It’s a bit weird to review a show that is undead. Pirate Treasure of the Knights Templar was doomed before it began, consigned to a Saturday night burn off after a scathing UNESCO report, but History couldn’t turn a blind eye to its low, low ratings. In one of her first acts as the new head of the network, Jana Bennett moved the show to 5 PM ET, out of prime time, where its vacated slot now houses Pawn Stars reruns. The eight episodes announced for the series in June seem to have been cut down to six, and these were the show’s last hours. Bennett replaces Dirk Hoogstra, who while at H2 became infamous for declaring that there is only “a portion of our viewers that still want” deep factual information, and he led the network into fact-free and low-information programming.
S01E05 “The Flaming Cross”
We open in Madagascar as “historian” Scott Wolter searches for an early modern “faction” of Knights Templar in a cave system in a remote part of the island. This somehow requires a lengthy recap of the first four episodes of the series, which other shows might have given as a “previously on” segment. Wolter is flying across the island in a helicopter to look at rock carvings the narrator says some unnamed people suspect were made by Portuguese Templars, or what the rest of the world would call the Knights of Christ, the successor organization to the Templars in that country. Wolter dismisses the indentations as natural geological formations and continues on to the caves.
Meanwhile, in the lesser plotline, Barry Clifford is still looking at the shipwreck he assumes is the Fiery Dragon (even the narrator won’t endorse this conclusion since UNESCO refuted it), and he’s trying to find the arms of the ivory crucifix that launched this series. Some redshirts who have never been given any characterization say and do some things, and then Clifford swears at a piece of Indian ivory that is entirely consistent with the wreck being, as UNESCO concluded, an Indian-built vessel used by the Portuguese and seized and sunk by pirates. This leads the team to ask whether the crucifix originated in India (which would mean that it isn’t medieval). Later, they find a Chinese cup made for European export, again consistent with the UNESCO conclusion. They also pull up a small, carved head of a tonsured figure, which they identify as a monk.
Wolter explores a dark cave, complete with stalactites and bats, but he finds no Templar signs. The narrator says that this disappointment has not changed his opinion on the Templars’ Madagascar activities. This leads to another recap of previous episodes, and Wolter tells Clifford how happy he is that Clifford found the lump of lead that both men mistake for silver. “The only thing I can say is ‘Bravo,’” Wolter says, “and it’s really got me buzzing!” Scott Wolter, a geologist, cannot tell silver from lead, or is happy to opine on material he never actually saw. Wolter offers his various conspiracy theories about the Templars, but even Clifford’s team historian pushes back against this, noting that there is too much of a time gap between early Portuguese activity on Madagascar and Capt. Kidd for the two groups to be in league.
Wolter then says that the “Portuguese Templars” founded a colony on Goa, and Capt. Kidd once visited, so he needs to visit Goa to hunt Templars. The Portuguese conquered Goa in 1510, but it was not at the behest of the “Templars” (Knights of Christ), but rather under Alfonso de Albuquerque, a knight of the Order of St. James of the Sword. Wolter now speculates that Kidd obtained the Templar treasure from a Portuguese vessel, the Mary, captured en route back from Goa in the last years of the seventeenth century.
In exploring the ruins of Portuguese Goa, Wolter identifies a skull and crossbones on a gravestone as a Templar-Pirate symbol, and he claims that various Portuguese coats of arms featuring the cross of Lorraine are “symbols of the Bloodline families,” which the show doesn’t bother to explain, leaving Wolter’s Da Vinci Code Jesus conspiracies dangling outside the audience’s awareness. Another stone-carved coat of arms, featuring the so-called “triple tau” in the upper left and lower right quadrants and stripes in the other two, becomes a shocking link to Freemasons in Wolter’s eyes. The show does not identify the owner of those arms so viewers might check to see what they are meant to represent; in fact, the camera purposely cuts the name beneath the arms out of the shot, obscuring the history they should be elucidating. Why might that be? By royal order from the time of Manuel I (a Grand Master of the Order of Christ!), arms were restricted to nobility; might the owner of these arms not have been associated with the Order of Christ? [UPDATE: As noted in the comments below, higher quality images of the grave slab make clear that the supposed triple tau is really the top part of a cross that had been purposely defaced.] Since coats of arms had to be bestowed by the monarch, this would imply that the Kings of Portugal were somehow involved in the conspiracy—yet Manuel’s name isn’t mentioned. Is this because the show doesn’t know what it’s talking about or actually researched the Order of Christ before declaring all Portuguese to be them? The Freemason and psychologist from last week who pretends to be a historians joins Wolter in a teleconference to assert that yes, indeed, all of Portuguese exploration of the world was a “Templar” enterprise.
Wolter asserts that the records of ship manifests from Goa are missing for the years when the “Templars” were exporting treasure from Goa. “The fact that they are missing tells me everything,” Wolter says. I am confused though by the sleight of hand that the show has pulled: What began as a search for the medieval treasure of the original flavor Knights Templar, perhaps including the Ark of the Covenant, has gradually changed into a search for Indian wealth acquired and exported by Portuguese imperialists. Anyway, Wolter becomes excited about the lost Fiery (or Flaming) Cross of Goa, a supposed massive 3-meter-tall golden cross lost in the 1700s after Olivier Levasseur (La Buse) seized it. There is no mention of this artifact before the 1900s, and most historians consider it a hoax, possibly exaggerated from a much smaller historical original. No wonder Wolter wants to go looking for it. As best I can tell, the story of the Flaming Cross and the cryptogram of La Buse that supposedly point to it were a fraud. The cryptogram can’t be shown to have existed before 1882. The rest of the story is largely from the 1947 work of Reginald Cruise-Wilkins, who used the zodiac, Freemasonry, and the Key of Solomon to “discover” the story. Cruise-Wilkins devoted his life to finding the treasure, and died on Reunion Island trying to find it. To this day, people are still proposing new solutions to the cryptogram. The story did make the Weekly World News back in 1988, though, so the History Channel has that going for it.
