Few subjects in history are as fascinating and compelling as pirates, and no dream is as romantic as discovering a real sunken pirate ship and its long forgotten treasure. It is perhaps no wonder then, that after discovering a lead on some possible wreckage, two modern treasure hunters risked hundreds of millions of dollars and even their personal lives to find it. Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship by Robert Kurson recounts the story of these two men and their epic quest.
In today’s show Robert and I discuss the allure of pirates, the larger-than-life story of the two men who found this sunken pirate ship, and the legendary story of the pirate who captained the ship over 300 years ago.
- Why pirate ships are so hard to find
- The legendary story of the greatest pirate you’ve never heard of
- Why we love pirates so much
- How pirates promoted democracy
- The future of underwater treasure hunting
- And much more!
Pirate Hunters is one of the best books I’ve read this year and is the perfect summer read. It unfolds like a captivating movie and is on par with any fast-paced caper of the silver-screen. Oceans 11-like fun, but more educational. It’s the perfect summer read — pick up a copy today.
For more information about the book, check out Robert’s website.
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Special thanks to Keelan O’Hara for editing the podcast!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Pirates have fascinated boys and men for centuries. Countless books have been written about them, movies, there’s … they’ve got the Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland. People go. Kids dress up as pirates for Halloween. There’s something about pirates that people are drawn to. Here’s the thing I just found out, that finding a pirate ship, an actual pirate ship from the Golden Age of piracy, which was the 16th century, is one of the hardest things to do. It’s harder than finding sunken treasure, and that’s because, first, there’s not a lot of pirate ships out there, and second, just because of the nature of piracy, they didn’t put any identifying markers on the ships, so it’s hard to identify a ship as a pirate ship once you find it.
Despite all this, these two men, they’re treasure hunters, they got a lead on a possible sunken pirate ship in the Caribbean, and they risked pretty much everything to go find it, money, their livelihood, their personal lives, just to find this pirate ship, and also, in the process, to discover and learn more about the pirate that captained this ship. His name’s Joseph Bannister, one of the greatest pirates who ever lived, but very few people know about.
Anyways, today on the show I have the author of a book that just came out about the finding of this pirate ship. His name is Robert Kurson. His book is Pirate Hunters Treasure Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship. Super good read. It’s entertaining. It’s fast-paced. It’s action-packed, full of suspense, but you’re also going to learn a lot in the process.
Robert Kurson, welcome to the show.
Robert Kurson: Thanks so much, Brett, privileged to be with you.
Brett McKay: So your new book, Pirate Hunters, just a fantastic, fantastic book, but before we get into it, this isn’t your first book about underwater treasure seekers. How did you get introduced to this world of underwater sleuths? Because I really didn’t know it existed until I read your books.
Robert Kurson: I didn’t, either, Brett, and it was really, kind of, dumb luck for me. I’m realizing as I get older how much luck plays in life, what an important part it plays. About 10 years ago I got a call from a friend who said she had a remarkable story to tell me about, and it was about these two, everyday guys, blue collar workers, who, on weekends, went scuba diving for fun off the cost of New Jersey, and that one day they had found a World War II German U-boat that no one in the world knew was sunk in New Jersey, and that there were 56 dead German sailors inside. My first reaction was, “I don’t know anything about underwater exploration. I’m not a scuba diver. I don’t even swim. I couldn’t be less interested,” but something was, kind of, pinging in my instinct, and so I followed it up. That turned into my first book, Shadow Divers.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, that’s amazing that there was a U-boat off the coast of New Jersey.
Robert Kurson: They came here with impunity in the first part of World War II. They got so close to our shores that sometimes they would beach themselves by accident, and guys would climb out and push the U-boat back in the water. They would routinely come so near to New York that they would put their radio antennas up and tune in the jazz radio stations that were forbidden to them back home. They would watch couples strolling on dates. They came here and did whatever they wanted for the first part of the war. Then allied ingenuity and technology changed everything, and the hunters, as they say, became the hunted soon enough.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I mean, that was something that I didn’t know, that the U-boats got this close. Let’s talk about these guys, these blue collar guys, who were just doing this for fun. These guys, and you highlight, I think one of them makes an appearance in this book, but these guys are larger than life. I mean, these guys, they come from, like, the hard scrabble, but they’re just … I don’t know, they’ve got this grit about them that’s just admirable. Can you tell us about the guys who went after this pirate ship that was underwater?
