Olivier Levasseur: The Pirate’s Code and Buried Treasure

At 5pm on July 7, 1730, Olivier Levasseur, one of the world’s most notorious pirates, stood on the gallows. Seconds before the noose tightened around his neck, he produced a necklace containing a cryptogram known as the Levasseur Cipher, the supposed location of the greatest treasure haul in history. But does it exist? Read on to find out.

8 April 2024

Olivier Levasseur, a French buccaneer colloquially known as La Buse or ‘The Buzzard’ for his swift and predatory tactics, remains one of the most enigmatic figures in the captivating history of piracy.

He served as a privateer for the French crown, and then ventured out on his own, becoming one of the most famous – and feared – pirates ever to have operated on the high seas.

Between around 1650 and 1730, the Golden Age of Piracy was a tumultuous period of maritime mayhem all over the world, with the great pirates plying their trade, chief among which was Olivier Levasseur. As well as La Buse, he was also called La Bouche, or ‘The Mouth’, supposedly due to the vicious verbal tirades with which he would assault his victims.

His name became synonymous with terror, and his activities – and those of his various partners in crime – extended from the azure waters of the Caribbean to the rich coasts of South America, preying primarily on Spanish galleons laden with New World riches.

But it was less his criminal activity and more his final words that have turned him into a figure of legend. For the true mystery of Lavasseur is the perplexing question of whether he secretly concealed billions of pounds worth of treasure, hidden in a place known only to him. And far from taking this secret to his grave, did he instead leave the ultimate treasure trail? Revealed seconds before his execution, the supposed Levasseur Code is said to give the location of this buried haul. So is the cryptogram a genuine message to be deciphered, or a cruel hoax? And where is the Levasseur treasure?

Let’s journey back to the early eighteenth century in an attempt to shed some light on the Levasseur Cipher, one of the world’s most perplexing mysteries.

The Early Life of Olivier Levasseur

King Louis XIV (Credit: Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

It’s believed Levasseur was born in Calais in northern France somewhere between 1687 and 1690. Some say he was born into a wealthy bourgeois family – what we know today as middle class – receiving a top-notch education and with designs on becoming an architect, a naval officer or a priest. Others say he was the son of a freebooter.

It’s unknown when he eschewed a law-abiding life for one of crime on the high seas, but it’s likely that it was during the War of the Spanish Succession, a conflict fought in Europe between 1701 and 1714 for control of the Spanish Empire. At some point during this conflict, Levasseur was presented with a Letter of Marque by King Louis XIV of France and officially became a privateer for the French crown.

With this Letter of Marque, Levasseur was essentially given a licence to engage in state-sponsored piracy, plundering and capturing enemy ships to contribute to the staggering cost of war. In return for a share of the loot, the actions of these privateers were largely overlooked by their governments.

One story often told was that during the career of La Buse as a privateer, he sustained an injury to his eye and wore an eyepatch. This was said to have begun the trend of modern imagery of pirates painted with eyepatches, although it’s almost certainly an apocryphal story to romanticise this common trope in pirate mythology.

This veneer of legality thinly veiled the ruthlessly brutal pirate he became. And after the end of the conflict, his subsequent transition from authorised privateering to outright piracy was spurred by the allure of wealth and adventure found beyond European waters, particularly in the bountiful and uncharted territories of the Caribbean and South America.

The Original Pirate of the Caribbean

Edward Teach aka Blackbeard (Credit: Sepia Times via Getty Images)

His life as a pirate probably spanned around fourteen or fifteen years, from around 1715 onwards. He first joined the crew of English pirate Benjamin Hornigold, and was later said to have partnered with various others, including William Moody, Samuel ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy – reputedly one of the richest pirates in history – and possibly Edward Teach, known famously as Blackbeard.

Yet beyond his fearsome reputation, what truly set Olivier Levasseur apart was his intricate knowledge of naval warfare and his adoption of a unique pirate code, which governed the conduct of his crew and ensured loyalty and order among his ranks. This led him to undertake perhaps one of the most famous pirate attacks in history.

Our Lady of the Cape

Se Cathedral in Goa, India (Credit: John Elk III via Getty Images)

Orchestrated by Levasseur, the capture of Portuguese galleon Nossa Senhora do Cabo – translated as Our Lady of the Cape – was one of the most lucrative pirate heists ever undertaken.

The ship, en route from Goa in India to Lisbon in Portugal, was in the East Indies collecting the riches of the Portuguese colonial empire, including valuable spices, jewels, and other goods, to bring back to Europe.

Because the ship had suffered storm damage, the crew had thrown all 72 cannons overboard to save weight, so the pirates boarded almost without incident. They left with – in today’s money – most likely tens of millions of pounds worth of gold, diamonds, pearls, silks, art, and religious objects, including the pure gold Fiery Cross of Goa from the city’s Se Cathedral, inlaid with rubies, emeralds and diamonds.

