The real pirates of the galley ship, Whydah bring cache to San Diego, California. The San Diego Museum of Natural History exhibition, Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Private Ship has all the components for a Hollywood motion picture, except this is an actual tale of discovery that is better than a work of fiction.
The account begins with a voyage aboard the slave ship, Whydah in 1717. Merchants commissioned the three-masted galley ship in London, England in 1715. It had been configured for use in the Atlantic slave trade. Two years later, West African slaves and precious cargos were being taken across the Atlantic Ocean. The crew traded the slaves in the Caribbean for cargo that was to be brought back to England. For pirates, slave ships were ideal because of their maneuverability, “unusually fast, and armed to the hilt.”
On the return leg of the voyage, “Black Sam” Bellamy and his fearsome crew of political dissidents, seaman, escaped slaves and runaway plantation workers, captured the Whydah en route to England off the coast of Cape Cod. Bellamy en voyage to his darling, Maria Goody Hallet, known as the “Witch of Wellfleet.” Tales recount that as Goody Hallet watched from the bluff-lined cliffs, a gale force storm sent the galley ship, Bellamy, treasures of 50 plundered ships, and 144 men to the bottom of the sea before they even had the opportunity to split the spoils.
Underwater explorer, Barry Clifford made world headlines when he and his crew discovered the actual Whydah in 1984. It the first fully substantiated pirate ship discovered in United States waters. Clifford continues to unearth the sunken ship site and recover the lost treasures of real pirates. So far, there have been more than 100,000 artifacts recovered and conserved to date with treasures being brought to the surface annually. Items include 60 cannons, 400 pieces of Akan gold jewelry and over 10,000 coins.
The 10,000-square-foot exhibit displays over 200 artifacts recovered from the ocean floor including treasure chests of coins and gold, weaponry like flintlock pistols, cannons, swords and knives, and Akan gold jewelry. Visitors will find personal belongings, the ship’s enormous anchor and leg iron moldings. The real pirate’s exhibit also features a replica of the actual Whydah that visitors can embark. One of the most outstanding artifacts on display is the ship’s bell with an inscription, Whydah Galley 1716, used to validate the shipwreck site.
The San Diego exhibition gives visitors insight into the violence and idealism during the “Golden Age of Piracy.” Compelling stories from all the lives of those who converged on the vessel – traders and artisans from West Africa, slave captains and their captives, impoverished European sailors, Native American boat pilots, and of course, real pirates – before it sank.
The 18th century was a time when North American cities were still “settlements” with minimal interconnections. The Caribbean and its sugar plantations became the “dynamic center,” attracting people from all corners of the Atlantic. It brought men, women and children from across Africa, Native Americans from colonial North America, and South American natives, kidnapped and sold into slavery.
At the San Diego Natural History Museum, visitors will encounter the risks and pleasures of pirate life during the time of slavery. Clifford summed up the greatness of this traveling exhibit when came ashore from one of his excavations in 1999. He pronounced that the previous time that a human has held the real pirate’s cache was when the treasure was either “being handled by a pirate-or being used to buy human lives.”
by Dawn Levesque