by Larry Smith
FORTUNE HILL, San Salvador -- "I been farming this hill all my life," 81-year-old Thomas Hanna told me last week, although no crops are grown on the island these days. "Every now and then people come and start digging, but ain't nobody find nothing yet.
"There's caves and tunnels all through this hill that we used to play in when I was a boy. I wish they would get to the bottom of it once and for all."
Hanna lives alone at the foot of Fortune Hill, with just a dog and a billy goat for companionship. His singular claim to fame rests on the fact that he is the last survivor of three boys who once played marbles with a legendary cache of gems they came across in one of the giant solution holes that honeycomb the land around Fortune Hill.
"People used that cave as a storm shelter, and when I was a schoolboy we played in one of the tunnels with what we thought were marbles. They were man-made," Hanna said, explaining that years later he learned the "marbles" were in fact diamonds, rubies and emeralds, undoubtedly stashed there by one of the infamous pirates who once frequented these parts.
Deveaux recalls the old stories about pirate treasure from when he was a teenager. And he and many others on the island are certain that in the 1960s enough gold ingots to fill a couple of 55-gallon drums were found at a site near Fortune Hill and acquired by the late Jake Jones, one of the island's leading entrepeneurs. It was Jones who contacted Roy Solomon, San Salvador's MP at the time, who sailed down in his yacht to collect the treasure - or so the story goes.
Ever since, Deveaux and others have been searching for buried treasure at Fortune Hill. "I know more about this than anyone else and I'd like to see it found for the benefit of the country," he told me recently. "I used dowsing rods to find the cache, and there is more than one. We think there could be billions buried there."
It was Deveaux's Watling Archaeological Research Company that ignited the first treasure frenzy back in 2006, when he began work at Fortune Hill with a permit from the Antiquities Corporation. Brave Davis, who is the current MP for San Salvador, was the company's lawyer, but the operation was shut down by the government so that conflicting land claims could be sorted out. These conflicts are magnified by the island's raw political divisions.
Gold fever erupted a second time in 2008 when competing families again began jostling for position. This led to the formation of a non-partisan group that included Nassau-based restaurateur Enrico Garzarolli; a wealthy American named Grant Rose, and a committee of leading citizens that included Kevin Williams, Jim Storr, Bert Deveaux and Charlie Jones. Rose was to provide the prospecting funds from his own pocket.
This group was advised by an Italian second homer named Roberto Savio, founder of the global news agency Inter Press Service. His proposal called for the government to keep 70 per cent of the treasure, with the rest divided among investors, the various land claimants, a trust fund for the people of San Salvador (all 1,000 of them), and United Nations children's charities. The goal was to end 50 years of fighting by sharing the pie.
But again, squabbling among families threatened to disrupt the island's somnolent lifestyle, so the government called a halt to further investigations until some determination could be made of who had title to the land. Late last year, State Finance Minister Zhivago Laing (who has responsibility for treasure trove) announced that the Attorney-General's Office was now satisfied that Dorothy Black-Beal, who was born on the island but lives in Florida, was the rightful owner.
"We took a few years trying to confirm the validity of documentation presented to us about title to the land," Laing told me. "I went to San Salvador to say that the government was able to confirm that Black-Beal presented evidence, which was confirmed by the Attorney-General’s Office, that her title to 22.8 acres of land at Fortune Hill is legitimate. Others would have to challenge that finding in court."
Laing said the goal was to establish order in what was turning out to be a very disorderly process. "The common practice under treasure trove is to enter into a share arrangement with the finders so the government does not incur the expense of speculating and does not discourage investment in the search. Frankly many seekers have no idea of such a provision."
He was referring to the Antiquities Act that took effect in 1999. It says any found man-made object at least 50 years old is considered an antiquity whose ownership is vested in the government, although a reward may be offered to the finders based on negotiation. No-one may excavate or search for antiquities without a licence from the Antiquities Monuments and Museums Corporation.
To get a license, applicants must satisfy the AMMC that any excavation will be conducted scientifically and any artifacts will be properly documented and preserved. They must also put up a performance bond.
