The Left Hand of Darkness: left-handedness and pirate treasure

I’ve been away. I took a little trip to the High Middle Ages, where I read a whole lot of Old English aloud to 23thorns.

Faeder ure bu be eart on heofonum, Si bin nama gehalgot. Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. How wonderful is that?!

I wrote desperate love letters to John of Gaunt (he wasn’t interested) and put a pillow case on my head to imagine myself in a wimple (not a great look for me). But, I am back, and I am left-handed.

Dear John...

Dear John…

I have always been left-handed and have taken great interest in anybody else who is too. We’re a special club – about 10% of the world’s population – and we have all been tortured by the lever arch file. In the same way that Land Rover drivers wave at each other on the road and people who discover they share a star sign feel an immediate kinship, left-handers raise their metaphorical eyebrows at each other in recognition of our shared difference. Douglas Adams, Bill Clinton, Hans Holbein the younger the great Tudor artist, Jack the Ripper, Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain, Leonardo Da Vinci, Oprah Winfrey – it’s a cool club. In researching the Plantagenets, however, I came across the work of Cesare Lambroso. Cesare lived from 1835-1909. He had nothing to do with the Plantagenets, but research can take you to some interesting places. He had rather a lot to do with the study of left-handedness in the 19th century though and he did not think we were a cool club. He thought we were criminals and degenerates.

Cesare Lombroso

Cesare Lombroso

Cesare, “the father of modern criminology” developed a system to identify the “criminal, the insane and the feeble-minded”. He identified common physical traits of society’s least-wanted that aligned them more closely to beasts than men – they included a profusion of moles, “primitive pubic hair”, and left-handedness. These biological throwbacks to a more primitive stage in our evolution, he called atavisms.

As “man advances in civilization and culture”, he wrote in 1903, “he shows an always greater right-sidedness as compared to…women and savage races, [who] even when they are not properly left-handed have certain gestures and movements which are a species of left-handedness”.

Lombroso asserted, “that left-handed people are more numerous among criminals, and sensitive left-sided people among lunatics”. This led him to formulate a “simple hypothesis…that criminals are more often left-handed than honest men, and lunatics are more sensitively left-sided”. He argued that “in criminals and lunatics the right lobe predominates very much more often than in normal persons”. Thus, “while the healthy man thinks and feels with the left lobe, the abnormal, thinks, wills, and feels more with the right”. Although Lombroso did not claim “that all left-handed people are wicked,” he was convinced “that left-handedness, united to many other traits, may contribute to form one of the worst characters among the human species”.

From The Lancet written by Howard I Kushner

Wasn’t Cesare a charmer?! He did get me thinking though. There is not much criminality in my family tree that I know of, although once when I was a little girl my father did sign our hotel breakfast to a randomly selected room number with a suitably unreadable signature before speeding away from the gravel parking lot after the taking of toast and tea. There is quite a lot of insanity in the tree though and I started thinking that perhaps Cesare was onto something. And perhaps the reason that I love pirates so much (the 17th century ones) is that my left-handedness betrays my inherent savage nature. It certainly can have absolutely nothing to do with Johnny Depp.

I know pirates were awful. I know they were dirty; they had dreadlocks and they smelled. I’m reading about a group of Barbary corsairs who in 1627 raided Iceland and captured men, women and children for the slave trade. (There must have been an awful lot of money in the slave trade to warrant a trip from the north coast of Africa to Iceland. Iceland, for goodness’ sake!). Below is an excerpt from the diary of Reverend Olafur who witnessed the raid and was captured.

The pirates quartered the island, capturing people wherever they found them, young and old, women and men and infants. They chased after people in their houses, across the mountain slopes, in caves and holes, and killed everybody who fought against them. The dead lay everywhere. Only a few of the people who were strongest, or had nothing to carry, or did not pay attention to anybody else, managed to avoid capture. I and my poor wife were among the first to be taken.

