Southwest of Melbourne, the Legend of the Queenscliff treasure has kept fortune hunters searching for 150 years.
Like any good buried treasure story, this one starts with a pirate: Benito ‘Bloody Sword’ Bonito.
Bonito was Spanish, and made his name in the early 19th century as the feared captain of the ‘Relampago’ (‘Lightning’). From his hideout on a small Pacific Island, Bonito and his crew stalked the west coast of the Americas, plundering ships laden with riches from the New World.
Their most daring feat is known as ‘The Loot of Lima’.
During the Peruvian War of Independence (1809 – 1826), the Spanish authorities attempted to evacuate a substantial treasure from the cathedral in Lima. Among the many valuables: four life size statues of saints, made of gold and encrusted with jewels.
Lima was about to be lost to the Peruvian insurgents, the Spaniards wanted to move the treasure by sea to a safer location. Bonito intercepted the ships, captured the loot, and headed for his island hideout.
But he was already a wanted man. The Relampago was spotted by two British man-o-wars, and a lengthy chase ensued.
Blown far off course by a storm, Bonito became lost. When he regained his bearings, he found himself off the southeast of Australia.
Bonito put into Port Phillip Bay, then uninhabited by Europeans, and anchored in a sheltered cove.
He then had his cargo put ashore in long boats. Bonito’s men had found caves in the cliffs above the bay, and he used these to hide his treasure.
To further obscure the location, the ridge above the caves was blown up with gunpowder, closing the entrance.
Bonito then put back to sea. His English pursuers reacquired him and the chase resumed; this time, the Relampago was run down. Battle was joined, but the pirates were outnumbered and soon beaten.
Rather than surrender, Bonito committed suicide, shooting himself with a pistol. His crew were captured, and later imprisoned.
Pirate stories were popular in the 19th century, and Bonito’s dramatic tale of plunder and pursuit was often told.
It had additional significance in Australia; far removed from pirate hotspots in the Atlantic and Pacific, locals relished sharing a story that happened closer to home.
There was also the matter of the hidden treasure.
Queenscliff is a small coastal town at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, about 65 kilometres southwest of Melbourne. It was founded in 1836 by squatters, and later expanded to support a whaling and sealing station.
In the 1880s, as Melbourne boomed economically, Queenscliff become popular as a tourist destination.
A regular steamship brought holiday-makers to the town, where they could enjoy fishing, hiking, and the coastal scenery. Several lavish hotels were built, to offer hospitality and accommodation.
Bonito’s treasure was a much discussed local legend.
North of Queenscliff is Swan Bay, an uninhabited, oval shaped cove separated from Port Phillip Bay by a narrow strait. Swan Bay is wild, and rugged; a remote location, home to abundant bird life, and surrounded by low, limestone cliffs.
An ideal hiding spot for treasure, and one that matched the description from Bonito’s story. From the mid-19th century, fortune hunters began searching the area for the missing riches.
People explored the coastline by boat, and the caves and beaches on foot. Shafts were dug into the cliffs, and widened into exploratory tunnels; charts and historical records were combed for clues.
But the treasure remained elusive.
In 1931, a consortium of fortune hunters made a concerted effort to locate the treasure.
Obtaining planning permission from the local council, the group employed a mining engineer to oversee a substantial tunnelling program.
‘The men sank timbered shafts and installed boring equipment, pumping equipment, and powerful electric lights. Labourers and divers were hired to explore the caves.’
– Melbourne ‘Sunday Herald’
The operation continued for several years.
But despite this systematic effort, no treasure was found. After the search concluded, the tunnels were sealed up again, on the grounds of public safety.
In June 1953, a visiting tourist found a silver coin on the beach in Swan Bay.
The coin was old and its provenance unknown. A faint outline of a lion was visible on one side, some experts thought it may have originated in England, during the 18th century rule of Queen Anne.
The discovery triggered another wave of interest in Bonito’s missing treasure.
The local council even saw it as an opportunity to increase tourism. Signs were erected around Swan Bay, recounting Bonito’s story, and shire councillor L. Klegg proposed erecting billboards around the state.
‘Come to Queenscliff and find the treasure!’ he said in a newspaper interview, estimating the value of the horde at 20 million pounds.
Scores of amateur treasure hunters duly made their way to Swan Bay, to once again try their luck. Several of these were interviewed by the press, claiming they had discovered lost clues, or secret treasure maps.
