A life-size replica of the Whydah’s stern
In 1716, the Whydah Gally set sail, a state of the art ship built for the slave trade. Fitted out with shackles in which to chain terrified men, and loaded with iron bars and cowrie shells for use as currency, it transported hundreds if not thousands of slaves. However, this is not the end of the famous ship’s history. As Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science exhibit shows, the ship went on to be taken over by pirates and was commanded by one of the most famous pirates of the day, “Black Sam” Bellamy, until it was lost at sea – and finally rediscovered.
Pirate ships were heavily armed. Cannons were the heaviest artillery against patrolling navy vessels and were kept loaded, ready to fire. More than a dozen cannons have been recovered from the Whydah
In February 1917, Captain Pierce of the Whydah was chased in the warm winds of the Caribbean for three days by Bellamy. Bellamy had a reputation for showing mercy to those he captured, and luckily for Pierce, this time he was more than merciful. He decided the Whydah would make a great flagship, so he gave Pierce one of the ships he chased him in and 20 pieces of silver! Fitted with 28 cannons and a crew of 150, it was now ready to take its place in history as a pirate ship.
Bellamy and his crew went from coast to coast, raiding and looting other ships along the way, until the Whydah ended up in a violent storm off the coast of Cape Cod. There are split ideas on whether the crew found their way there on purpose or whether they were lost. What is certain, however, is that on the cold and windy night of April 26, 1717, the Whydah hit a sandbar and broke apart. According to National Geographic: “When a giant wave rolled her, her cannon fell from their mounts, smashing through overturned decks along with cannonballs and barrels of iron and nails. Finally, as the ship’s back broke, she split into bow and stern, and her contents spilled across the ocean floor.” Of the few pirates who survived, six were hanged and three were acquitted, while Bellamy died in the wreck.
Some of the finest treasure found in the Whydah wreckage was Akan gold jewelry from West Africa. The gold was used as currency in the slave trade.
Plunderers ranging from unofficial wreck salvagers to the governor’s appointed man went to try and salvage what treasure they could, but found very little. According to an article on Wikipedia: “The ship carried nearly four and a half to five tons of silver, gold, gold dust, and jewelry, which had been divided equally into 180 fifty-pound bags and stored in chests below the ship’s deck.” Yet even so, the plunder remained hidden from all until the discovery made by Barry Clifford, almost 300 years later.
Eighteenth-century Spanish coins found at the Whydah shipwreck site
Barry Clifford is an underwater archaeological explorer who has spent his life searching for and finding shipwrecks. In the case of the Whydah, he relied extensively on the maps that the governor’s assistant had made at the time of the wreckage to pinpoint the area to search. When handling some of the gold coins he had discovered, Clifford reportedly said: “Look at these. The last time a human touched them, they were either being handled by a pirate—or being used to buy human lives.”
Since 1984, Clifford has brought up more than 200,000 pieces, among them the fibula bone of a child they believe to be John King – a boy who voluntarily joined the pirate ship when originally captured. He also found the ship’s bell, which bears the the inscription, THE WHYDAH GALLY 1716, making it the first pirate ship identified beyond doubt.
The bell provided confirmation that the wreck site was indeed the Whydah
Found in the sea were all sorts of personal items – from belt buckles and pins to cufflinks and collar stays – which show that the pirates weren’t just rough men in collarless shirts, but men who were, as was said in one entry, “almost dandyish”. The source related this dress style to a form of revolt against the plainness of puritans at the time. Even the men’s pistols were beautifully chased.
When found in the Whydah shipwreck, the handle of the Sun King pistol was wrapped in a silk ribbon. The ribbon improved the gunman’s grip and was used to hang the pistol around his neck.
Diving for the Whydah’s treasure has not just been a question of scraping away some sand and picking up loot. Many articles have been embedded in concretions, a conglomerate of rocks, and they need to be kept wet or the treasure could be lost forever. Technology used in the recovery and removal of articles has included x-rays and underwater CT scans.
X-ray technology helps Barry Clifford and his conservation team see inside concretions. Concretions are masses of sediment and rock that have caked around the Whydah artifacts
Work is ongoing to find more treasure and lead to a better knowledge of the life of the pirates. If you are in Denver, they have the full exhibition starting on March 4, 2011, and if you’re unable to attend, there is much more about this incredible story of the pirate ship, the life of pirates, the discovery of the wreck and more at the exhibition website.