The pirates surrounded the Landakirkja church, shooting and hewing at it with axes until they broke in. First they stole the vestements and dressed themselves up. Then they trooped away, driving everyone they captured towards the Danish houses. Those who could not move as fast as the pirates wished, they beat to death and left lying behind.

from The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson by Adam Nichols and Karl Hreinsson

Barbary Corsairs

Barbary Corsairs

I know they were not nice men but I have always loved stories about them. I ate up the stories of democracy on board ship, the female pirates who dressed themselves in men’s clothes in order to escape their lives of drudgery, and the stories of buried treasure. Who doesn’t like stories of buried treasure?  So, it was with great excitement that the family set off for the Seychelles about a month ago. The kids were excited about going overseas, 23 was excited about snorkelling, and I was excited about pirates.

The Seychelles is a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, miles from anywhere. The great empire builders were slow to colonise it because there was no indigenous population to enslave and force into work on plantations. It was eventually colonised, with labour shipped in. Then there were coffee plantations and vanilla orchid farms. Colonial mansions with big airy rooms were built. Civilization moved in, but before civilization came to stay, pirates visited often. The islands were out of the way but close to the route European ships would be taking from the Spice Islands back home. It was warm, it was beautiful, there was fresh water if you felt up to hacking your way through the tropical jungles.

Ile aux Cocos

Ile aux Cocos and if you look very closely, my son, playing castaway – the only person on the little island

When we first went to the Seychelles 10 years and two children ago, we met a man on Bel Ombre beach who had shipped in great earth movers and was making a great mess and a big hole on a beautiful beach. We started chatting and it turned out he was a modern-day treasure hunter. He had inherited his father’s treasure “map” and he was on the hunt for pirate, Olivier Levasseur’s fabled treasure.

In the 1720s Olivier, known as La Buse, captured the heavily laden Portuguese galleon Nossa Senhora do Cabo (Our Lady of the Cape). On board ship was vast treasure: “bars of gold and silver, dozens of boxes full of golden Guineas, diamonds, pearls, silk, art and religious objects from the Se Cathedral in Goa, including the Flaming Cross of Goa made of pure gold, inlaid with diamonds, rubies and emeralds”. Once divided, each pirate had treasure equal in today’s money to over £7,500,000. Shortly after the raid immunity was offered to pirates who gave up their thieving ways, if they turned themselves and some of the treasures in. La Buse didn’t want to part with his ill-gotten gains, so set himself up in the Seychelles. He went out now and then though on shopping expeditions perhaps and was eventually arrested off the coast of Madagascar and sentenced to hang. As he waited on the scaffold, legend tells that he threw down a coded letter which showed the whereabouts of his buried treasure. When engravings were found on the rocks of Bel Ombre beach, the letter and the engravings were put together and the hunt began.

La Buse's cryptogram

La Buse’s cryptogram

The man we met on Bel Ombre beach was Seychellois history teacher, John Cruise-Wilkins. He was certain that he was close to breaking the code. The cryptogram spoke of an underground chamber which would flood at high tide. It spoke of the 12 labours of Hercules. He showed us some coins that he had already dug up. It was a wonderful story but I couldn’t help but think that if I were a pirate, I would never have buried my treasure on the beach or anywhere close to it. I would have buried it further inland. I would have buried it at the foot of the massive granite outcrop directly behind the beach. The beach sands shift too often to reliably find a particular spot after potentially years away. Of course my thinking I knew better is all hubris. It is the hubris of a left-handed savage though, and you know what they say, it takes one to know one.

Bel Ombre engravings

Bel Ombre engravings

So it was that 10 years after first hearing about Levasseur, we were in the Seychelles again and ready to find ourselves some treasure. We were on a different island this time. We were nowhere near Bel Ombre beach, but I thought that if there was treasure on one of the islands, there must be treasure on the others. I was going to find my own treasure markers on Praslin. We could retire, sell our story to the History Channel, and live out our autumn years in paradise with an earth mover and a film crew.

