As we saw last week, Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar is a really crappy show, one that doesn’t make much sense unless you come into it believing in crazy conspiracy theories about how Knights Templar somehow carried on secretly after the destruction of their order, preserving heaps of treasure for 400 years, until they lost it when their fleet of pirate ships sank in Madagascar. These world-historical actors somehow were powerful enough to defy the Catholic Church and the secular kings, to hide in plain sight, to master the seas, but not to dredge their priceless booty from where it sank in apparently shallow waters, not when it first sank and not anytime thereafter, despite being the global masterminds behind all world history. You’d think one of them would have bought some scuba gear in the last half century or so.
Given the nonsensical premise of the show, I wasn’t terribly interested in seeing more, and I ended up thinking instead about the conspiracy mindset behind the claims. In so doing I stumbled across an interesting bit of testimony about one of the pillars of Scott Wolter’s worldview, that the Templars had regular commerce with America and that “academics” refuse to recognize that the Templars, in the guise of Norsemen, had penetrated as far as Minnesota. Originally, these claims were associated with the Vikings, and were the subject of brief but intense debate about whether the Vikings made it to America before Columbus.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Unitarian minister, wrote about the negative reactions of the academics, recalling the last time that academic historians tried to enforce dogmatic orthodoxy over the claim that Columbus was the first to reach America.
I can well remember, as a boy, the excitement produced among Harvard College professors when the ponderous volume called “Antiquitates Americanae,” containing the Norse legends of “Vinland,” with the translations of Professor Rafn, made its appearance on the library table. For the first time the claim was openly made that there had been European visitors to this continent before Columbus. The historians shrank from the innovation: it spoiled their comfort. Indeed, Mr. George Bancroft to this day will hardly allude to the subject, and sets aside the legends, using a most inappropriate phrase, as “mythological.” And it so happened, as will appear by-and-by, that when the claim was first made it was encumbered with some very poor arguments. Nevertheless, the main story was not permanently hurt by these weak points. Its truth has never been successfully impeached; at any rate, we cannot deal with American history unless we give some place to the Norse legends.
Wentworth wrote those words in Harper’s in 1882, reprinted in a textbook on American history in 1885, and referring to events from 1837, when Carl Christian Rafn made a compelling, if incomplete, argument for a Viking landing on American shores. Edward Everett Hale’s contemporary diaries from the 1830s confirm the reaction Higgins describes, including the general excitement at the idea. Indeed, Bancroft was the only major historian to continue to oppose the idea in 1886, and he had been only one of two prominent critics of the theory as far back as the 1840s. The other was Washington Irving—the biographer of Columbus—who eventually allowed that the Vikings might well have predated Columbus but that the claim had yet to be proved. What a conspiracy to suppress the truth!
Higginson went on to debunk much of the evidence for “Vikings” south of Canada—much of the same evidence now applied to the Templars: the Newport Tower, Dighton Rock, the mounds, various inscriptions and rock art, etc. It’s funny the way it all comes back around again, and arguments from the 1830s are rehashed, with new people substituted for the old. Oh, and Dighton Rock will show up in these episodes!
S01E03: The Case of Captain Kidd
Do you remember when Scott Wolter’s America Unearthed did a whole episode last December devoted to the lost treasure of Captain Kidd and its alleged Freemasonic connections? Oh, good; you do. Then you’ll recognize a good chunk of this episode, though in a funhouse mirror way. I won’t bother to recap the life and times of Kidd, which I covered in reviewing that episode and its conspiracy theories. I will note, though, that the claim that Kidd’s treasure is located in Madagascar directly contradicts Wolter’s theory from that episode that the treasure ended up in the hands of the Astor family. Apparently Kidd was so loaded with Templar treasure he could bury it everywhere.
