Treasure Pirates of the Whydah
By: John Shepler
Sam Bellamy was coming home, a successful man at last. He looked to the shore, and in the churning blackness he could see in his mind's eye the face of the woman he loved, his sweet Maria Hallett. Soon he would run his fingers through her long straw colored hair and gaze into her eyes which were as deep and blue as a freshwater pond. He longed to see her smile again, to see the pride well up in her as he laid out his cache of gold and silver at the Great Island Tavern on Cape Cod. Surely she would be impressed by the wealth that would allow them to retire, still in their youthful twenties. Perhaps she would even be honored by the title he'd acquired...Black Sam Bellamy, captain of the pirate ship Whydah.
But it was not to be. The flagship Whydah, a former slave ship and merchant vessel, was tossed more and more violently on the seas as Bellamy steered nearer and nearer to the Cape. Was it bad luck, bad judgment born of youthful passion, or the hand of providence that pulled him into the worst storm of the 18th Century to hit Cape Cod? The blue skies and playful waters they'd enjoyed just a few days earlier had turned into a maelstrom bearing down on Bellamy and his fleet of captured ships. Sam Bellamy knew the danger of ocean storms near the Cape, but never counted on facing off with a nor'easter as powerful as the one that had him fatally in its grip. There would be no joyous welcome home, no lover's tearful reunion, no triumphal return of the outcast from polite society now an envied man of fortune. As the hull of the Whydah slammed into the sandbar, its timbers cracked and the cold ocean poured into its hold. Its prized cargo of Spanish gold doubloons, silver pieces of eight and ancient African Akan jewelry were now being claimed in the name of a new master. The sea would crush the Whydah and her crew within sight and sound of shore. All that treasure would be pulled into the sandy depths and hidden from human scavengers for all time...or would it?
Barry Clifford grew up hearing the legend of the Whydah. His uncle Bill would recount the tale again and again with the passion of a man telling a ghost story to a wide eyed boy who soaked it all in. But was it true? Did those star-crossed lovers of 1717 really walk the cobblestones of New England and pledge their love to each other? Did Sam Bellamy run off to Florida in search of sunken treasure to support the woman who carried his child, and then frustrated that the wrecks had already been plundered, go "on the account" as a buccaneer who forced other ships to surrender their valuables at the point of a cutlass? Was he successful in raiding 50 vessels, freeing their slaves to join his forces as equal partners, and then working his way back to within sight of his home in good health and high spirits with all that captured booty? Did Maria Hallett comb the shoreline on that April morning, turning over bodies of drowned sailors, perhaps even finding her lover so nearly returned to her? What of the Whydah? If Uncle Bill had it right, the Whydah would still be there, perhaps a only few hundred yards from shore and hidden in the fine sands of the Atlantic. Barry became obsessed. The story was true. The Whydah was waiting. In high school he declared he would find it, prove the legend and reclaim the treasure. Thirty years later, he is still doing so.
Barry Clifford set out to discover the first wreck of a pirate ship. That he did. He tells it all in his book, "Expedition Whydah." It's supposed to be the story of how one determined man drove himself to near bankruptcy convinced that he was within a few more yards and a few more days of exposing pirate gold under the sea. We can cheer the climactic discovery, as Barry's down to his last dollar and his recovery ship is on its last tank of fuel when they blow away the sand and find the bottom strewn with silver and gold coins, encrusted cannon and the artifacts of daily life aboard a sailing ship of the mid-1700's. But there's something else. It's also the story of a man's journey of discovering himself.
Barry Clifford may have had "gold fever" in his teenage exuberance. Perhaps he wanted nothing more than the satisfaction of the find and the wealth that would be his when the treasure was found and sold to the highest bidder. But three decades later, he finds himself not as the raider of the Whydah, but as its archivist and protector. In the end, he's found 100,000 artifacts but sold none of them. He's paid the archeologists to map the wreck and preserve the remains, which have even included pieces of wood from the ship, her cannon and ship's bell, and encrusted bones of at least one sailor pinned beneath the wreckage. He's opened a museum, formed a preservation society that invites anyone interested to join, and delved deep into the history of pirates and their daily lives.
History, as we commonly know it from movies and treasure yarns, has it wrong. Oh, the pirates of the "Golden Age" from 1680 to 1730 were hardly saints, and certainly they operated outside the laws of their lands. But they had a written code of ethics that almost all signed up to. They rarely engaged in violent sea battles, generally just pulling aside other vessels and making their demands known. The hapless victims almost never walked the plank. They were given the option of joining the pirates as equals or getting sent off again, minus their cargo and perhaps on a lesser ship. Slaves, and the Whydah was a slaver before being appropriated by Bellamy, were routinely given their freedom and offered the chance to sail under the black flag with the skull of possible death and crossed bones of resurrection to a new life. All captured treasure was scrupulously divided equally among the crew, with the captain and officers getting just a marginally larger share. These officers were elected by majority rule, and the captain had no special powers except in time of battle. For many sailors at the bottom rung of society and brutalized in the service of king and country, it really was a better life than what else they had to pick from.
