The Cryptogram of 'La Buse'

Ce site est aussi disponible en français.

'La Buse' (The Buzzard) was the nickname of famous French pirate Olivier Levasseur whose greatest exploit was the capture in 1721 of the Portuguese galleon Nossa Senhroa do Cabo. It was probably the greatest capture by any pirate ever, for on board was treasure worth (according to many sites) several BILLION dollars! La Buse was eventuality caught in Madagascar and sentenced to be hanged in Saint Denis on Bourbon Island (now called La Réunion) a few weeks later. Just before being hanged he threw a paper into the crowd and shouted "Mes trésors à qui saura comprendre!" ("My treasures to he who will know how to understand!"). The document was a cryptogram, and a copy of the cryptogram ended up in the hands of a notary on the island of Mahé in the Seychelles, then in the the hands of a certain Mme. Savy on the same island, then in the hands of a historian in Paris called Charles Bourel de la Roncière. It may also have passed through the hands of a mysterious French sea captain and then those of famous French pirate 'Le Butin'.

De la Roncière decrypted the document into clear text and published a book, Le Flibustier mystérieux: Histoire d'un trésor caché, (The Mysterious pirate: Story of a hidden treasure) published in 1934, which includes an image of the cryptogram, reproduced below, and his transcription. The transcription is in French but is mostly incomprehensible at first sight, probably because the original was badly copied, so the text has to be interpreted further. On this site I present my interpretation which is:

  • very complete in the sense that I interpret the ENTIRE document
  • very plausible in the sense that every 'correction' that I propose for badly copied symbols is analysed for similarity with the original symbol
  • plausible in the sense that the wording in the text is supported by French texts from the period
  • plausible in the sense that the meaning of the text is supported by French texts from that period and by modern websites.
  • quite original in many ways
  • NOT a clear set of instructions for locating the treasure, though it does contain a number of embedded symbols, most of which can be interpreted either as letters or digits, which I assume to be pointers of some kind to the directions to find the treasure.

To learn more about the life of La Buse read my short summary or longer texts here (Wikipedia) or here in English or here in French:

The Cryptogram

This cryptogram uses a variation of an ancient and well-known cipher called the pigpen cypher that was popular with Freemasons, Templars and Rosicrucians. Pigpen cyphers were so called because they were based on a grid that resembles a pigpen (it also resembles a tic-tac-toe grid): (Source: wikipedia.org.)

Some symbols can be interpreted either as a letter or as a digit. For example the symbol that can be interpreted as an 'A' can alternatively be interpreted as a '1'. The table above right indicates which letters can also be interpreted as numbers (I don't know why there was no way of representing a zero).

Because the cipher was well-known, it was not too difficult for De La Roncière to decode it, and this was the result (I have added line numbers):

01 APREJMEZUNEPAIREDEPIJONTIRESKET

02 2DOEURSQESEAJTETECHERALFUNEKORT

03 FILTTINSHIENTECUPRENEZUNECULLIERE

04 DEMIELLEEFOVTREFOUSENFAITESUNEONGAT

05 METTEZSURKEPATAIEDELAPERTOTITOUSN

06 _VPULEZOLVSPRENEZ2LETCASSESURLECH

07 EMINILFAUTQOEUTTOITANOITIECOUUE

08 POVRENPECGERUNEFEMMEDHRENGTVOUSNAVE

09 QUAVOUSSERERLADOBAUCGEAETPOURVE.

10 NGRAAIETPOREPINGLEOUEIUILETURLOR

11 EILJNOURLAIREPITERUNCHIENTUPQUN

12 LENENDELAMERDEBIENTECJEETSURRU

13 NVOVLENQUILNISEIUDFKUUNEFEMMRQ

14 IVEUTSEFAIREDUNHMETSEDETE?DRE

15 DANSDUUI●_OOUQNDORMIRUNHOMMR

16 ESSCFVMM/PLFAUTNRENDREUDLQ

17 UUNDIFFURQECIEEFURTETLESL

A few French words ('une paire de', 'sur le chemin' etc) are recognisable in the text but most of it is incomprehensible. We have to conclude that this document, if it is genuine, is a very bad copy of the original. (Indeed, it may be a copy of a copy... of a copy...) For nearly 300 years no one, until now, has ever come close to making a faithful, plausible and complete proposition as to what was the true text of the original La Buse document. And no one has ever been able to locate the treasure, though many people have tried. The current value of the treasure is estimated at between 100 million dollars and several BILLION dollars!