The hour ends with Clifford looking at a hole in the ground and wondering if the Templars dumped their treasure down the hole.
S01E06 “Treasure Island”
On Goa, Wolter assumes that the “Portuguese Templars” were the force behind Portuguese colonization of India, and in a Portuguese church on Goa he finds an icon of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whom he calls the founder of the Knights Templar (he actually helped write their Rule), better known as the reformer of the Cistercian order. Meanwhile, on Madagascar the largely anonymous team of Clifford and some redshirts decides to make their working theory more byzantine. Now the Templar treasure passed to the Order of Christ, who took it to Goa in order to re-export it back to Portugal, during which time La Buse, who was a pirate but not one of the Templar pirates, seized it and brought it to Madagascar’s Pirate Island. They do not explain what five episodes’ worth of Capt. Kidd now have to do with this painfully complex conspiracy. On the plus side, even though the show has Wolter, a geologist, Clifford feels compelled to hire some Spanish geologists when he needs to do real geology, not Templar fantasies, to map the hole in the ground. It’s a great vote of confidence in Wolter! (I’m sure it’s due to Wolter’s shooting schedule, but as edited it looks like Clifford sent Wolter away in order to bring in Spanish geologists behind his back.)
The Spaniards tell Clifford that there is a manmade “metal” anomaly beneath the island of the size of the Flaming Cross. They also find a golden key, which they conclude (without evidence) belongs to a treasure chest. “It’s the only key to a pirate’s treasure chest that’s ever been found,” Clifford says. I will remind you again: There is no evidence it belonged to a treasure chest, or even to the pirates! They might just as well have stolen it for the gold.
In Goa, Wolter finds the same monk’s head on a copy of a statue of St. Anthony, but the owner tells Wolter that it is 300 years old—in other words, exactly the age we’d expect for a ship that sank in 1700s. Wolter is certain that the two heads were carved by the same man, but more likely they are both copies of a rather standard original, as most St. Anthony statues look nearly identical, depending on whether you get the bearded or beardless variety. Nothing about it screams Templar, but now the Templars are no longer our protagonists but rather the victims of our new hero, La Buse, who stole stuff from Goa that maybe or maybe not had something to do with what Templars might or might not have done. The whole show seems to be a slow bait-and-switch.
Clifford’s team of personality-free middle-aged men dig a hole in the ground looking for the metal anomaly. They run out of time and have to give up before finding out what’s down there. “It’s very fucking frustrating,” says the team historian, whose name I haven’t learned because the show’s producers gave me no reason to care about him or identify him as a distinct character. (Heck, it doesn’t bother to develop Clifford as a character.) He seems to be speaking only because Clifford wasn’t available. I wonder why the producer of this show, Sam Brown, fell in love with Scott Wolter? He somehow ended up as the star, and the only character given a personality.
As the episode enters its final third, the narrator recaps the entire series yet again, for reasons that I can’t quite fathom except that it seems like this episode was cut down from the final three that were supposed to have aired, explaining why it keeps resetting and why its pacing is so much different than the preceding hours.
At a museum in Goa, Wolter sees ivory carvings of Jesus that are very similar to the one that kicked off the series. Because it is a Portuguese ivory carving of the 1600s—exactly the time I guessed back in Week 1 based on stylistic grounds!—Wolter declares that the one Clifford found is from the same place and time. NOTE CAREFULLY: Wolter started this series confidently dating that crucifix to the 1100s, but now is equally sure it is from the 1600s. He calls this about-face a “grand slam” proving that the pirate treasure found in Madagascar came from India. As the vulgar might say, no shit, Sherlock; that’s exactly what the historical record showed before you ever showed up: Pirates (who were not Templars) seized artifacts and booty from European ships leaving India (also not Templar), and some of that booty ended up under the sea.
So, to recap: The show completely abandoned its entire premise and declared it a victory for conspiracy theories and fringe research, when in fact they managed only to confirm what had been known to history before they tried and failed to rewrite it.
The show then covers the presentation of the “silver” ingot (the lead one) to the president of Madagascar, Hery Rajaonarimampianina, whom they do not name, and the show manufactures some drama about the metal going missing before his arrival. They find it and present it. No one bothers to inform the viewers that the “silver” ingot is really lead, and the “treasure” without evidence. This is utterly dishonest.
A week later, Wolter, Clifford, and the team historian, meet in Cape Cod and Wolter gives them his findings. No one notices or cares that Wolter was 100% wrong six episodes ago and that the entire premise of the series started from a false assumption. Instead, the three men congratulate themselves for “discovering” what history already knew, that English and French pirates raided Portuguese ships. “The team is happy with the connections and conclusions they’ve made,” the narrator crows.
The 1882 alleged La Buse cypher is shown and Scott Wolter calls it a “classic” example of Templar-Freemason coding. The fact that it can’t be shown to exist before 1882 isn’t shared with the audience, and even if it were as old as Wolter thinks, it dates from the period when the Masons existed, so no connection to the Templars need be proposed. As the music swells and a montage of glory shots play, the narrator sets this up as a launch pad for a future second season that will never come.
“The facts speak loud,” the historian says. Yes, but these guys don’t hear them. And it is the viewers who are left deaf, dumb, and blind.
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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