Sadly, it was not to be. What I hadn’t reckoned on was quite how different a family holiday would be from those 23 and I had taken before. Back in the day we always walked a lot, away from the main tourist attractions, and found wonderful hidden histories and pleasures. This Seychelles holiday was a big family affair – granny, all the aunts and uncles, all the cousins – 18 of us in all. Our children quite simply refused to be parted from their cousins, so we moved from the beach (20 metres from our room) to the pool (20 metres from our room) and back again. By day 4 of this, I was struck down with cabin fever and insisted that we were going on a treasure hunt whether the family liked it or not. The mountain that we climbed was at a 45 degree incline and within about 5 minutes of leaving the hotel things began to unravel. My son needed the loo, 23 needed a beer, we were dripping in sweat. I saw a spider bigger than my hand and needed a tranquillizer. We turned around and went back to the pool, to the beach, to the room.

With that behind us though, I started to think again. With my sinister left-handed insight into the minds of the mad, bad and sad, and my newly acquired knowledge of people-moving in paradise, perhaps La Buse really did bury his treasure on the beach. Because pirate ships were democratically run, perhaps La Buse had stood up like me and shouted instructions to his crew to bury his treasure beneath that granite boulder. Perhaps like my family, they had looked at him then at the perfect blue sea. La Buse. La relaxation. Perhaps like my lot, they set off under protest. And perhaps just like my lot they turned around and buried the whole hoard in the sand right back where they started.

Next time we go to the Seychelles, I’m going to join John on Bel Ombre beach. I’ll examine those rock engravings. I’m sure we’ll find that they were carved by a left-handed soul. I’m sure they’ll actually be the plaintive cries of a pirate worn down by democracy, his words echoing through the ages, “When you find yourself a family, not only will you never walk alone, you’ll never walk anywhere.” And maybe, just maybe, we can dig up some pirate treasure. Aaargh.

49 thoughts on “The Left Hand of Darkness: left-handedness and pirate treasure

  1. I am working in a team of 6 at moment – 5 are lefties…………..we are taking over the world!!!

  2. I shall watch back, front AND sides……

    By the way, why are people ambidextrous and not ambisinistrous?

    The long term assumption of the handists no doubt.

    • Indeed. I like the idea of using ambisinistrous though. I am a fan of made-up words (if Shakespeare did it why can’t we?) and as I use my right hand to play tennis or wield a sledgehammer, I can use it to refer to myself in everyday conversation almost immediately!

  3. This is so wonderful. How lovely to imagine the beach loaded with buried treasure and you the one to find it. I am not left handed but I would dig beside you any day Tracy.

  4. Women, left handers and criminals. Sounds like a winning combination. Maybe we should insist on such a trio in all our world leaders. Couldn’t be worse than the current wastrels!

      • 🙂 I think the world could do with a few more wobbly hearts. From my entirely wobbly perspective, I think the world needs a little more kindness and I think those who wobble more are in a position to give it.

        Stephen Fry said of kindness: “I suppose the thing that I would have like to have known or be reassured about is that in the world, what counts more than talent, what counts more than energy or concentration or commitment or anything else, is kindness. And the more in the world you encounter kindness – or cheerfulness which is its kind of amiable uncle or aunt – the more… just the better the world always is. And all the big words – virtue, justice, truth – are dwarfed by the greatness of kindness.”

      • I also suspect that some right handers are secretly envious of lefties. They often have the edge on the rest of us. They know what we know but they know what they know as well.

  5. There is a website for left handed kitchen equipment that sounds like a good idea. How, Tracy, in all seriousness, do you open a tin (well, did open a tin in the days before portable electric battery charged tin openers)?

    • I’m quite handy with the right hand, although scissors were difficult to master. I did once even manage to write an exam with my right hand. I had broken my left and it was in a cast. I was given extra time and literally wept through the whole thing – the frustration was awful – but I did it!