On this site I present a relatively faithful, plausible and complete interpretation of the document, even though I have no special familiarity with pirates or ancient French and I'm not even a native French speaker! How pretentious is that? But at least I can claim to be fluent in French (my wife is French).

It seems to me normal that the copy of the original would be a bad copy because the original must have been quite small in order for it to have escaped the attention of the guards. Many sites suggest that the paper that La Buse threw into the crowd had been hidden in a necklace he was wearing, so presumably it was folded or rolled very small. It's likely that there must have been a fight for the paper when he threw it into the crowd – many people would have understood the value of the paper – so it could have been damaged in the ensuing scuffle.

Was the original document written before or after La Buse was arrested? Is it plausible that he had it within him when he was recognised and arrested? If you had a huge treasure stashed away would you carry with you at all times the instructions that could let anyone locate and steal the treasure? I don't think so. So presumably he managed to obtain paper and a pen or quill to write with after his arrest. This site says he was arrested weeks before being hung so he would have had plenty of time to make the cryptogram while in detention, assuming he had access to a piece of paper or parchment, a pen or quill, and some ink.

As previously indicated, the cipher is quite simple so encoding a text into symbols while in detention would not necessarily have been difficult. But squeezing more than 500 symbols onto a small piece of paper must have been much more of a challenge – no wonder the person making a copy of it later accidentally mis-copied so many of those tiny symbols. To have any chance of guessing the original text we must recognise that many of the symbols have been badly copied and ask ourselves, for each symbol in the copy that appears to be wrong, what the original symbol might plausibly have been.

Some copying errors would be much more plausible than others. For example, as pointed out by Nick Pelling on ciphermysteries.com, many pairs of symbols differ only by the presence or absence of a dot. On the small and possibly dirty original, it would be easy to fail to see dots, or to see dots that were not meant to be there. Also, many of the symbols are identical except for their orientation. For example, a 'V' shape represents the letter 'T' but the same shape rotated 45° clockwise represents the letter 'F'. Given that the original text in symbol form was probably written small and badly and then possibly folded or crumpled to be squeezed into a necklace or during the scuffle when thrown into the crowd, it's quite likely that the orientation of many symbols would not be clear enough to allow the copier to correctly guess the identity of the original symbol. Just because nearly every symbol on the copy is clear and unambiguous does not mean that the symbols on the original document were clear!

Other examples of symbols that could be confused are symbols that differ by only one line or symbols such as those for 'T' and 'D' which resemble a 'V' and a 'U' respectively, obviously quite similar. Examples of symbols that are very different, where we can't easily imagine the copier accidentally transforming one into the other, would be the symbols for 'I' (a square with a dot inside) and 'F', the symbol for which is a simple 'L' shape'. In my analysis I have paid great attention to the plausibility of certain types of copying errors and the interpretation given below includes colored chevrons that indicate the plausibility of each error.

The following image illustrates how difficult it might have been for the copier to correctly identify certain symbols on a small and scruffy piece of paper. These are the types of ambiguities that I identify with green chevrons in my interpretation - see later.

The fact that the document above is a bad copy of the original is only one of our problems. Also obvious is the fact that in the nearly 300 years since La Buse wrote his message, French has evolved quite significantly. In fact back then written French had not been standardised to anything like the extent that it has now. To have some chance of understanding the La Buse text, is it important to have a feel for how French was written back then. Here is a sample of text written at that time, from 'Consultations canoniques sur les sacremens...' par Jean-Pierre Gibert, 1725.

In the above text, we note that the letter 's' is often, but not always, written as an incomplete 'f' (with its right arm missing). That does not seem relevant to the cryptogram, however. What IS relevant is the expression 'vous parlé' which presumably corresponds to 'vous parlez' even though the 'ez' ending is used higher up the same excerpt. This unusual variation may simply be an error, but I believe La Buse made the same error in his cryptogram, replacing the 'ez' ending of words with 'é' which is phonetically equivalent. Another odd spelling in this excerpt is 'qualitez' where we would expect to see 'qualités', but I don't think this is relevant to the cryptogram.

Of course a genuine expert on early 18th century French would have a big advantage here, and that is certainly not a description of me – French is not even my native language although I am married to a French person and I do speak and write French fluently.

