Sailing from Boston to Melbourne late in 1865 the 1000 ton barque General Grant lost a man overboard in a gale. The young William Sanguily and others among the crew, thought this was an ill omen. Their ship reached Melbourne without further incident then loaded for London. But then:

By one of those coincidences, which sailors dread, we took aboard part of a cargo that had been intended for the steamer London. This ill-fated vessel had sunk in the Bay of Biscay on her voyage out, and there were many gloomy prophecies that no freight of hers would reach London in any ship.

The superstitious sailors also noticed that the rats had left the General Grant, a sure sign of doom in the lore of the sea. Nevertheless, the General Grant set sail for England on 4 May 1866 with a load of sixty men, women and children returning home from the diggings and a crew of 23 officers and men. Among the wool and hides in the hold was the unwelcome but hugely valuable cargo of gold – four thousand ounces.

After five days of good running, the ship was blown westward towards the sub-Antarctic Auckland Island. Several days of thick fog eventually lifted and land was sighted. But later, the breeze died. Despite the efforts of the captain and crew, around 1 in the morning of May 14 the General Grant smashed into the rocky shores of Auckland Island. She was forced further and further into the pitch darkness of a large sea cave. Crewman Joseph Jewell described the scene:

… such a night of horror I think was never experienced by human beings as we passed in the cave for seven long hours. It was so dark that you could not see your fingers before your eyes, and there we were with falling spars and large stones tumbling from the roof of the cave (some of which went through the deck), and so we remained until daylight.

The helpless crew and passengers huddled at the stern of the ship, still free of the cavern slowly sucking in their vessel. At daylight the mizzen top gallant mast collapsed through the ship’s hill and she began to sink.

The scene at this moment was one of such utter misery as few men ever see, and fewer still survive to tell of. Every sea washed over the stern and swept the deck. The long-boat was crammed with all who could gain a foothold. It was partly filled with water, and several poor creatures lying in the bilge were crowded down and drowned before she was clear of the ship. Women clinging to their children, and crazy men to their gold, were seen washing to and fro as the water invaded the upper deck.

One wretch saw his wife and two children driven by him in this way without making an effort to save them, while the last man who got aboard nearly lost his life trying to persuade the mother to be saved without her children.

The boats were launched into a swelling sea but only a few were able to reach them, most being trapped aboard the General Grant. The lucky few watched helplessly as men, women and children were washed away and the ship disappeared beneath the heaving water, her captain waving farewell from what was left of the rigging as he went down with his ship.

The two boats with their fifteen survivors, including one woman, spent two miserable nights and days in search of a place to camp. They had little food, few supplies and no water. Their clothes were inadequate for the climate and some were without shoes. A landing was eventually made at a place known as Sarah’s Bosom on the ominously named Disappointment Island. Here they confronted the possibility of cannibalism if they were unable to make a fire. Fortunately, they were. Albatross and shellfish made a welcome stew. From that time the fire was never allowed to go out.

The survivors split into two groups, existing as best they could in huts erected by earlier shipwreck survivors and a failed colony. They suffered greatly. There was dysentery, cold and a form of scurvy caused by their survival diet. Passing ships were sighted but they were unable to attract their attention. In October they decided to prepare one of the boats for a desperate attempt reach the New Zealand mainland, almost 500 kilometres away.

On Boxing Day 1866 they finished refitting their boat. Four men volunteered to sail her and they left on 22 January 1867. But without a chart or compass they would need to be both clever and lucky to reach safety.

Eleven souls watched their four companions depart. James Teer, Patric Caughey, Nicholas Allen and David Ashworth had all been passengers aboard the ill-fated ship. Aaron Hayman, Cornelius Drew, William Ferguson, William Newton-Scott, William Sanguily (known as Yankee Jack’) and David McClelland were all sailors, as was Joseph Jewell who was accompanied by his wife, Mary.

They waited hopefully. The weeks passed with no sign of rescue.

The anxious waiting which ensued told more severely on us than all the privation. The feverish excitement of hope caused a cessation of labour one day, and blank despair rendered us helpless the next. One man would accuse the unhappy crew of deserting us, and curse their selfishness. Another would, sobbing, deplore their cruel fate, and realise the noble men who ventured on a hopeless task.

