they were of South
American origin and dated around 1830. Though of
no great value, they could have been a small part of
the original consignment of religious artefacts stolen
from the church in Peru. Perhaps someone who had
unearthed something more valuable discarded them?
Or perhaps they came from a ship carrying
missionaries to the atolls, which was wrecked in a
typhoon? Kevin says he found nothing else of value
in the time he had available and has since moved on
to another project.

Are you inspired to follow in his footsteps? Well, you
will need to move fast for sea levels are rising and
threatening the existence of these low lying Pacific
islands. From Tahiti, you can hitch a lift to the atoll
on a passing copra boat if you don’t mind rain-soaked
clothing, seasickness, diesel fumes, and enormous
cockroaches. Don’t forget to take a metal detector,
underwater diving equipment and a sturdy spade. You
will also need a supply of fresh water and a large first
aid kit for the entrance to the lagoon is alive with
sharks and rats lurk in the undergrowth. Naturally,
you will avoid damaging the coral but when you are
up to your ears in moray eels (water snakes with large
teeth) it’s easy to overlook environmental issues.
Finally, please don’t blame me should you encounter
the bad luck, which seems to have dogged so many
who have searched for the treasure including Kevin.
Shortly after he returned to Australia, his house was
burgled and he lost most of the photos and artefacts,
which he had brought back from the atoll. Perhaps
Joseph Killorain, formerly of Co Clare, is still smarting
over the loss of his treasure map?

Tony Crowley (c) 2010

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mudswimmer
mudswimmer
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Posted:
31 Mar, 2011
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