With its long tradition as a home of pirates and smugglers it’s little wonder that there are numerous tales of buried or sunken treasure to be found around the Cornish coast. From shipwrecks such as the one at Dollar Cove to hideouts belonging to pirates like John Piers and even strange legends of magical underwater furniture these stories are enough to bring out the treasure hunter in us all! But there is one tale that has truly intrigued even the most sceptical for generations. It is said that Captain Henry Avery buried his spectacular loot, the single most valuable treasure ever stolen by a pirate, in the sands at Kennack!
“Kennack Sands form the only available sandy foreshore for many miles along this rugged coast, where the savage cliffs descend as a rule sheer to the water and the jealous sea generally leaves but narrow sandy selvedge at the ebb.”C. G. Harper, The Cornish Coast, 1910
Kennack Sands, once known as Porth Kunyk, is a long level expanse of beach just below the village of Kuggar on the Lizard. At high tide it is divided into two by a rocky promontory called Caerverracks.
Now a popular spot for sun-worshippers and bathers in the summer it was once infamous for shipwrecks.
As this beach is the only stretch of sand on this part of the coast for miles in either direction Kennack saw more than its fair share of strandings. Ships in distress intentionally beached themselves here rather than be smashed against the rocky cliffs.
Clive Carter in his book on shipwrecks on the south coast of Cornwall claims that at least one of these wrecks, the Normand that ran aground in April 1914, can still be seen in the shallows.
And it may be for this exact reason that Captain Avery chose Kennack Sands as the place to hide his treasure back in 1696.
Captain Henry Avery
Henry Avery, or Every as it is sometimes spelt, was born on the wrong side of the Tamar. His birth was recorded at Cattedown in Plymouth in 1653. His father was a seaman and fairly successful merchant but Avery was orphaned at the age of 10 and soon after began a career in the Navy. Its clear however that he wanted more for himself and in 1674 he persuaded some businessmen in Plymouth to give him the command of one of their trading vessels.
Avery was confident, pleasant mannered and imposing physically, he soon won the admiration of his investors and seemed to have excellent prospects for successful future.
It appears, however, that a woman may have derailed it all. It is said that Avery fell head over heels with a young lady and married her very quickly but when she gave birth after only 6 months the wedding he knew that he had been duped. His wife admitted that she had been having an affair when they met and that the child was the local innkeepers. Avery was devastated and decided to travel to the West Indies for a fresh start.
What happened over the next few years isn’t clear but in 1694 Avery led a mutiny on a ship called the Charles, seizing it with support of the crew from Captain Gibson who was in command and rechristening it the Fancy.
In 1694 a poem was published by a London printer, Theophilus Lewis reputed to have been written by Captain Avery himself. Entitled “A Copy of Verses composed by Captain Henry Avery Lately Gone to Sea to Seek his Fortune”, its publication caused something of a sensation and it was reprinted many times.
I’ve included the first few verse below:
"Come all you brave Boys, whose Courage is bold,
Will you venture with me, I'll glut you with Gold?
Make haste unto Corona, a Ship you will find,
That's called the Fancy, will pleasure your mind.
Captain Every is in her, and calls her his own;
He will box her about, Boys, before he has done:
French, Spaniard and Portuguese, the Heathen likewise,
He has made a War with them until that he dies.
Her Model's like Wax, and she sails like the Wind,
She is rigged and fitted and curiously trimm'd,
And all things convenient has for his design;
God bless his poor Fancy, she's bound for the Mine.
Farewel, fair Plimouth, and Cat-down be damn'd,
I once was Part-owner of most of that Land;
But as I am disown'd, so I'll abdicate
My Person from England to attend on my Fate."
And as if to live up to those first lines, Avery’s pirate crew went on a bit of a spree.
They captured three English ships off the Cape Verde Islands, then two Danish vessels in the Gulf of Guinea. Southwest of the Seychelles they intercepted a French pirate ship and stole all her spoils.
In the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Somalia the Fancy captured the Fateh Muhammed and seized £50,000 in gold and silver. But the greatest prize was still to come!
The Ganj-i sawai was the largest ship in the Indian Ocean, belonging to a Great Mogul named Aurangzeb. Wildly wealthy, his annual income of £3 million was paid to him in gold and jewels. This huge ship was returning with a couple of hundred passengers from a pilgrimage to Mecca when it crossed paths with Avery.
The pirates took two days to search the ship and remove the staggering amount of riches onboard. The loot was estimated to be worth £325,000 to £600,000, an absolute fortune for the time, and worth between £36 million and £72 million today.
But this raid was to bring down on Avery no end of trouble.
In fact it was the final act that truly brought him to the attention of the authorities. A price was put on his head – £500 by the Lord Justice in England and a further 4000 rupees by the English East Indian Company.
To cut a long story short the crew of the Fancy divided the treasure and scattered, and although some of Avery’s men were captured and hanged he remained at large.
It was later said that the man who had become known as the ‘King of the Pirates’ headed for the safety of his home territory, Devon, but first he made a stop on the Lizard coast.