  6. I remember the “Left Handers” being led out of class like lambs to the slaughter when I first started school…they were being “re-educated” in how to be ambidextrous just in case the good lord came back and managed to isolate a closeted nest of them residing within our hallowed school…I suggest that the 23Thorn family en masse might want to head to a little lesser known Aussie island (so lesser known that the name of it escapes me at the current moment…) where a stash of 1000 year old Dutch coins are said to be resting. Apparently they were left there by the Dutch for some reason (probably because they didn’t want to spend them and upper-cumbuckance Australia isn’t somewhere that pirates could be bothered to head to in search of Dutch treasure…) and are still there to this very day. AARRRGGGHHH indeed Mrs 23Thorns, my mum used to have a superstition where if her left hand itched it meant that she was going to get some money…she would rub it on wood…her left hand, not the money (which she very rarely received but that is another story!)…perhaps there is some deep primal need to isolate the blood nut and the lefty into alternate camps and keep the pure races ethnically cleansed. I, for one, am glad of our lefties, our red heads and our blue eyed genes…all the better for hunting treasure me hearties!

    • Ooh…that island sounds just right. I’m coming to Australia in July. I might pop past for a preliminary investigation. A little house-hunting. In SA we have the Kruger millions supposedly buried somewhere in the hinterland. Some people have devoted their lives to finding them but so far not a cent has turned up.

      • You are house hunting in Australia? Do we get the feeling that the 23 Thorns are migrating down under? “Break out the XXXX…the Thorns are almost here!”

      • If we find the Dutch treasure, then maybe we could have a second home but no, we’re South African until they throw us out. Also, Australia wouldn’t take us. Apparently you have to be rich or useful!

        I’m visiting some friends in Sydney en route to meet long-lost family in New Zealand.

      • Long lost/far flung family ;). Not so sure about the rich or useful, they let Steve in and he has trouble fitting into either of those niches 😉

      • Very far flung. 10 hours time difference! The thought of the flight is daunting, as is getting past those Border Security people in Australia. Last time I visited, in 2008, I declared that I had been on a farm in the week before travelling because our son had bunnies and a guinea pig at his nursery school. I’m honest like that. I had to show them the soles of my shoes while they spoke to me in officious tones. They didn’t ask me to open my suitcase though. I obviously looked like a gormless time waster. Now that I’ve seen them on the telly though, I’m going to walk through customs like a gibbering wreck. I will be even more of an idiot.

      • Just a hint…DON’T forget that you have a banana in your lunch box. The sniffer dogs get more excited about bananas and honey sandwiches than they do about heroin. If you are planning on gifting your long lost rellies any form of insect or bird or reptilian house gift, you might want to wear it like an earring or stole or hat and plead ignorance when questioned “sorry sir? I bought this from a nice man at the market…what do you mean it is winking at you!”…My mother carried a fruitcake, 3 jars of fruit jam and several cactus cuttings in the heel of her shoe over here from Western Australia. When the sniffer dog sat down at her bag, she told them that she had been eating a banana on the plane and because she was obviously old and doddery they smiled and let her through. My mother was a fruitcake smuggler… we are all pirates in our own little way 😉

  7. Great to see a new post from you, TLH! And a very entertaining one at that. Now that I understand a bit more about the nature of lefties, I realize this explains a great deal about several of my in-laws. I have but one question: “Primitive pubic hair?” As opposed to…what? I am now going to head off to bed with the most disturblingly eye-scalding images of teasing combs, rollers and hair spray, all being used in ways that surely just ain’t right!

    • It is a phrase I grappled with too! I mean, I’m left-handed. I have a mole or two. Would I have failed all of Cesare’s tests?!