Robert Kurson: Yeah, absolutely. In my new book, Pirate Hunters, you’ve got these two guys, John Chatterton and John Mattera, who have very, very interesting lives before they ever think anything about going to look for shipwrecks. John Chatterton grew up in New York, but never really found himself until he got to Vietnam. He volunteered to be a medic in Vietnam, and he really became a standout, very unusual medic. He walked point with the other guys in Vietnam, and as a medic, that was very rare. He was a very heroic guy, but it wasn’t until he discovered scuba diving after Vietnam that he really found himself. It wasn’t just scuba diving the way we think of it, you know, looking at the starfish and seahorses and coral. He was going deep, dark, and dangerous for shipwrecks, some of the most deadly shipwrecks in the world.
Soon enough he was on ships like the Andrea Doria and others that were known for killing people routinely. He became one of the greatest divers in the world. People paid him the ultimate compliment by saying, “When you die, no one’s going to find your body.” In that world, that rare world of deep water shipwreck diving, that was the ultimate compliment. Even as he became an underwater construction worker, in and around New York, he distinguished himself as one of the great shipwreck divers in the world.
This other guy, John Mattera, might have had an even more unusual background. He grew up in Staten Island and by the time he was 14 or 15, was owning nightclubs and doing loan sharking, and really, kind of, rising up around the people who formed the Gambino crime family. There came a time when he was about 20 years old where he might have even made a move with a friend of his toward taking over the Gambino crime family. The guy was so interesting that even though all this was going on, and he was owning nightclubs too young for him … that he was not even legally allowed to enter, and making hundreds of thousands of dollars of loans, he still was consumed with history and with the idea of historic shipwrecks.
His friends, even while they were wild and getting into all kinds of violence and trouble, you could find him in the library, more likely than anywhere else. Just at the point when he was about to take the wrong turn in life and really make a move into organized crime, he swerved and he became a beat cop, really the unlikeliest possible result for a guy like this. He understood what made men tick on the streets, and it made him a really good beat cop. From there he just took it into a security job, and then to owning a security business where he became one of the highest paid personal bodyguards in the world.
At that point, he’s middle-aged and kind of set. That’s where Chatterton is, middle-aged and set for life, when they get a chance to do something almost no one in the world has ever done, and that is to go find a Golden Age pirate ship, a pirate ship from the 17th century, the rarest thing you could find in the world underwater.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so these guys, actually, they were working together. They were going to go after a treasure ship that had possible Spanish gold on it. Then they got … yeah, they had this opportunity from another treasure hunter, Bowden, I believe was his …
Robert Kurson: Yeah, Bowden.
Brett McKay: Bowden, said, “Hey, there’s a pirate ship,” and they gave it up. They gave up, like, possibly making millions and millions of dollars to go for this pirate ship. It was called the Golden Fleece. Why are sunken pirate ships so rare, and why are they so hard to find, and why would they give up millions of dollars to go look for a pirate ship?
Robert Kurson: We’re not even talking millions, Brett, we’re talking hundreds of millions. They planned for two years to go after a Spanish Galleon called the San Miguel, which they believed would have dwarfed any other treasure ship ever found. They trained for it. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on the cutting edge equipment. Everything in their life was devoted to going to find this treasure ship. Basically on the eve of going to set out for this ship, which they believed they knew the location of, they’re offered a chance by an elderly treasure hunter to do something impossible, and that’s to go find a treasure ship.
Now why are they so rare? At this point, when this offered is made in 2007, only one pirate ship has ever been discovered and positively identified in the world, a pirate ship called the Whydah. The reason they’re so, so very difficult to find is because A, there were not very many of them to begin with, probably not much more than 1000 of them sailing, collectively. Even then, think about what a pirate ship is about. First and foremost it’s about invisibility. It’s about stealth. They want to be invisible to governments and to law makers. They don’t broadcast their intentions. They don’t file reports about where they’re going or where they intend to go, and when they disappear, either they sink or they’re sold, or anything else, they break up in a storm, no government comes looking for them. They don’t exist officially, and that’s exactly the way they want it.
Think about, also, what happens after a pirate ship sinks. Let’s say a scuba diver or a swimmer or somebody on a ship comes across the wreckage of a pirate ship, and they see, this is a wrecked ship. How are they going to know it was a pirate ship? These pirate ships did not carry bells engraved with their name. They didn’t want their name known to anybody, so all you’re really looking at, even if you’re lucky enough to stumble across one, is just a pile of wood. The trick, really, is to identify it and prove it’s a pirate ship. That is the single most difficult thing a shipwreck hunter could possibly do in all the world.
Brett McKay: That’s why it was so appealing?