Six more weeks they waited …. See Part 2


smirnoff investigators

Investigators at the crash site; Jack Palmer second from right. NLA


It was March 1942. Japanese forces were three days away from taking Bandung on the island of Java. The predominantly Dutch European population was being evacuated to mainland north-western Australia as quickly as possible. Early in the afternoon of 3 March, a Netherlands East Indies KLM Dakota passenger plane prepared to take off with eleven anxious passengers. As the Dakota was about to taxi to the runway the airfield manager handed the pilot, Ivan Smirnoff, a sealed brown paper package, telling him to look after it. A bank would take delivery of the parcel on arrival in Australia, the airfield manager said. Ivan’s mind was on more pressing matters, so he dropped the parcel into the first-aid chest and took off straightaway for the safety of Broome. It was around 1.15 p.m.

As the plane climbed into the sky, Japanese aircraft were attacking Australian coastal communities far to the south. Unfortunately, three of the Japanese fighters returning from the raid spotted the Dakota and raked it with bullets. Passengers were wounded and Smirnoff was struck in the arms and hip. He desperately threw the plane into a steep spiralling descent, pursued closely by the fighters. As the port engine burst into flame he had to act quickly. Smirnoff turned the aircraft towards the beach, managing to bring it down more or less level and then to swing its front section into the sea, extinguishing the engine fire. One of the passengers, himself a pilot, would later recall the Russian national ‘put up the greatest show of flying anybody in the world will ever see’.


Ivan Smirnoff


And so began one of the many enduring lost treasure mysteries. Smirnoff and his passengers were strafed by Zeroes and perishing for lack of fresh water. Survival was the priority, not packages. Four died, though the survivors were eventually rescued and Smirnoff returned to his usual flying. It was only some time later in Melbourne that he became aware of the contents of the package, when he was visited by a police detective and an official of the Commonwealth Bank. They had come to collect the mysterious brown paper parcel. Smirnoff told them that the parcel was lost. ‘What was in it’, he asked.

He was told that parcel contained a cigar box filled with thousands of high-quality diamonds rescued from Amsterdam before the invading German forces arrived. The gems had been on their way via the-then Dutch East Indies to safekeeping in the vaults of the Commonwealth Bank. They were valued at the time at half a million guilders, approximately twenty million dollars in today’s money.

The official wanted to know, quite urgently, where they were.

From this point, the story clouds over like every lost treasure tale. Although the brown paper package was – probably – lost in the sea, as Smirnoff said, it was rescued from the crash site shortly after the survivors had left. A local beachcomber and lugger master named Jack Palmer and others travelling with him came across the wreckage of the Dakota. They salvaged its remaining contents and Palmer found the package, either in the plane or in the surf, and quickly discovered its alluring contents. He divided the gems up, hiding most of them beneath the sand in an aluminium container and distributing the rest among his companions, telling them to keep quiet about the find.

Palmer was on his way to Perth to enlist in the army. When he arrived there, he went to the district military commandant and told the story of the crash and his discovery of the diamonds. To prove his point, he produced two salt cellars full of small stones for the astonished officer.

By now, though, diamonds were starting to turn up in unexpected places. One was found in the fireplace of a Broome home and another in a matchbox in a train carriage. Aboriginal people were seen with them and Chinese traders offered them for sale. Others would be found after the war, including one nestling in the fork of a tree.

An army investigation led to Palmer and two of his comrades being tried in 1943. All three accused were acquitted as they had—seemingly—handed in the diamonds to the authorities. Palmer then served out the war in the army. Afterwards, he tackled a number of business ventures and appeared to be living well through the few years that were left to him.

Jack Palmer died of stomach cancer in 1950. A priest attending his deathbed is said to have asked him what he had done with the rest of the diamonds. Palmer insisted that he handed them in. Then he smiled.

There are a number of other stories stemming from the medical staff who tended the dying man. They vary in detail but all end the same way. They all state that Palmer kept a mysterious bag under his bed which he hinted might contain riches—maybe cash, maybe diamonds. The day after he died, the bag disappeared.

Smirnoff returned to Holland after the war and continued his career as a KLM pilot. He seems never to have gone home to the USSR and died on the island of Majorca in 1956 after an adventurous life that even attracted the brief attention of Hollywood in 1944.

Stories still circulate about the ‘Smirnoff diamonds’. A number of books have been written about them. As recently as 2012 a claim was made by relatives of the man who drove Smirnoff and his surviving passengers to Broome that the pilot knew the package he was carrying contained the diamonds. Whether he knew or not, only a fraction of the hoard was ever recovered. It is thought that the bulk of the cache, perhaps twenty million dollars-worth, is still missing.

Are the Smirnoff diamonds still buried in the sand along with the remains of the ill-fated Dakota? Were they found by others? Or did Jack Palmer simply take them and spend up big for the rest of his life?


