I’ve previously blogged a number of times about Bernardin Nagéon de l’Estang: the short version is that I have yet to see a single piece of external evidence that he genuinely existed. A man with the right name did exist in the right place, but some 25 years too early for the dates: and so the reasonable – but as yet entirely unproven – presumption is that we should be looking for an unrecorded son of this man sharing his father’s name. The man certainly had several sons, not all of which are recorded… but that’s as far as we have been able to get.
The reason anybody cares about him is that he wrote (in French, translated here) that “…at our last battle with a large British frigate on the shores of Hindustan, the captain was wounded and on his deathbed confided to me his secrets and his papers to retrieve considerable treasure buried in the Indian Ocean; and, having first made sure that I was a Freemason, asked me to use it to arm privateers against the English.” Secrets and papers which treasure hunters have been speculating wildly about ever since.
In a post from April 2015 [which I managed to miss until very recently],
Emmanuel Mezino blogged about the evidence he had managed to dig up about Nagéon de l’Estang. From internal evidence, Manu reasons that the event where Nagéon de l’Estang claimed to have gained possession of “secrets” and “papers” from a dying French Freemason sea captain must surely have happened prior to 1789 [though personally I’m not so sure his logic holds]; and so Manu then winds the historical clock back to 1781-1783 when, in a series of five battles between Admiral Hughes’s squadron and Admiral le Bailli de Suffren’s squadron off the coast of Cuddalore, three French sea-captains died. Manu lists these as:
* The Chevalier Eleonore Perier de Salvert (whose life and Freemasonry connections are ably described here), commander of Le Flamand [50 guns];
* Captain Dupas de la Mancelière, Captain of the Ajax [64 guns];
* Capitain Dien, Commander of the fire-ship [probably 0 guns] launched under the orders of Capitain De Langle of Le Sévère [64 guns].
Manu thinks it probable that it was the Chevalier de Salvert whom Bernardin Nagéon de l’Estang was alluding to: and opening up H.C.M. Austen’s trusty “Sea Fights and Corsairs of the Indian Ocean” (which specifically covers this series of sea-battles in Chapter V), we find a report (p.188) of de Salvert’s death noted by William Hickey, who had met de Salvert several times on board his ship in January of that year:
“I was greatly concerned to to hear that in this action [the fifth and final sea battle] my worthy and respected friend the Chevalier de Salvert lost his life, being cut in two by a cannon-ball on the quarter-deck of the Flamand, while gallantly fighting his ship and encouraging her crew to use their utmost exertions to ensure success. I truly grieved at his death, notwithstanding he died fighting against my country, but that was no fault of his, and I firmly believe a better man never lived, such are the dire and lamentable consequences of war, the best men often being the most unfortunate.”
[Taken from “Memoirs of William Hickey”, published by Messrs. Hurst and Blackett, Ltd, but I’d be more interested in reading this in context in the original Vol III (or possibly Vol II?) than the abridged later version “The Prodigal Rake”.]
All the same, there must surely be many more accounts of this highly-respected Chevalier’s death in the archives yet to be found…
Manu goes on in a second post to recount how he found references to a certain Hélène Nagéon de Lestang, who married the creole poet Antoine Bertin at her stepfather’s property in Sainte-Domingue, and links this to the (nearby) 1770 birthplace of (the very real) Jean Marius Justin Nagéon de Lestang.
So that’s as far as Manu got with normal archival research, i.e. not really anywhere substantial. Close, but no cigar.
But then he pulls a gigantic rabbit from his hat, the testimony of Ali Loumi Ben Kace, as given in treasure hunter Patrice Hoffschir’s (2002) Bourbon l’̂île aux tresors:
“One day, in a sea port in Sicily, I drank too much: and woke up at sea on a pirate ship owned by Bernard Nagéon. I spent more than two years on this ship. […] In the Indian Ocean, we fought with two English corvettes, but we had to flee by night along the coast of Bourbon Island, with a broken main mast and sails, and with four holes torn in the hull. We were then stranded on a reef; and after throwing all the ballast overboard, the boat escaped the reef and we landed on the island. But the hull was holed on a rock and we were all forced to land there. Bernard Nagéon became almost crazy. Despite the waves, he ordered everyone to save what was possible. We managed to get a big chest and a barrel of gold ashore with the captain. […] I saw Bernard himself making marks in the lava rock: a heart and a “B9″ shape – everything is hidden there because both holes are now resealed. We left three weeks later on the galley of François Boivin of Saint-Malo, Bernard leaving everything concealed lest Boivin steals it all. […]. ”
Which, to my ears, sounds utterly peachy and completely made up. But… might it be true? There’s a little more on Hoffschir here, who goes treasure hunting with “une grande dose de spiritualité”. Hmmm…