Robert Kurson: So appealing to them, and think about it, a pirate, I mean, what could be more to, you know, to speak to your inner little boy than the chance to find a pirate ship. In fact, this guy told them, “I can tell you exactly where the pirate ship is.” He just didn’t have the equipment or the technical know-how to go get it, but that’s exactly what Chatterton and Mattera had been spending the last two years of their lives perfecting, that technical know-how. They thought, “Easy. We’re going to go out and get this. Then we’ll go get our treasure ship.”
Brett McKay:It didn’t turn out to be that easy. Let’s talk about, okay, the pirate, right? This ship, so the other character in this story, and I love how you, in the book, you weave in the story of Mattera and Chatterton trying to find the pirate ship, but then you also weave in this story of the pirate who captained this ship, the Golden Fleece. His name was Joseph Bannister. I’ll admit, this is the first time I ever heard of Joseph Bannister, but that guy, he’s pretty cool. He’s a lot cooler than the other pirates I’ve heard about. Can you tell us a little bit about Joseph Bannister and how he became a pirate?
Robert Kurson: This is one of the great unknown stories to history, and when Chatterton and Mattera heard it for the first time, they could hardly believe what they were listening to. Joseph Bannister, for years and years, was an English noble gentleman. He was the captain of a ship called the Golden Fleece, which belonged to wealthy ship owners, and he captained the ship between the trade routes of London and Port Royal, Jamaica. Port Royale at that time was known as the wickedest city on earth. It was a pirate stronghold. Bannister had nothing to do with pirates for years and years. What he did was he transported hides and sugar and indigo dyes between London and Port Royal, and made a very good living for himself. He was very well-respected, a real noble gentleman.
Then, for one day, for reasons nobody could really define, he stole his own ship, the Golden Fleece, and turned pirate, but he didn’t just do it himself, he recruited a top flight pirate crew, a fearsome band of characters, and went on a pirating rampage. When Chatterton and Mattera heard these first details about the guy, that he was headed for a soft landing, that he was in middle-age, that he had his life made, but that he took this turn, this sudden swerve, it spoke to them on a very personal level, because in lots of ways that’s what was going on with them at that very moment.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Let’s go back. I love how they connected with Bannister in that way, but I just find it … Like, why … I think Mattera, sort of, speculates why Bannister went pirate. He had all this going for him, but he decided to go pirate, and I think Mattera came to the conclusion that it was this love of democracy.
Robert Kurson: I think, you know, these guys when they discovered early on that the pirate ship was not where all of, you know, three centuries of history believed it was, and that they were going to have to do something way outside the box to try to find this unfindable ship, they determined that they’re going to have to get into the head and, even more importantly, into the heart of this pirate, Bannister, in order to think like him, and feel like him, and find their way to him. Mattera, who’s really a historian since he’s a little boy, starts to do all kinds of original research all over the world, and he starts to learn not just about pirates of the Golden Age, which was about from 1650 to 1720, but he starts to understand what was going on on pirate ships. These were the first democracies. These are democracies that took hold a century before they came to America.
At that point, Mattera starts to make a connection with Bannister the person. He starts to feel that this guy could not have made this leap, would not have made this leap, other … for anything other than the feeling of being completely free, and being with a group of people who went, and the way they decided, free from any government, free from any rules or laws. Everything on the pirate ship was a democracy. Everybody’s vote carried the same weight, so Bannister had the same vote as the lowliest deckhand, and the more Mattera and Chatterton learned about this, the more they believed they could trace Bannister’s heart to the location of his ship.
That was fascinating, the whole section you had about the pirate code of honor, basically, because I didn’t know how pirates worked. You’re right. They voted on everything. Like, they voted on where they were going to go. The only time the captain, I guess, was actually captain was in … during battle. Is that correct?
Robert Kurson: That’s exactly right.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and then also there was, like … They had, sort of, like, I guess you would say laws about how pirates are paid, and the captain couldn’t be paid that much more than the lowest deckhand.
Robert Kurson: Absolutely. The pirate very, very rarely got more than two or three times what the lowest guy on board got. They voted on everything, so if the pirate wanted to go pursue a certain ship in a certain location and his crew felt differently, then the pirate captain was overruled. If he didn’t like it at that point, they could throw him off or maroon him, or worse, even if the pirate captain himself, owned his own ship, like Bannister. The fact that Bannister stayed in charge of his ship for several years, as a pirate captain, that intrigued Chatterton and Mattera even more. They knew that this guy had commanded incredible respect.