Thanks to Barry Clifford, we now know more about the real lives of the pirates who operated off the shores of New England and often met tragic fates in the unpredictable waters near Cape Cod. Their legacy becomes part of the written history of those times, their artifacts preserved for future generations. It took a special man to persevere for 30 years to recover the story of Black Sam Bellamy, Maria Hallett and the pirates of the Whydah, and then to protect the find. Perhaps that's why they picked him to share it with after these 280 some years.
Books of Interest:
Expedition Whydah; The Story of the World's First Excavation of a Pirate Treasure Ship and the Man Who Found Her by Barry Clifford, Paul Perry. Two great stories in one big book. Business, adventure, and ghosts: from a writer's point of view, this book has everything. Which means, of course, that it has everything from a reader's point of view, too. This is a story of obsession, that of a modern day explorer named Barry Clifford and an 18th-century pirate named 'Black' Sam Bellamy. Bellamy crashed his pirate ship, the Whydah, on the sandy shores of Cape Cod in April of 1717. At least 146 pirates were killed in that crash, along with the booty from 50 ships. Such a crash would have been a heyday for the residents of the impoverished Cape had they been able to reach the capsized vessel. Unfortunately for them, the storm prevented any kind of salvage, and they could only watch in frustration as the ship filled with treasure sank into the voracious sands of the Cape. Shortly it disappeared and people forgot exactly where it had sunk. Eventually it became a legend, like so many other 'lost gold' legends around the world....Enter Barry Clifford. It is 266 years later and he is telling Walter Cronkite the story of 'Black' Sam Bellamy at a Thanksgiving get together at writer William Styron's house. 'Why don't you look for the Whydah?' asks Cronkite. And Barry does. Through an exciting process of discovery, he finds the Whydah.
Then the adventure begins, as modern day pirates try to jump his claim and jealous archaeologist try to keep him from bringing up artifacts and treasure.Barry is a human monument to perserverance. Over the years he and his colorful crew have brought up over 100,000 artifacts, including gold, silver and the ethereal jewelry of African tribesmen who were hauled as slaves to the New World by the former Captain of Whydah, a slave runner named 'Prince.'What will you get out of this book besides a good read? You'll get an understanding of what 'obsession' and 'pursuit of excellence' means. The cost of finding this legendary pirate ship - the only one in the world to be excavated - has been a high one for Barry. But the reward has been a large one, too. He refuses to sell any of the thousands of artifacts that he has retrieved from this dangerous archaeological site. Instead he is keeping the collection together to contribute to our knowledge of a mysterious subculture, one that contributed to the formation of our nation. - Paul Perry (email@example.com), the Author
Treasure Island (Scribner Illustrated Classics) by: Robert Louis Stevenson. The classic adventure of pirate treasure with Long John Silver, his loquacious parrot and gang of thieves. It's fun reading for children and a nice escape for adults. This edition is beautifully illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, with even a map of Treasure Island itself.
The Wreck of the Henrietta Marie: An African-American's Spiritual Journey to Uncover a Sunken Slave Ship's Past by Michael H. Cottman, Designed by Lenny Henderson. In telling the story of the salvage of the only verifiable slave ship ever discovered, this gripping book takes the historical abstraction of the African slave trade and charges it with the immediacy of warm flesh and cold iron. 16-page photo insert.
Slave Ship: The Story of the Henrietta Marie by George Sullivan. In an especially good book for students, George Sullivan provides a history of the slave trade, talks about how the Henrietta Marie was discovered, and discusses the details of salvaging treasures that have been under water for hundreds of years. There are many maps, pictures and illustrations to bring the story to life.
Spirit Dive, An African-American's Journey to Uncover a Sunken Slave Ship's Past by Michael H. Cottman. A powerful and compelling testament of one man's attempt to make sense of the history of his ancestors, chronicling his journey while confronting questions with no answers and striving for reconciliation with his homeland's past and his own country's future.
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Also visit these related sites:
Expidition Whydah - Barry Clifford's own website. Learn about the expedition to find the lost pirate ship Whydah and visit the museum shop.
Real Pirates - The National Geographic is on tour with artifacts from the Whydah. Check for a show schedule near you.
No Quarter Given Pirate Magazine - Yo ho ho and a whole lot of fun. NQG, the source fer all things piratical, is a clearinghouse for those interested in pirates, privateers & nautical history.
Copyright 1999 - 2015 by John E. Shepler. Linking to this article is welcome, but no online republication is permitted. Print media republication rights are available at reasonable rates. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: November 7, 1999 as part of A Positive Light
Last Updated: July 5, 2015
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