In addition to the low fidelity of the copy and the problem that French has evolved significantly since 1730, a third and final major problem with understanding the La Buse text is that La Buse (or the person who wrote the cryptogram) was not very literate and tended to spell words phonetically (as do poor spellers even today). I'm sure that back then most people were illiterate so perhaps we should admire La Buse for being able to write at all. For example, line 7 of the decoded text above ends with 'COUUE' which everyone assumes to mean 'couvert', (covered) which I'm sure is correct. So La Buse has probably written 'couvert' as 'couvé', the two words sound similar even with modern French pronunciation. As for the 'V' becoming a 'U', these letters seem to have been more or less interchangeable back then.

To play with the symbols of the Buse cryptogram and the corresponding letters, I made the following series of 30 images which I could then use like a font to test different possible interpretations. Note that since some people believe that one should distinguish between the dotted chevron and the undotted chevron I have done so here, with 'Z' corresponding to the undotted chevron and 'z' corresponding to the dotted chevron.

Interpretation

Here at last are links to my interpretations of the five blocks of text that I have identified in the Buse cryptogram. If I find an even more plausible interpretations for these blocks of text then I will update this site. Please don't read the synopsis until you have read the detailed pages linked to above, otherwise you may not realise just how much solid research supports my interpretation.

Synopsis The synopsis includes a version of the interpretation that respects the line breaks of the cryptogram AND includes all the 'embedded symbols' that I have tentatively identified.

Discussion

The La Buse text is essentially NOT a set of clear and simple directions to take you to the treasure. It is a sequence of sentences that may contain embedded clues as to the location of the treasure. Some people think that those clues are in the form of the scattered dots that appear in the copy in unexpected places, and/or the half dozen odd symbols in the cryptogram, such as the slash near the bottom or the double symbol (SU) near the end of line 14. Regarding the dots, the copier did such a bad job copying the dots within the symbols of the original text that I wouldn't attach much importance to the scattered dots, thought they do indeed appear to be deliberate. The Buse cryptogram that we have is certainly just a poor copy, so even if these scattered dots are there deliberately they are almost certainly far from their positions in the original cryptogram. The poor copying of dots also makes me inclined to dismiss the idea that the 'dotted Z' symbol that appears three times in the cryptogram has any special significance - to me these are just undotted Zs that were badly copied. I also don't have much of an opinion about the other odd symbols within the text, with a couple of exceptions – see later.

So if the hidden clues are not in the form of scattered dots or odd symbols, where are they? In my text the answer seems rather obvious. My text contains about 25 symbols that seem to have been embedded in the text without belonging there. Nearly all of these symbols are from the special set that can be interpreted as letters (AEIOULMNR) but which can also be interpreted as digits (1-9) (why is there no symbol that can be interpreted as a zero?). It could be that these symbols are instructions to extract certain letters, syllables or words from the text. For example, an embedded 'square C' symbol could be interpreted as L or as 6. Interpreted as a 6 it could be an instruction to extract the 6th letter to the right of the location of this symbol or to extract the 6th word to the left of the symbol, for example. If the symbols were carefully arranged in columns in the original (see below) then a 6 could also mean 'take the character 6 characters below this one'. I've tried the most obvious moves, and obviously I have not yet been successful, otherwise I would have already recovered the treasure and would currently be on board my mega yacht, cruising the Indian Ocean and sipping a martini cocktail (shaken, not stirred).

Further questions

Let's address the question of whether the symbols of the original text were carefully arranged in columns so that hidden messages could be encoded down the columns. In the cryptogram that is available to us the symbols are certainly not arranged in columns, and there is significant variation in the number of symbols on each line (between about 25 and 35 symbols). If the copier broke (wrapped) the lines in the same places as in the original document then the variation in the number of symbols per line might suggest that the symbols of the original document were not arranged in columns, for in that case we would expect each line to have the same number of symbols.

So there is a supplementary question: do we think the copier broke the lines in the same places as La Buse did? I think an observation of the last few lines could help answer that question. In the last few lines it is clear that the copier started making new lines long before reaching the right edge of the page. Why would he do that? The only answer I can think of is that he WAS breaking the lines at the same places that La Buse did. But then we have to ask why in the original document that last few lines would have fewer and fewer symbols per line. I have a suggestion for that, best explained with this image:

My suggestion ties in nicely with the idea that La Buse had to squeeze his original cryptogram onto a small piece of paper, perhaps because that's all he could obtain while under arrest or perhaps because he needed the paper to be small enough to fit in a necklace or to be invisible to his guards? Was La Buse wearing a necklace like this one?