You’re right, everything they did aboard was voted on. They had a constitution of rules and laws and bylaws that would’ve spun your head it was so fair and so egalitarian, you could not have believed it.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, what I loved about this idea of Bannister being, sort of, a love of democracy, I mean, he battled with … I mean, is that why we find pirates so intriguing is this … and like, especially, like, folk outlaws, those outlaws that become heroes, do they, sort of, kind of, stick it to the man, and exert their autonomy? Is that why we loved reading stories about pirates?
Robert Kurson: I think that’s exactly why. Every one of us feels bound in some way or another as we make our way through the days of our lives. These guys said, “No matter what the risk, it’s worth it to just step off the dock and set sail, really, into freedom.” I mean, these guys were looking at the gallows if they got caught, especially when Bannister did it, where they were really, really closing in on the pirates. The idea of stepping away and saying, “We’re bound by no laws and no restrictions other than the … those that we make for ourselves. I think that’s an absolutely timeless thing. I think it would have spoken to the cavemen, that idea of freedom. That’s really what they believe, in the end, drove Bannister to take the massive risks he took by turning pirate.
Brett McKay:What’s the process of finding a ship that doesn’t have any identifiable markers on it that sunk 300 years ago? You mentioned there’s some technology involved, but it seems like there’s stuff that happens on shore that has more of an influence on finding the ship.
Robert Kurson: That’s completely right. In a certain way, by undertaking this search for the pirate ship, Chatterton and Mattera were doing something insane, because it wasn’t going to be enough to them to find the pirate ship. They had to identify it. The odds of doing that are almost zero, for the reasons we discussed. Nonetheless, the chance to do it was so rare, and so unusual, they felt compelled to do it. Now, how they were going to identify it, I think they both suspected would have to be done through history and on land, that no matter how good they were at finding the physical remains of the ship, they were going to have to do some first-rate detective work that had never been done in history before, in order to prove that that wreck, if they were lucky enough to find it, was, indeed, the Golden Fleece.
Neither of them had any idea how they were going to do that, only that by being given this rare chance, at this one point in their lives, they couldn’t say no, and they had to try.
Brett McKay:What amazed me is that they would travel all over the world to different libraries, just to do this historical research. I mean, I can’t imagine how much money they sunk into this project. I mean, it had to have been astronomical.
Robert Kurson: It was, and you’ve got to remember that this is after they sunk an astronomical amount into gearing up for their treasure hunt. Really, this was money they had expected to spend finding a treasure they thought could be worth half a billion dollars or more, but they came to believe that they could do this in a reasonable amount of time. However, things were not nearly that simple, and when things got to get complicated, it was worth it to them, even if they had to spend their last dime in order to go find this, because, as John Mattera told me the first time I ever talked to him about this story, treasure gets found all the time, but a pirate ship, I mean, there’s nothing like it. In a certain way, because they were explorers at heart, they had no choice in the matter.
Brett McKay:I don’t want to talk about any spoilers about what happens to Bannister and why the [sip shunk 00:22:29] and how the guys finally found the book … or, found the boat, because I want people to read the book, because you just do a great job telling the story, but what do these guys do now? What are Chatterton and Mattera doing now? Are they still searching for ships, or have they retired and moved on in life?
Robert Kurson: No, that’s the whole crux of the matter to them. They cannot retire, and the idea … When they both had made good in their lives, professionally, and got to middle age, into their early 50s for Mattera, and late 50s for Chatterton, and they were advised by very reasonable people, you know, take your money … I think one of them was urged to buy a Dunkin Donut franchise, and the other to buy a laundromat or manage an apartment building. I mean this very literally Brett, I think both of them would have rather died than do that. The idea of living a life like that was unacceptable to them.
The question was, what do you do? The chance to go find a pirate ship, or a treasure ship, that spoke to them. The question then becomes, after you do something like that, what do you do next? That’s the question they’re trying to answer now. They’re out in search of another great shipwreck, and I think they’re going to be asking that question as long as they live.
Brett McKay:I think all of us are, sort of, like that. You accomplish one big project, and then you’re just trying to figure out, what are you going to do next?
Robert Kurson: I think so, and that’s a scary prospect if you don’t have the answer in front of you at the moment, but the alternative, which is doing something reasonable and predictable for the rest of your life is worse, and that’s what inspires me about writing about guys like this, that they’re not ready to hang it up.
Brett McKay: You kind of mentioned this in the book throughout, that the days of treasure hunting, underwater treasure hunting, seemed to be coming to an end, I guess, because countries are passing laws that make it illegal for people to go out on their own and search for sunken treasure. Is this a profession that’s on the verge of extinction?
