Pirates have played an important role in the history of Roatan. Since the early days of the Spanish conquest of Latin America, buccaneers have used the island has a hide-out for the purpose of raiding gold and other treasures that were being loaded on the ships and passing through the Bay Islands of Honduras on the route to Spain. In the late 1600’s, Henry Morgan hid out in Port Royal along with John Coxen (in which the city of Coxen Hole is named after) and Dutchman Van Home with several ships and untold amounts of booty. As many as 5,000 pirates were believed to have settled in Roatan as a safe harbor reunion at one time.
As the celebration of the pirates’ reunion died down, they set about finding new spots to clean ships, sailing to Utila. But of course, pirates were not going to publicly record where they sailed or buried their treasure, so much of this is left to speculation. Roatan’s most famous pirate is Henry Morgan, who interestingly enough, was a legally plundering! Henry Morgan had a commission from Lord Windsor that authorized him to attack the ships and villages of nations at war with England, and he was obligated under his commission to turn over a percentage of his spoils to the government. Morgan was a pilot and a legal pirate – he had a home to go home too and was authorized to steal and plunder so long as he provided money back to his home country.
The pirate reign ended in 1650, when Spain, under the command of Francisco Villanueva Toledo, attacked Port Royal with four warships and forced the pirates to flee. Countless tales of buried treasure hidden in the sea caves of Santa Helena and the eastern reaches of Roatan still remain. Some claim that lost artifacts such as the chain of Huayna Capac, taken from the Inca ruler by the Spanish, and a golden life-size virgin crated by priests in Panama that was loaded on a ship in Colon never made it to Europe, are still hidden somewhere in Roatan. Archaeologist Mitchell-Hedges, famous for his crystal skull, lived on the island for almost a decade in the 1920’s and 1930’s, and did considerable exploring on the eastern end. He was one of the first adventures to explore Old Port Royal, and legend has it he even found several chests filled with gold and silver, which he snuck of the island and sold in England, but never reported.
However, this leads us to a good question as to why a pirate would bury treasure in the first place? The obvious explanation would be the only time buried treasure could be found was either when pirates physically could not carry it all (making Roatan probable) or had to hide it because they could not spend it without suspicion. If you stole gold coins marked with a French emblem, I highly doubt that you could waltz into France and spend it without drawing an awful amount of attention to yourself. The key would be to trade treasure for treasure or take it back to your country of origin and perform a legal currency exchange. Without these two options, pirates were left with treasure that they could not legally distribute for trade. This would make the option of burying treasure a suitable solution; find an investor or a willing participant to help you make the exchange and go back and collect the prize. This is somewhat what William the Kidd attempted to do to ensure that he did not get murdered as he was the only key back to the treasure.
What Do You Do if You Actually Find Treasure in Roatan or Utila?
But let’s take this one step further, suppose you find buried treasure in Roatan or Utila? Imagine it now, you have struck the big time and found over $1,000,000 in precious gold coins. The thrill of “I’m rich!” echoes in your head. All the financial woes of the past have just melted away in oblivion until a little voice in your head says, “Now what?”
Yes, there is the logical, practical side of you speaking now. You have done the impossible and found the bounty, but now, how do you actually get paid on this amazing discovery? If your a local and find gold coins, I highly doubt you want to start distributing gold coins to vendors – they aren’t going to be able to break the change and in the first transaction, someone is going to get suspicious. And what if you are a tourist? I highly find it wise to sit there and attempt to go through customs with suitcases of gold coins. Ha ha, yea right.
No, seriously think about it. If you find the treasure in the water, maritime law states that you have to report it. But what happens then? In the United States, all different state laws apply but generally, you should report the property to the sheriff’s office and if it goes unclaimed, then its yours. Naturally, most Americans would consult legal advice to get a representative on their side of the transaction. However, there goes a small chunk of the prize to the lawyer.