The amazing Cornish archive, Kresen Kernow, in Redruth holds an intriguing document amongst the innumerable treasures that they care for. This single piece of parchment (ref: J/1/2277) claims to describe where Avery buried his treasure and what that treasure consisted of.
It is unclear who wrote this manuscript or who dictated the descriptions it contains but it seems likely that it is a 19th century copy of an earlier document. The information is given, partially in French, by someone only identified by the initials W.K, someone who seems to have had direct knowledge of the events.
“On his return from India [Avery the pirate] either landed or was shipwrecked near the Lizard where he buried three chests or boxes full of treasure in the sands of the sea shore.”
The document claims that the chests were buried beside “trois pierres grises” – three grey rocks.
“It is near where the corner of a high promontory juts out into the sea. He said the spring tides now come over the place.”
The chests and their contents are also listed –
“1 Chest. **** wood, 2 feet long & 1ft wide. In it were precious stones and bracelets, large rubies, sapphires, emeralds, topazes and diamonds.
2nd Chest. Almost the same size & made as the first, 120 ingots of gold, 40 thick flat pieces of gold as large as a round tobacco box with various characters on some of them, 25 bars of gold, some of which were 4 or 5 inches long.
3rd Chest has 3000 pieces of 8 besides Bullion not weighed but crammed in with pieces of brocades.”
It impossible to know whether the story that this incredible treasure was/is buried here in Cornwall is true but it appears in again and again in biographies of Avery.
The idea that he hid his treasure somewhere on the Lizard coast and then returned to his native Devon to lay low seems universal. However, there are other suggested locations for the treasure. Some accounts claim he buried it on the cliff top at Beagles Point about a mile up the coast from Kennack Sands towards Coverack, others that the loot was hidden in dunes at Gunwalloe.
Over the centuries many have tried their luck at finding it but as yet it has eluded discovery.
The authenticity of the document described above is supported by an account written in the earlier 19th century concerning the life of John Knill, the rather eccentric mayor of St Ives. This account refers to an earlier copy of the note.
“A rough catalogue supposed to have been from the hand of Captain Avery was in the possession of one Cornelius Ffurssen who in the year 1702 obtained a grant from George, Prince of Denmark to search for the treasure at any point between Helford haven and the Loe Pool.”The Cornishman, 24 Oct 1878
Ffurssen didn’t carry out the search himself however but assigned the grant to various other individuals over the years until finally in 1779 it was taken on by two Cornishmen living in Mount’s Bay.
These two men went into business with John Knill of St Ives and a formal agreement was drawn up between the three, presumably stating how the treasure would be divided should they find it. A “vigorous search” of the coast was then undertaken. But according to The Cornish Telegraph in October 1913 this “led to nothing more than the discovery of a rusty anchor and several bad shillings”.
There were numerous expeditions to the Lizard and several meetings held between the partners to discuss tactics until in October 1781 a living descendent of Avery was found.
This relative actually came to St Ives to meet with Knill and he told him that his father had said that Captain Avery had died a pauper in Barnstable and therefore the family supposed that the treasure did not exist.
This was enough for Knill, his bubble was burst, and he and the others dissolved their partnership and abandoned the search in January 1782.
However . . . not everyone was convinced by this evidence.
There are various rumours about the fate of Captain Avery – that he was swindled out of his fortune, that he retired to live in luxury on a desert island or that he died in a poor house, but the fact is no one actually knows when or where he died.
And some think that he was just too frightened to return to Cornwall to retrieved his treasure.
After all he was notorious and there was a price on his head, to come for his loot would have been risking his neck, quite literally.
“It may be doubted whether his fate need be taken as decisive against the existence of the treasure, for Avery could not have made good a claim against the Crown, without giving evidence of his property in it, which would have risked his life.”Notice of John Knill of Gray’s Inn, 1733 – 1811, printed by r Cunnack, Helston
So, the question must be . . . is the greatest treasure ever stolen by a pirate, a treasure worth many millions of pounds, still out there, hidden somewhere on the Cornish coast?
If the hunt for Henry Avery’s riches isn’t enough for you or sounds to far fetched perhaps a confirmed find of gold on Kennack Sands will help convince you that buried treasure really does exist!
In August 1960 a visitor to the beach and his son found a 600 year old hammered gold coin while rock pooling. The father picked it up thinking it was a piece of tin foil or a sweet wrapper.
It was taken to the Royal Cornwall Museum and confirmed to be a gold coin called a ‘double mouton d’or of Wenceslaus of Brabant’ and dated to 1366. Its discovery was taken by locals as evidence to support the rumours of a sunken treasure ship off shore . . .
“A valuable gold coin of the 14th century found recently in a rock pool at Kennack Sands . . . may be evidence in support of the legend of lost treasure in the sea off a section of the Cornish coast particularly noted for its history of wrecks.”West Briton, 6 October 1960
So the next time you go rock-pooling or you wiggle your toes down into the soft sand of Kennack Sands beach take a moment to imagine what might just be hiding not far from where you stand . . .