What about the spaces in the document? In the copy that is available to us, it strongly appears that there are deliberate spaces at the beginning of line 6 and towards the middle of line 15. Some people see a space at the end of line 9, but I dismiss the dot there as an accidental smudge and therefore also dismiss the space. At this time I don't have any opinion on the spaces except that if the symbols were carefully arranged in columns to convey hidden vertical clues then the inclusion of spaces to adjust the vertical position of symbols would make sense.

What about the other special marks? That would include the double symbol near the end of line 14, the big circular dot on some (but not all) copies of the cryptogram in line 15 and the slash in line 16. To me, the fifth symbol in the first line is also odd and worthy of discussion, but few other people seem to think so. In my text, there should be the symbol for the letter 'N' where the big circular dot is located in line 15, so my guess is that the symbol was obliterated at some point, perhaps accidentally, and that the copier reproduced that obliteration. The double symbol in row 14 is almost certainly made of the symbols for 'S' and 'U' stuck together, especially since that perfectly fits with the phrase 'metté du té SUcré dans du vin' (mettez du thé sucré dans du vin, put some sugared tea in some wine) which is part of my text.

What about the 22 line version? A 22 line version of the cryptogram exists but most people dismiss it as a fake. Me too! (No, I don't mean I'm also a fake!)

Was La Buse a freemason? The cryptogram was made using a cypher that was popular with freemasons, so he may have been a freemason, but we cannot be sure of that. Nor am I sure what difference it would make the La Buse story if he was indeed a mason.

What about those carved rocks? As I understand it, a certain Madame Savy discovered some carved rocks on her waterfront property on Mahé island, the capital of the Seychelles archipelago. A certain Seychelles notary, after hearing of her discovery, brought her the (copy of) the Buse cryptogram which he had somehow (?!) acquired, thinking it might be connected to the carved rocks. Looking for help interpreting the rocks, Mme Savy went to Paris and ended up showing the cryptogram to De La Roncière who wrote the book (available for Kindle!) which includes a copy of the cryptogram. Many people have pondered and written about the La Buse cryptogram so in order for my site to be of interest I have to start with an unconventional hypothesis, and that is that the rocks are not relevant to locating the treasure. My hope is that the cryptogram may be all that is needed to determine its location.

And now for the killer questions:

Most sites report that Olivier Levasseur was from a rich family that gave him a good education (which at that time probably meant private tuition at home and some religious education in a school context). Is it plausible that La Buse could have written a cryptogram that has so many spelling mistakes, often using phonetic spelling rather than 'official' spelling?

  • Where is the evidence that La Buse had a good education or that he was from a rich, well-to-do family? I haven't seen any, and this site says he was the son of a pirate ('fils de flibustier').
  • Levels of literacy must have been very low back then so anyone who could read and write at all could probably have been considered to be relatively well educated.
  • There is another layer of clues embedded within the text and it may be that La Buse was forced to distort some words in order to incorporate those embedded clues.
  • It's possible that the cryptogram wasn't written by La Buse but by someone else, especially since there seems to be nothing in the text that ties the text to him (though there are references in the text that do tie it to that part of the world). So we should ask: If the cryptogram is genuine, was it made by La Buse or by someone else?

Why was La Buse working as a nautical pilot if he was immensely rich?? I have no good answer for this other than to say that I have read that he was doing that work without pay, which supports the idea that he was indeed rich and was doing this work to avoid boredom or out of altruism (which would certainly be out of character). Was there some reason why he had to live humbly instead of retrieving his treasure and enjoying the good life? Did he feel he had to wait a few years first? This site says that so casual and carefree was his manner at the time of his arrest that it was even said that he was ‘looking to be caught’. If he wanted to be caught, dose that mean he was feeling guilty or that he was resigned to the inevitability of being caught? Did someone find and steal his treasure? Is the whole story a myth?? I myself feel that the La Buse cryptogram that is available to us is probably not a fake, but rather a very poor copy of the original. We can't necessarily accuse the copier of having done a bad job - the copying errors come from the original being small and in a bad state when the copy was made. And the copy we have may be a copy of a copy (of a ...). And the copier(s) would not have understood what they were copying, which greatly increases the probability of copying errors...