Another syndicate was formed and deployed a large steam shovel, to excavate an underground chamber they claimed to have found.
But despite the media coverage and many thousands of optimistic searchers, once again nothing turned up. After a few years, with no further developments, interest in the story ebbed away again. The odd fossicker would still make their to Swan Bay, but the treasure appeared to be permanently lost.
And there the matter may have rested.
But there is one final twist in the legend of the Queenscliff treasure: both Bonito, and the Loot of Lima, are completely made up.
You can see the problem on the billboard the council erected.
The sign has Bonito’s flight to Port Phillip Bay occurring in 1796; this is ten years before the Peruvian war of independence even started, and 25 years before the evacuation of Lima – where the treasure was meant to have originated – occurred.
How to explain these discrepancies?
A quick google search for ‘Benito Bonito’ reveals: not very much. Nothing by way of a formal bio, not even a Wikipedia page.
For a real historical figure, one attached to exciting Pirates-of-the-Caribbean style exploits, this seems unlikely.
It turns out, Benito Bonito is actually a literary fiction; a tall tale cobbled together from fragments of real stories, and embellished in the re-telling.
And his treasure is invented as well.
19th century pirate stories were so popular, people could not contain themselves to actual events.
Among the many legends that circulated was the story of a mysterious ‘treasure island’, where an enormous cache of wealth had been hidden. There are many versions of this story, and where it originated is unclear.
But the fundamentals are common: a particularly large amount of treasure is stolen by a savage pirate, and hidden in a secret location. The pirate is then apprehended and his crew captured or killed, leaving only one witness – often times a cabin boy – who can find the treasure again.
There may be a secret map.
Robert Louis Stevenson immortalised the tale in his 1883 novel ‘Treasure Island’, but the book was inspired by stories that had been circulating for decades beforehand.
Cocos Island, off the coast of Costa Rica, was long rumoured to be the real life hiding spot for this legendary treasure. And many fortune hunters made their way there to search for it; sinking shafts, digging tunnels, and exploring the island’s caves.
August Gissler, a German adventurer, was so sure there was treasure on Cocos Island he spent 17 years searching for it. He lived on the island from 1888 to 1905, searching the entire time, and was even appointed governor for a period.
Gissler eventually moved to New York, having found only a few gold coins.
Many variants of the ‘Treasure Island’ story sprung up through the 19th century, featuring different pirates and hiding places.
Benito Bonito appears to be the creation of a Queenscliff local named John Karisimo. An early settler, Karisimo was a former sailor, known by his colourful nickname, ‘Stingaree Jack’.
Karisimo would regale other locals with tales of his life at sea, one of which involved him serving as a cabin boy on a Spanish ship. In this version, Karisimo met the eyewitness; a fellow sailor who had served under Bonito, seen the treasure being hidden in Swan Bay, and been the one to escape when Bonito was apprehended.
Karisimo had drawn a map based on what he was told, which was tattooed on his arm.
But when people were unable to follow his directions to the treasure, Karisimo claimed to have moved it. He died, without having revealed where.
As time passed, the story’s origin became obscured, until this tall tale was often reported as verified fact.
While Bonito was a fictional creation, Karisimo drew inspiration from real life.
A pirate named Dom Pedro operated off Central and South America in the 1820s, his ship was named ‘Relampago’. Another real pirate, Benito de Soto, appears to have supplied the name.
The ‘Loot of Lima’ is its own fascinating rabbit hole of myth, and appears to be entirely imaginary.
While substantial valuables were kept in the 19th century cathedral in Lima, these were successfully removed by the Spanish without incident. Many of the other ‘Treasure Island’ stories, although not all, also feature this phantom missing wealth.
Across the internet, many pages still report it as one of history’s great lost treasure, it’s value now estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
In Queenscliff, a small number of people continue the search.
In 2017, treasure hunters were blamed for damaging a historic well attached to the nearby Point Lonsdale lighthouse. And in 2019, local historian Robert Ingpen presented what he claimed were new clues to the location of the treasure, at the Queenscliff Historical society.
The town’s official website offers gentle encouragement:
‘While walking along the sandy beaches, you may just stumble upon the mythical hidden treasure in Queenscliff. The treasure is said to belong to the Pirate Benito Benita, who hid it in a cave on the cliffs on Swan Bay, and then sealed in it with gun powder.’