Miss Fisher and the Lost Pirate Treasure of Queenscliff
Updated: May 25, 2020
At the beginning of our lockdown, I decided now was a good time to re-watch one of my favourite Australian TV shows of recent years, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. The show is set in late 1920s Melbourne and Miss Fisher possesses a joie de vivre missing from our present circumstances. She is a lovely distraction from the misery of my day to day life as an unpaid and completely unqualified primary school teacher.
Last night's episode was set in Queenscliff, a little seaside town situated on the tip of Port Phillip Bay, about 150 kilometres from Melbourne. Miss Fisher and her friends visited for a seaside holiday and, as inevitably is the case in every episode, encountered mysterious dead bodies. One of the plotlines centred on lost pirate treasure, so of course it struck my interest.
It turns out that this plotline connected to the story of the lost treasure of Queenscliff. According to a 2004 issue of the Queenscliff Historical Museum newsletter, the pirate Benito Bonito ambushed a mule train in Central America in 1819, escaped to sea with a fortune of Mexican specie and buried his hoard on Cocos Island, off the coast of Costa Rica. He then sailed across the Pacific Ocean to the south-east coast of Australia, where he navigated to the entrance of the Port Phillip Heads and buried his riches in a cave on the shores of Swan Bay, near Queenscliff.
The source of this story was a local Queenscliff identity called Giovanni Carossini. He was known as “Kerosene Jack” purely because his last name sounded like “Kerosene”. Carossini claimed he had a personal connection to Benito so he knew all about his treasure. Since pirates usually cashed in their treasure long before they could be bothered to sail across an ocean to bury it in a random outpost of the British Empire, it's highly unlikely the story is true. Of course, this has never stopped people looking for it.
According to the newsletter, the first attempt was made by James Hillard in 1911. It alleges Hillard befriended Carossini who told him to search within the high water mark around Queenscliff. The same newsletter also reported Carossini died in 1902, so its reliability is questionable. Nevertheless, Hillard allegedly maintained a solid belief in the treasure until his death in 1964, even after never finding a trace of it.
The dire financial straits of the mid-1930s and the discovery of a handful of gold coins sparked a renewal of the search for the treasure. In 1938, an article on the quest appeared in the Adelaide Advertiser. This article claimed Benito's real name was Bennett Graham, the treasure was from Lima, not Mexico and that Kerosene Jack himself had found the treasure but hidden it in a different spot. It was the new location people were, in 1938, now searching for. The coins were eventually found to belong to the £5,000 stolen by the Swede Martin Wyberg from the Avoca years earlier. Again, despite extensive excavations, no-one found a trace of it.
The article’s convergence of Benito Bonito with Bennett Graham and the Lima treasure follows a strong trajectory of mutation in piracy history.
The treasure of Lima was allegedly removed from the Peruvian city in 1820 as residents began their uprising for independence from Spain. Its value was estimated between $12 million and $60 million. Apparently, a British naval captain was placed in charge of it but, unable to resist its allure, turned pirate and headed off to hide it in Cocos Island. Letters from mercenaries fleeing Nicaragua in 1856 refer to finding a chest full of gold Spanish doubloons in a cave on the island.
As a piracy strategy, burying treasure is always highly flawed but as a seed for future tourism for the island, it was highly successful. Due to the unrelenting pressure placed on the fragile Cocos Island environment by treasure hunters, the Island is now a World Heritage Site and treasure hunting is banned.
Benito Bonito is included in stories of pirates hiding treasure on Cocos Island but nothing points to him being involved in the Lima treasure heist, if that even happened at all. One article says he was captured and executed without ever revealing the location of his treasure which implies he was a real person, but who really knows. Bennett Graham was apparently another who hid his treasure on Cocos Island. His treasure was known as the Devonshire Treasure after the ship that carried it. According to Wikipedia – a reasonably reliable source for information on all sorts of things except for anything related to pirates – a woman called Mary Walsh sailed with Graham. She was captured and sent to Australia in possession of a treasure map (sure, why not?) that showed its location on the island. The convergence of Graham and Bonito into the same person by the article’s writer in 1938 is only one of the mutations within this strange story.
A 1952 article in the Sunday Herald quoted in the Great Southern Star in 2014 revealed that a holidaymaker found an 18th century coin on the beach near Queenscliff. According to this article, Benito Bonito had hidden most of his treasure on Cocos Island but after being pursued by a British man o’ war, hid his treasure in Queenscliff instead. Perhaps this author confused Cocos Island with the Cocos Islands of the Indian Ocean? Nevertheless, Queenscliff is not on the way anywhere from either of them.
The quest for Benito Bonito’s treasure is currently being honoured by Mr Ray Debenham, of the Victorian town of Leongatha. Mr Debenham heard about the treasure as young man but his search for it has been stymied by private ownership of the land housing the most likely locations for it.
I have only scratched the surface of this mystery and I’m sure Miss Fisher would have it solved by now. There is one more interesting twist that relates to me. This came in an article in an obscure online magazine called The Marine Express. This reported that Benito Bonito was also known as Benito de Soto and involved in the ransacking of the Morning Star, the subject of my research. I can unequivocally confirm that this connection is not at all true. However, should anyone wish me to undertake pirate-related research in either of the Cocos Islands, I would be more than happy to once the pandemic is over and I can leave the country.
In the meantime, I may just have to settle for a few more of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries and a trip to Queenscliff when this is all over.