The narrator opens the show by asserting that artifacts Barry Clifford has pulled from shipwrecks in Madagascar are “connected to the Templars,” but he neglects to note that only Clifford and Wolter have so connected them. In other words, the connection is fictional. The show then covers Clifford’s discovery of a chunk of lead ballast that he famously mistook for silver and here is seen declaring it to be “100% silver.” The narrator, who has the benefit of knowing that UNESCO reported that tests proved beyond doubt that the object is lead, slips qualifiers into the narration to hew a bit closer to the truth, or at least to avoid outright lying.
Clifford has Wolter in New York City investigate Capt. Kidd, operating under the mistaken idea that he has found Kidd’s horde of pirate booty. Wolter and Clifford believe that the “mysterious metal ingot,” stamped with the letters S and T, the number 95, and the letters IXB, is both silver and Masonic. Wolter calls the “T” a “triple tau,” a Masonic symbol, even though they don’t look very similar—it’s possible, but the lengths of the legs and the serifs are a bit off. Wolter also calls the lump of lead “silver” over and over again, which must be embarrassing for him. Clifford and his friends also discuss their efforts to try to hide the “silver” from potential thieves and to preserve the “Templar” evidence. “I don’t want to start some kind of a panic,” Clifford says, sharing with the world his complete devolution into conspiracy theorist.
Dr. Mark Koltko-Rivera alleges that the symbol is a triple tau, but he is not a “historian” in the professional sense as the show alleges; rather, he is by training a psychologist, a Mormon convert, and a Freemason who devotes considerable energy to mythologizing Masonry. (Oh, did they leave that out? Gee, I wonder why.) But so what? Even if all the symbols on the lead block were Masonic, they date from the 1700s, when Masonry was already in existence, so this is proof of nothing. Koltko-Rivera claims that the triple tau is actually a Greco-Latin monogram for the Temple of Jerusalem (a T and an H, for Templum Hierosolym), but his connection between this and the Templars has no evidence for it, much less Koltko-Rivera’s claim that this was actually a Templar symbol. No evidence of its use in the Middle Ages exists. The narrator relates various conspiracy connections between the Templars and the Masons, all of which were debunked in the nineteenth century, when the Masons invented those connections themselves to give themselves a mythic history to make their organization seem older than it was.
At Trinity Church in Manhattan, Koltko-Rivera shows Wolter some old documents, which Wolter identifies as “primary source documents” and enthuses that “you don’t see that” very often. This would be because Wolter does not know how to do history. The men discuss Kidd’s various financial engagements in New York City and his entrée into Manhattan’s elite, which has nothing to do with our story, but Wolter says that he learns from it that there is a difference between “legend” and “reality,” something that he immediately chooses to forget in fantasizing about Knights Templar based on nothing but modern speculation masquerading as fact. Try asking him for “primary source documents” about Templar conspiracies. Go on, try it. See how far it gets you. I can tell you from experience: Not far.
Slowly the identification of the “silver” ingot changes in the narration, no longer even “believed” to be silver, but simply “metal.” The narration is preparing the audience for disappointment but shifting the emphasis to Masonic conspiracies. The episode concludes with two different threads, which I’ll summarize in two batches rather than interweave them as the episode does.
Clifford travels to a Madagascar graveyard to look for hidden Masonic symbolism in the pirate graves. Clifford looks at an eight-pointed star (or a sun), which Clifford mistakenly asserts is a cross pattée, The eight-pointed star is a well-known symbol used in many different ways in a variety of faiths; it is not exclusive to or even closely associated with Masonry. Clifford finds more chevrons on pottery and also claims them to be Masonic squares; he once again mistakes another Maltese cross for a Templar cross pattée and declares a decorative piece of pottery to be “Templar.” The Maltese cross, ironically, was associated with the Hospitallers, the group the Freemasons originally claimed to be descended from before switching their mythic history to the Templars. Clifford imagines that he has found untold riches, but is thwarted when the Madagascar government “inexplicably” shuts down his dive before he can prove a Templar connection.
