Sometimes the only way to keep a treasure is to let no one know you have it. Vincent de Nevarra was the modest captain of a Spanish ship running supplies between Cuba and the South American mainland. One day at sunrise, as he sailed along the coast toward Cartagena, the captain heard his crew cry out – a large ship visible in the dawn light barely a mile away. Nevarra rushed to the deck. Crossing paths with another ship was always an anxious occasion in the age of pirates. He peered through his glass, and recognized the Cordova, a large merchant vessel which had left Cuba for Spain, loaded with gold, ten months earlier. Its presence off the mainland coast could only mean one thing – it had been taken by pirates and never reached its destination. Nevarra figured his smaller craft could outrun them, so he ordered his crew to turn across the wind and rig the sails for full speed, and stand by to toss their heavier cargo overboard. But he noticed that the Cordova did not pursue; in fact, it had not moved at all, and its sails were in disarray, and not a lantern light could be seen on board. It could be a trick. But Nevarra could not resist his curiosity, and he turned about to approach.
They sailed to within 50 yards and still not a sign of life could be seen on board the Cordova. His crew were frightened and spoke among themselves, loudly enough for the captain to hear, about the wisdom of turning away. But Nevarra instead asked for volunteers for a boarding party. Six men stepped forward, and they set off, not returning until afternoon. They found just one man alive on the Cordova, and barely. Eleven others were dead, and in a wretched state. The diary of one pirate told the tale: most had died fighting over the treasure, and the survivors had died of fever.
Nevarra had little faith in the Spanish authorities. If they returned the ship, and an ounce of gold were missing, he and his crew would be suspected as much as the pirates. They might well be tortured for their efforts. So Nevarra gathered his crew and made them swear in blood to keep the secret. Each would take enough gold for a comfortable retirement back in Spain, but not too much to conceal. Then they would burn the Cordova and never utter its name again.
Nevarra himself claimed the right to the pirate captain’s possessions, and found among them a box with a skull and crossbones carved in the top, containing an exquisite medallion of the Incan sun god. He recognized it immediately from newspaper accounts. It was found in the tomb of an Incan emperor, and Hernando Pizarro had pledged it as a gift to the Spanish king. It was a treasure he could never sell because it was certain to be recognized, so he sewed the box into his pillow and carried it with him the rest of his life. Nevarra himself did not return to Spain, but continued to sail the Caribbean until old age forced him onto shore. He retired to a country house near Santiago de Cuba, and died in his sleep at age 71. He made two curious but modest requests regarding his burial – that his head rest on his favorite pillow, and that his grave be unmarked.