"If there is treasure to be found, this is an archaeological site," AMMC Chairman Orry Sands told me. "And I am pretty sure that archaeologists don't use bulldozers and backhoes to excavate. Anyone who gets a license from us to work on this site will have to conduct a proper investigation with our archaeologist present."
The situation now is that Black-Beal is waiting for a permit to be issued before launching what is sure to become a new feeding frenzy on the island. At least three other claimants have said they will challenge her title in court and may also apply for permits to excavate.
"I am probably the least convinced about the treasure, although I hope there is something there for her sake," Black Beal's lawyer, Greg Cottis, told me recently. "I guess the good thing about not being caught up in treasure mania is that it allows me to remain focused on the job at hand, which is simply to protect her property from trespass and afford her the opportunity to determine once and for all if her grandfather really did secrete a fortune for her, hence his insistence that she never part with title to the property."
According to Cottis, a Florida archaeologist has been engaged to monitor the planned excavation, which will be conducted by Richard Clem of C & H Salvage in Fort Lauderdale. It was Clem who began digging at the Fortune Hill site on Black-Beal's behalf over the holidays, until he was stopped by the government because he had no permit from the AMMC.
Meanwhile, there is naturally resentment on the island over the government's certification of Black-Beal as the rightful owner of the Fortune Hill site, and the rumour mill has been working overtime. Expatriate residents are said to be prospecting at the site under cover of darkness, and political payoffs are always in the pipeline - no matter which party is in power.
During my visit, the site was deserted. And although bulldozers have cleared a wide avenue from Thomas Hanna's house up the hill past abandoned homesteads to the cave, previous excavations have all been filled in.
According to San Salvador's administrator, Theresa Bootle-Bethel, "the situation never got to the point of disorder, but it has the potential to do so. A lot of families are involved and as long as they believe they own the land the controversy will go on."
A former teacher from Abaco, Bootle-Bethel said she is intrigued by the treasure and the history behind it. "There's a lot of folklore and speculation and suspicion involved. This battle has raged for so long that I'd like to be here to see it resolved."
There is no doubt that legendary pirates like William Kidd, John Watling or Henry Avery had the opportunity to hide their spoils on San Salvador (in fact, the island was named after Watling until 1926), but scientific opinion is very skeptical about the Fortune Hill story.
"The San Salvador gold story has a life of its own," one geologist told me. "Years ago, when I was surveying the islands, the locals always asked if I was looking for gold. It is part of the culture, and people go nuts - even reasonable people. I have seen estimates of billions of dollars of treasure. One can do simple calculations at current prices to determine how much gold that would be. The numbers won't add up."
Others say it is a case of "If I hadn't believed it, I wouldn't have seen it." There is a report of some minor amount of household goods being found in one of the caves in the Fortune Hill area (at least a dozen loyalist plantations once farmed the island), but scientists point out that most dry Bahamian caves were mined for guano in the 1800s, so most cultural objects are long gone.
The treasure stories tend to strain their credibility, because no one has ever produced a shred of direct evidence. It is all hearsay.
Geophysical reports produced by some prospectors in the past are simply false, scientists say. According to one geologist, "Claims of being able to resolve and identify diamonds, emeralds, gold, silver, etc underground are flatly untrue. In my home state, if I failed to report this fraud I would lose my licence."
A Nassau-based developer on the island pointed out that if the apocryphal story about Solomon acquiring the gold bars from Jones 50 years ago was true, why wouldn't he - or others in authority at the time - have pursued the matter out of their own greed?
And a civil engineer who has worked on the island questions why someone would hide such a valuable treasure in a way that no-one could ever retrieve it without demolishing an entire hill.
While some consider the treasure story to be a scam, or the result of vivid imaginations and wishful thinking, there does seem to be a consensus on the island that the story should be confirmed or invalidated once and for all, and as expeditiously as possible. Of course, who should or would benefit from any actual discoveries is another story.
"The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that until somebody does a real excavation, which will take several months and a lot of money, we will never know the truth," Savio told me at his home on Sandy Point.
"My formula is to bring in a guy with money and technology and make a clear agreement with the government and the community before excavating. If there is nothing, the prospector will lose his money. If there is something, the prospector, the families, the community and the country as a whole will benefit. This seems to be the only sensible approach."