Wolter, in New York, looks at eighteenth century graves and fails to recognize that skulls and crossbones were frequent death’s head symbols on colonial graves going back to the seventeenth century; one can even make an interesting timeline showing how they gradually change over time from skulls to cherubs. Wolter correctly notes that many colonial graves have Masonic symbols, but he incorrectly concludes that death’s heads are Masonic and therefore secret proof of Masons in New York before the official establishment of American Masonry in 1733. It’s stupid beyond belief, but Wolter goes off on a tear that Capt. Kidd and his colleagues were Scottish and therefore likely to privy to the Templar-Freemason secrets of Scotland, from the time when the Templars fled to Scotland and reorganized as Masons, a claim partly contradicted by the last Templar in the British Isles, Walter de Clifton, preceptor of Northern Britain, who told papal inquisitors in 1309 that the Scottish Templars fled after the suppression of the order in 1307 (Acta Contra Templarios, in Consilia Magnae Britanniae et Hiberniae, vol. 2, pp. 380-381). Sure, they might have hid for 400 years until reemerging as Freemasons, but you would think they might have told their friends.
S01E04: Forgotten Fortress
This episode casts the Madagascar government as villains for trying to enforce minimal standards on Clifford’s investigation. After some overhyped drama, a government observer gives them the go-ahead. This is more or less the last thing Clifford does on the show, as all attention shifts to Wolter. Wolter, now described as a “historian” again despite being an “explorer” in the last hour, is still looking for Freemasons in New York and their connection to Scotland. To do so, he’s heading to Boston, another city where Kidd operated for a time after returning from the Indian Ocean, where he had been working for the English government as a privateer. Wolter looks at documents in which Kidd tries to absolve himself of charges of piracy.
Wolter spins from this a conspiracy theory that Lord Bellemont, the English governor of Massachusetts and New York, was conspiring to knock off Kidd to seize Portuguese Templar treasure lost in the Indian Ocean! Not a word of this has any support in fact, which makes it a pretty amazing confection of falsehood.
This brings Wolter to Dighton Rock—the same rock once used to “prove” Norse involvement in the New World. Now the Native American petroglyphs are claimed to be Kidd’s treasure map and a Portuguese inscription from 1511 by Miguel Corte-Real, who had disappeared in 1502. This claim was first made in 1912 by Edmund B. Delabarre, who fantasized that the petroglyphs read (in Latin), “I, Miguel Cortereal, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians.” Like all historical figures associated with conspiracy theories, Corte-Real somehow lost his ability to write coherently or in normal letters the minute he left Europe. Wolter did get one thing right: Corte-Real actually was a member of the Order of Christ.
Wolter dismisses the Rock as a pirate treasure map, but he claims to see Delabarre’s version of the inscription on the rock. The narrator, though, throws cold water on Wolter and calls Wolter’s analysis “in no way definitive.” It seems that the producers used the narration to walk back the crazy claims and put a critical distance between the show and its cast, with narration covering but not endorsing its cast’s rampant speculation.
Wolter next examines a piece of Kidd’s treasure, cloth of gold from India, and he concludes that this means that Kidd visited Madagascar on the way back from India. Since we know Kidd operated in the Indian Ocean, I’m not sure how this is a dramatic new revelation, but it sends Wolter to Madagascar to meet up with Barry Clifford, who is using technology to scan the ships he believes to be pirate wrecks. He wants to identify one ship as a “Portuguese Templar ship,” whatever that is supposed to mean. The medieval Templars had no distinctive vessels, so I assume the show intends this to refer to sixteenth century Portuguese ships, which, again, would not necessarily have anything to do with Templars since the Portuguese spent centuries operating in the area and had a colony at Mozambique, just opposite Madagascar.
On Madagascar Wolter searches for the remains of a Portuguese outpost in the south built by Manuel de Lacerda in 1525, but Wolter identifies him as a “Portuguese Templar.” De Lacerda is so obscure, I had trouble finding anything ever written about him except in Portuguese. Wolter “finds” the impeccably maintained ruins of the fort, which has quite obviously been known and maintained by the Madagascar government. Presenting it as Wolter’s unique discovery based on geological insight is supremely ridiculous.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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