Robert Kurson: Yes, it’s virtually extinct. There are a handful of countries that still allow it, and there are arguments to be made by archeologists and academics, and they’re reasonable sounding arguments, which go something like, “You can’t allow these treasure hunters to go exploring these ships, because they’re not going to treat the artifacts in the way that a museum might or a curator might. They’re just in it for the money. They don’t care about the history.” They make a very good case against private treasure hunters, but I can tell you from being around these guys now for 10 years or more, that no one takes better care of shipwrecks, partly because it’s in their financial interest to do this. You don’t want to storm through a shipwreck and ruin things, but partly because no one else is interested in the history in the way these guys are.
I have yet to meet a treasure hunter or a shipwreck explorer who wasn’t first and foremost interested in history. That’s a huge benefit that a lot of people don’t realize, but beyond that, shipwreck and treasure hunting is extremely expensive. I mean, it’ll wipe out rich guys all the time, and so universities and archeologists and scientists don’t have the money to go hunt these ships. It’s only these treasure hunters and the investors they can get behind them who are even able to go. If the private guys don’t go, the guys with that fire burning inside them, you’re not going to get guys to go look for these ships, and they’re going to remain lost forever.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think you definitely have to … You have to have a cowboy mentality. You have to have a pirate mentality. Right? Sort of a love of danger to do what these guys are doing, because some of these wrecks are places that it’s hard to get to. I don’t know if you would attract that sort of diver, that, sort of, person in academia.
Robert Kurson: I think it might be the antithesis of the academic mindset. You have to be a pirate to go do this, and also to believe that you have the right to take something from the sea. I mean, that’s not something that would come to me naturally, but you have to believe in yourself in that way, in that if you expend the money, and especially risk your lives, because guys die doing this, that you are deserving of compensation, and that compensation is in the form of treasure, or at least in the form of finding the shipwreck itself.
Brett McKay: During the process of writing this book, did you have a chance to do any … I mean, I guess there’s like wrecks where they take tours and they can show consumers, travelers, a shipwreck. Have you had the chance to do that?
Robert Kurson: Yeah. You know, when I was writing my first book, Shadow Divers, about the U-boat, this was an almost unreachable shipwreck, especially back then. It was sunk in 230 feet of very cold, dark water, 60 miles off the cost of Point Pleasant, New Jersey. Just the boat ride out there was a violent experience, and people died on that wreck very quickly after it was discovered. When you go look in tropical waters for a pirate ship or a treasure ship, often they’re sunk in 10 or 20 feet of water, and once you find them, you can sometimes look from the boat, right down onto the wreck. Those are the wrecks that are much easier for a lay person like me to see, and to go experience.
Brett McKay: Cool. You mentioned a little bit that you … one of the things you loved about writing this book is seeing these guys how they’re just … they’re not willing to hang it up. Right? They just want to keep going and find that next treasure, that next adventure. Anything else that you learned about life, being a man, in the process of researching and writing this book?
Robert Kurson:I think the thing that stays with me the most is that the truly happy people I’ve come across, the truly contented men always have a risk taken in their background. I don’t know that I’ve met any guy who’s really at peace with himself who doesn’t have a risk in his background. That’s not to say that you should go around taking indiscriminate risks until you hit upon something, but that these guys seem to accept, intuitively, on a DNA level, that a risk at some point, well-considered, is absolutely required, really in the same way Bannister did it. You could have an easy, soft landing ahead of you. You can have it all laid out, but that’s not the way to really get there.
Brett McKay: So take more risks?
Robert Kurson: It’s take more risks and understand that there’s really no way around it.
Brett McKay: Well, Robert, where can people find out more about your book?
Robert Kurson: You can go to my website. It’s just RobertKurson, K-U-R-S-O-N, dot com (RobertKurson.com). All the information’s there and it should be able to tell you everything.
Brett McKay:Fantastic. Well, Robert Kurson, this is a fantastic book, and it’s just an amazing story. You did a great job telling it. Thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Robert Kurson:Brett, it’s been a pleasure for me. I’m a huge fan of yours, so this was a real privilege for me. Thank you.
Brett McKay: Thank you.
Our guest today was Robert Kurson. He is the author of the book, Pirate Hunters Treasure Obsession and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship. You can find that on Amazon.com. Go out and get it. It’s a fantastic summertime read. You won’t regret it. Also, you can find out more information about the book, and about the pirate ship, the Golden Fleece, at RobertKurson, Kurson with a K, dot com (RobertKurson.com).