Olivier Levasseur took the cross and his share of the bounty, the rest was divided up between the men.

A Royal Amnesty

Galleon cannons on the island of Reunion (Credit: @ Didier Marti via Getty Images)

In 1724, an amnesty was offered to pirates operating in the Indian Ocean. The French government would take their share of the loot but the pirates and their crews could keep the rest. Levasseur decided he didn’t want to share so he found a bolthole in the Seychelles archipelago. From this moment he was actively hunted.

He was eventually caught on Madagascar, and taken to the French overseas department of Reunion, where he was tried and sentenced to death for piracy. He was hanged on July 7, 1730.

However, just before the sentence was carried out, he produced a necklace from around his neck which later retellings of the story said he threw into the crowd of onlookers, and shouted ‘Find my treasure, the one who may understand it!’

Inside the necklace was a bizarre cryptogram, containing the supposed location of the Levasseur treasure.

What is the Levasseur Code?

An example of a pigpen cipher (Credit: gwengoat via Getty Images)

The cryptogram was said to contain seventeen lines of seemingly random symbols which was supposed to reveal the location of – perhaps – billions of pounds worth of treasure.

The first transcription of the cryptogram – indeed what’s believed to be its very first mention – was published in a 1934 book by Frenchman Charles de La Roncière, over 200 years after Olivier Levasseur died.

As outlined in this publication, the cryptogram is a pigpen cipher, a simple substitution cipher where letters are replaced with symbols based on a grid system that resembles pig pens, allowing for easy encryption and decryption of messages.

It must however be noted that the cryptogram’s true origins remain a topic of debate and speculation, and the fact that it was reported on for the first time as recently as the 1930s raised questions about its authenticity which are yet to be definitively answered.

Reginald Cruise-Wilkins

John Cruise-Wilkins searching for the Levasseur treasure (Credit: ROBERTO SCHMIDT via Getty Images)

In the 1940s, an Englishman by the name of Reginald Cruise-Wilkins attempted to decipher the cryptogram. He thought the cipher, a type commonly used by the Knights Templar during the Crusades, may have been based on symbolism used by the Freemasons, perhaps with connections to the signs of the zodiac.

He also thought there may have been some link with the Clavicles of Solomon, a Renaissance-era book of magic – known as a pseudepigraphical grimoire – attributed to the biblical king Solomon.

Another line of inquiry in pursuit of the location of the Levasseur treasure led Cruise-Wilkins to study the Twelve Labours of Hercules, where various tasks of increasing degrees of difficulty must be overcome in order to solve the riddle.

Cruise-Wilkins Sr died in 1977 and it’s believed his son, John, took up his father’s quest. It’s not known whether he has yet discovered the fabled haul.

Will the Levasseur Cipher Ever Be Decoded?

Where is the Levasseur treasure? (Credit: wragg via Getty Images)

The prevailing theories about the Levasseur code, also known as La Buse’s cipher, revolve around its supposed indication of the location of his hidden treasure, one of the most sought-after pirate treasures in history.

Some theorists believe the cryptogram is a complex map that requires specific geographical and historical knowledge to decode, possibly pointing to locations in the Indian Ocean islands like the Seychelles or Mauritius.

Others suggest the cipher may include instructions encoded in a unique combination of symbols, requiring a key or legend to decipher.

There are also sceptics who argue the cryptogram might be a hoax or an unsolvable puzzle left by Olivier Levasseur to lead future treasure hunters on a wild goose chase. Despite numerous attempts to crack the cipher, its true meaning and the location of Levasseur’s treasure remain one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the pirate era.

Others point to the idea that Levasseur left no code at all, and it was in fact a work of fiction, dreamed up in the 20th century as a tall tale of piracy.

The Bewildering Buzzard: The Search for the Levasseur Treasure

An illustration of a pirate with a skull & crossbones flag (Credit: peepo via Getty Images)

In the shadowy annals of piracy, Olivier Levasseur – La Buse – stands as a testament to the allure and mystery that cloaked the pirate era.

From his beginnings as a privateer to his reign over the seas as a fearsome pirate, Levasseur’s story is woven with tales of audacious captures, a strict pirate code, and a treasure that continues to ignite the imaginations of treasure hunters all over the world.

The Levasseur Cipher, a perplexing puzzle that has resisted solution, epitomises the enduring enigma of pirates and their hidden loot. Whether the cipher will ever yield its secrets remains to be seen, but the legend of Olivier Levasseur endures, a symbol of the boundless quest for adventure and a fascination with riches that lie tantalisingly out of reach.


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