      It is such a laughable concept it reminded me a little of South Africa’s pencil test. In the 1950s after the Group Areas Act and Immorality Act were enacted (GA said people of colour couldn’t live in white areas; IA made it a criminal offense to marry across the colour line) thousands of coloured (mixed race) families applied to be reclassified as white. They had to go to court, where on occasion their barbers were called to testify that their hair was straight enough. If it could hold a pencil in its curls, it wasn’t straight enough and you were not reclassified. If the pencil slipped from your luscious locks onto the floor, you were given a new birth certificate; you were “born again”, born white.

      Anyhoo…the hair iron is ready, must dash!

      • I have a hundred moles, at least. Someone should be keeping an eye on me. I am obviously a risk to society. But I do pass your pencil test. Which reminds me. When I was much younger, and going braless was becoming a fashion statement, instead of just a political one, we had a pencil test, too. It was how you determined if you were small-bosomed enough to ditch the bra and not create a scandal. You slipped the pencil directly under a breast (presumably your own), and if it stayed in place, you were already too full-figured to skip wearing the bra. If it fell to the floor, so could that particular piece of lingerie.

        Who would have thought pencils could be so illuminating, influencing everything from what lingerie one should or should not wear to one’s racial classification. Amazing.

    • Yay for us and our inked palms!

      I’m reading the How to Train Your Dragon books to my son and all the Viking pirates have Scottish accents. I don’t know why but they do. It felt right. So, if he ever met you he would be quite beside himself – Scottish accent, scars, teeth glinting in the sunlight (you’d have to not meet him in Scotland for that I’d imagine :)).

      • Excellent! I’ll start practising my Johnny Depp eyeliner in case. (Not that I’m talking to Johnny any more since he did the cliched ‘oops I seem to have left my partner and children for someone who looks like my partner but 20 years younger’ thing).

  8. As an Irish Ambisinstrouser living in Scotland whose Great Great Grandfather was a bosun on a clipper and died in Rio de Janerio of Yellow Fever……I claim full piratical status. Though I do have all my teeth and my hair is a tad short…oh, wait a sec, I am partially blind in my right eye. Can I wear a patch then? Please?

  9. My Scottish accent is perfect…..and can be varied to the town or region (roughly) required. Although, before I lived here I was blissfully unaware of the differences between Edinburgh, Glasgow, inverness etc. So which do you prefer? Or I can adapt my Norn Irn accent to sound maternal etc.

  10. A post near and dear to my heart. Love pirate history! Both my mom and dads side of the family have WAY more than 10%. And quite a few are bipolar, alcoholics or just plain loonIes. Im a leftie and bipolar. My mom is a DARK redhead, blue eyes and a leftie. Too bad she doesn’t think a pirate is in our FT. Mom, my grandmother and great-grand mother had the “leftedness” expunged from them. But they couldn’t expunge the dyslexia that I think developed from this “kindness”. You would think healthcare workers are immune from commenting. Oh, no! I cant compute the number of people who said, “Oh, youre left handed!” Duh. I CAN mirror write, a fun show at parties!

    • Mirror writing. Now that’s a talent, me hearty!

      I can only begin to imagine the terrible frustration involved in being ‘re-educated’. As I said in one of the comments, I once had to write an exam with my right hand after breaking my left. I was 11 or 12 at the time and I can still actually feel the discomfort of it more than a quarter of a century later.

  11. Hey, didn’t John Cruise Wilkins actually found underground caverns and such bellow that area? Hadn’t him being with low monetary fund to keep going with the excavations? Please tell us if you get to know any news! This story is so interesting \o/! I’m going crazy looking for recent news about this oldman and his inherited quest \o/!

    • I’m also dying for news. I wish we’d gone to Mahe this time around just to check up on his progress. 10 years ago, he was talking about receiving money from the BBC who were interested in making a documentary. I’m assuming that fell through. It is the most amazing story and I would love to have an update too. What a cool documentary the story would make! It would certainly be more entertaining that the schlock that the History Channel (a misnomer, if I’ve ever) broadcasts these days.

      If you unearth anything, let me know too.

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