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The Whydah

Location of the Whydah shipwreck
Location of the Whydah shipwreck. (Credit: Harvard Map Collection; Harvard College Library; Harvard University)
Just off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, under layers of sand and clay, rest the scattered remains of an 18th –century pirate shipwreck.

In 1984, after years of relentless searching and exploration, Barry Clifford, an underwater archaeological explorer, verified the Whydah -- slave-ship-turned-pirate ship -- by recovering more than 100,000 artifacts in an on-going mission that has been described as “a model for private archaeology.”

Slaving ships like the Whydah were custom-built for speed and maneuverability. Its masts were square-rigged for sailing, but it could also be rowed with long oars, or sweeps.
Slaving ships like the Whydah were custom-built for speed and maneuverability. Its masts were square-rigged for sailing, but it could also be rowed with long oars, or sweeps. (Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Oram and Joan Pope)
On April, 26, 1717, the Whydah Galley sailed into a violent storm and sank after hitting a sandbar. Christened two years earlier in London, the Whydah originally was built to transport cargo and slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean. A three-masted galley ship, its state-of-the-art design included a sleek silhouette that made the ship unusually fast and maneuverable. The ship was also one of the most advanced weapons systems of its day, equipped with a standard arsenal of 18 cannons that could be increased to 28 for battle.

At the time the Whydah sank, the newly-acquired flagship of pirate “Black Sam” Bellamy’s flotilla carried tons of plundered gold, silver and jewelry believed to have come from over 12 countries on four continents. Not only was the crew of the Whydah a diverse lot, but so were her treasures. In 1984, Clifford recovered countless artifacts, including the ship’s bell, weaponry, gold jewelry, coins and a stove. Shackles that used to bind enslaved Africans also were recovered.

Life aboard the Whydah offered a rare glimpse into early multicultural maritime history. The vessel sailed with a sundry crew that included 30 seamen of African descent and Native Americans. Although little is known about the lives of most black pirates, pirate egalitarianism offered some black men an opportunity to participate on an equal footing, and some, such as “Black Sam” Bellamy, achieved leadership positions. The Whydah sailed with a crew of color where black pirates and white pirates served shoulder-to-shoulder on board the ship. Some scholars call the Whydah one of America’s first floating democracies where a multi-cultural band of cut-throats were not concerned about racial injustice – only the booty they could pillage from other ships.

An artist’s rendering of Sam Bellamy and his crew reveals their diversity. From left to right are Hendrick Quintor, John King, Sam Bellamy, and John Julian.
An artist’s rendering of Sam Bellamy and his crew reveals their diversity. From left to right are Hendrick Quintor, John King, Sam Bellamy, and John Julian. (Credit: Gregory Manchess; Courtesy of National Geographic)
“Pirate ships had a larger proportion of black crewmembers than their legitimate counterparts…and they sometimes enjoyed the same rights as their white colleagues,” writes Peter Leeson in “The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates.” “In contrast, on legitimate vessels, slave sailors were invariably treated as, well, slaves. Most significantly this meant they sailed without pay or voice in their crews.”

Treasure recovered from the Whydah. The gold ingot bears knife scratches where the pirates checked to ensure it wasn’t simply gold-coated lead.
Treasure recovered from the Whydah. The gold ingot bears knife scratches where the pirates checked to ensure it wasn’t simply gold-coated lead. (Credit: Bill Curtsinger; Courtesy of National Geographic)
Whydah crew members included Hendrick Quintor, a free black man of Dutch and African ancestry. Quintor is believed to have been the son of a sailor who spent most of his life working on a Spanish vessel in the Caribbean. After he was captured by a French pirate crew that included the young Samuel Bellamy, Quintor joined the pirates and earned a reputation as one of the toughest men in the bunch. Indeed, his support helped Bellamy, a former sailor, become the pirate crew’s new leader.

The Whydah Bell. On a slave ship, the bell rang to impose a harsh punishment. On a pirate ship, it rang to summon men to meetings where they made decisions about their own welfare.
The Whydah Bell. On a slave ship, the bell rang to impose a harsh punishment. On a pirate ship, it rang to summon men to meetings where they made decisions about their own welfare. (Credit: Courtesy of Matthew Prefontaine, Arts and Exhibitions International)
Of the Whydah’s crew of 146, only two men survived the ship’s sinking: John Julian, a half-blood Indian, and Thomas Davis, a Welshman who was captured and put on trial in Boston. Quintor was not aboard the Whydah the night it went down, but was later captured, found guilty of piracy, and hanged. Clifford has researched the Whydah for years, first diving for it in 1982 accompanied by friend John F. Kennedy Jr., who remained interested in the project in the years before his 1999 death.

"When the ship turned over, the treasure that was said to be stored in bags and chests between decks laid together in one great heap," Clifford told "ABC’s “Good Morning America.” That heap is what Clifford calls the "mother load."

According to the expedition's Web site, it is the "only verified pirate shipwreck ever discovered." Now, more than two decades and 1,000 item recoveries later, the explorers are still uncovering the nearly four tons of ill-gotten loot.

 

 
 
 
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