The full story is in my Great Australian Journeys though, like all good lost treasure yarns, this one is still being told…







Map to Captain Kidd’s treasure

Late in 2015, a lost Nazi gold train was discovered in Poland. At least, that’s what a couple of treasure hunters told the world. Like all lost treasures, the search for this one had been going on for many years, usually without success. But many still believe in these far-fetched yarns and some even search for them. Every now and then a lost treasure is really found, providing just enough stimulus to keep all the other legends living on.

Armed with the latest techno gadgets and a map, the raiders of the lost Nazi treasure claimed to have found their prize. They were prepared to reveal its location in return for a modest percentage of the booty. Local officials apparently fell in with this nonsense and the Deputy Polish Culture Minister was widely quoted saying that they were 99 per cent sure the train was there.
Enter the spoilsport scientists from the Kracow Mining Academy. Their  techno gadgets confirmed that not only was there no hidden Nazi train of gold but there were not even any real railway tracks in this region of the Lower Silesia. Just empty tunnels.
Still, even if that one was dispelled by science, people love a lost treasure story.
Colonel PercyFawcett went to Brazil’s Matto Grosso searching for the lost city of “Z” in 1925. He has not been seen since. A Hollywood film about the Lost City of Z – co-produced by Brad Pitt and starring Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller – is currently in production and will appear in our cinemas 91 years after Fawcett disappeared.
Lost treasure tales have a number of common elements that provide them with apparent credibility.
Firstly, they are in remote or otherwise difficult to access locations. Lasseter’s Reef is said to lie somewhere in some of Australia’s most desolate emptiness. South American jungles have harboured any number of fabulous Aztec, Incan or Mayan troves. Islands are excellent, especially for pirate treasure chests
Then there will be a map. Or sometimes another document, like a letter, giving the hazy location of the loot. Harold (originally Hubert) Lasseter left a diary and a map of his fabled reef as he lay dying in 1931. Many have since used these documents in futile attempts to find the gold.
The map or document will have a murky provenance. It may come from a previous seeker of a particular rumoured treasure. It might be serendipitously “found”, preferably in an atmospheric location. Tombs are good.
Usually the person who provides the document to the treasure seeker will be conveniently dead, as in the Beale ciphers. The Beale ciphers are three papers written in code, one of which will reveal the location of treasure buried in Bedford County, Virginia. No one has yet cracked the code, although claims of success have been made.
Then there will be guardians of the lost treasure. Often these are benighted savages who will stop at nothing to prevent intrepid (white) treasure hunters getting to their fabled horde. One explanation for the disappearance of Colonel Percy Fawcett in the Amazon is that he was killed by indigenous people. Indiana Jones is often said to be based on the British explorer’s exploits though a version of the trope appears in other lost treasure tales.
Often the guardians are long departed, as in the lost Nazi gold train legend of Poland’s Lower Silesia region. This is a relatively recent variation on the ancient theme of missing millions. It springs from the same deluded human hopes for untold riches that produced the El Dorado myth and its many variations around the world.
It was believed locally that possibly three such trains stuffed with stolen gold, jewels and art were buried in a complex of tunnels under construction by the Third Reich for still-unknown purposes. The train, or trains, were then sealed in, awaiting only intrepid treasure seekers to unearth their riches. People have been looking for years but no one has succeeded in the quest.
But wait! A map was found!! Even better, the map was obtained from a man on his deathbed!!! Must be real. Let’s go. And so they did.
Even after their claims were disproved by scientists, the Polish believers
clung to their story  “because the methodological approach of the scientists was [not the same as our.”
The final feature of lost treasure yarns is the unsuccessful but tantalisingly promising attempts of earlier searchers to reach the horde.
The notion that something must be there because so many have tried before is a mainspring of the mythology that supports these persistent folk beliefs. Fawcett’s quest for the city of “Z’ feeds an ongoing interest in the mystery derived from the 2009 book on which the movie is based.
Believers still risk their lives in search of Lasseter’s Reef. The lost gold of Sacambaya still attracts optimists more than 150 years after a charlatan injected it into Bolivian fantasy. Others are still burrowing for Templar, or maybe pirate, treasures on Oak Island off Nova Scotia and any number of sunken galleons and other wrecks are still the object of fervent searches in all of the seven seas.
Every now and then one of these expeditions actually strikes gold, as in the recent rediscovery of the Spanish treasure ship off Columbia. The rarity of these finds and the sensations they produce are sufficient to stoke the fires of hope that glitter in the hearts of all treasure hunters.

It might just be that the legend is true…