Half of the value may have to be shared with the owner of the land
In the US, you very well may have to pay half of the treasure to the owner of the land in which you found it. But important items – those declared to be “treasure” – have to be handed over to the state, in which case the committee that takes charge has discretion over the size of the reward given to the finder and landowner. “Assuming that what you have found is treasure, as defined by the Treasure Act 1996, the Treasure Valuation Committee will value the find and an ex-gratia payment will be made as a reward,” said Trevor Austin, a member of the committee and general secretary of the National Council for Metal Detecting.
In the US, if you keep buried treasure (treasure-trove), it is taxable income based on the fair market value on the the day it was found and undisputedly yours
As a US citizen, if you find treasure, as much as 50% of it could go to to Uncle Sam so pray you can sell it. If not, you are still going owe the tax because the treasure trove rule is based on fair market value on the date that the property is undisputedly yours. Therefore, for tax purposes, finding treasure can be costly, especially if you can’t find a buyer. Don’t believe me? Ask John and Mary, the North Carolina Couple who found $10 million worth of gold coins when walking their dog. Thankfully, for them, however, they found the coins in their country of origin and got to keep some of it!
Out of $1,000,000 in Buried Treasure, You Would Only Get to Keep around $220,000 (if you were lucky!)
$1,000,000 (Beginning Value of Treasure)
$604,000 (Total Value of Treasure After Federal Tax is Paid)
$543,600 (Total Value of Coins After State Tax is Paid)
$272,800 (Total Value of Coins when split with land owner)
$269,000 (Total Value of Coins after Treasure Valuation Assessment)
$240,000 (Total Value of Coins for Legal Advice)
$220,000 (Total Value of Coins)
Mitchell Found Treasure on Roatan and Bailed but it was not easy
It is a fact that near Old Port Royal Mitchell Hedges discovered four chests filled to the brim with gold bullion, which were reaped from the Spanish by the pirates of Roatan. As the story goes, Mitchell Hedges’ friend, known as Doctor Ball, was walking around one of the nearby keys near old Port Royal with a compass in hand. Suddenly the compass started going mad, with the needle spinning around in all different directions. He told him about the compass’s behaviour and the two of them decided that the only thing that would make the compass behave in such a way was a large amount of metal buried under the surface of the key. The two men wasted no time and started digging and found four chests full of gold treasure.
They placed the chests back in the ground for later recovery and searched the rest of the island with the compass. They found nothing. Someone, however, rumored that the police in Coxen Hole had been tipped off to the discovery of the treasure. Wasting no time, the three explorers recovered three of the four chests that night and loaded them onto the Amigo and quickly set sail across swelling seas to the town of Belize which was then the capital of British Honduras.
Mitchell Hedges anchored the Amigo 150 miles off the coast of a small key and headed into the mainland on the Amigos extra boat. He returned several hours later with some lumber from which the expedition made three new chests for their treasure and dumped the old crusty ones into the sea. They then headed back inland and booked passage on a steamer that was headed for New York, their treasure safely stored in the cargo hold of the ship with the label Maya artifacts across the sides. When the three explorers arrived in New York, Mitchell Hedges sold off his lost treasure for the sum of $6,000,000 US.
Find treasure and you know what it feels like to be a pirate
Bottom line, if you find treasure on the island of Roatan or Utila, you are going to feel like a pirate for the very first time, because I guarantee that you will re-bury the bounty until you figure out what you are going to do. Considering the legal and tax consequences, finding treasure is not what it seems to be and there are many hoops to go through to legally be able to claim the prize. Some people may decide to leave it buried and make a map, always knowing that it will be there if they need it (minus the paranoia if someone else has found it). However, no amount of treasure is worth losing your liberty and I would recommend consulting an attorney immediately if you find a trove and decide that you want to go through the steps to get a portion of the bounty. Also remember, that money has made good people do incredibly stupid things. Sometimes, the lust of gold is better left within the cold depths of the sea or dirt.
But, ironically, now you know what it felt like to be a pirate…they had their stock in gold, but were always cash poor when the loot was buried in the ground. Stolen money seems to be cursed even if found and most of it is taken back in the end!
Happy Treasure Hunting!