Real Pirates Exhibition Walk Through
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Exhibition Walk Through
Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship
The Field Museum
February 25, 2009 - October 25, 2009
The visitor’s recreated journey on the Whydah immediately begins with an introductory video narrated by actor Louis Gossett, Jr. Here, visitors are presented with an historical background of piracy in the 18th century and the stories of Whydah Pirate Captain Sam Bellamy and underwater explorer Barry Clifford. Clifford discovered the sunken pirate ship in 1984 off Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
Story of the Whydah
In the early 1700’s most of the English slave trade was controlled by the Royal African Company; the company’s need for transport vessels was high. Commissioned in London as an independent ship in 1715, the 300-ton Whydah was considered state-of-the-art and was built to be sailed at speeds of 13 knots. To this day, no one knows exactly who owned her, but it is thought that the Whydah was run by a consortium of businessmen — each putting up money to build her and each taking a profit once she sailed and transported slaves from Africa to the Caribbean.
The Whydah possessed an arsenal of weaponry for defense against warships and pirates. In 1716, she set out on her maiden voyage.
The Caribbean and the New World Economy
In 1716 the Caribbean was a dynamic trading center. A trade route map outlining the Atlantic world of the early 1700’s is featured in this section. Imagine the amount of ship traffic, fleets carrying firearms and liquor from Europe, gold and ivory from Africa, sugar and tobacco from the Caribbean and South America as well as gold and silver from Spanish mines in Peru and Mexico. All these items and more moved across this vast commercial expanse every day.
The biggest fortune to be made during this time was in the slave trade. Several maps, illustrations, and artifacts are on display here explaining in detail how the slave trade worked. Most of the soon-to-be slaves were prisoners-of-war or victims of local conflict. With so much money dependent on the slave trade, enslaving enemies became a motivation for going to war. African merchants marched captives along trade routes to the coast, selling them to Europeans — sometimes one or two at a time, sometimes by the dozen. Artifacts in this gallery include shackles, an iron bar used as “trade iron” – exchange for captive humans, ivory, and gold, as well as cowrie shells, a form of African currency.
Visitors learn about “The Middle Passage,” the voyage between the African coast and the Caribbean slave markets. Captives on a slave ship were held in hot, foul spaces so small they could only crouch or lie down. An average Atlantic crossing took eight to 12 weeks and many Africans died — some from disease, others from poor diet or lack of food. When the ship finally reached the Caribbean, captives were given medical attention and briefly allowed to recuperate. As soon as they were considered “refreshed” — recovered enough to be put on sale — they were auctioned off in slave markets. Olaudah Equiano’s story is highlighted here. A former slave, Equiano published his autobiography in England in 1789. Equiano’s book was the earliest first-hand account of the slave trade by an ex-slave. Several passages of this book are quoted throughout this section of the exhibition.
Visitors next come face-to-face with the famous pirate Bart Roberts, also known as Black Bart. This pirate captain was considered by some to be the most successful pirate of his time, as well as a fancy dresser, as many pirate captains of that period were. Featured here are fashionable items including a silver lapel pin, shoe buckles, buttons and copper cufflinks — all authentic pirate artifacts recovered from the Whydah.
Visitors then come upon a tavern scene with a crackling fire where two pirates ponder over the ship’s “Articles” that describe in detail the code of conduct expected of every pirate, including how they are to dress and how they are forbidden to bring women aboard. Everyone who joined a pirate crew was required to sign the ship’s Articles. Soon-to-be pirates also swore an oath of loyalty to the crew and agreed never to betray or cheat their shipmates.
This section also tells the fascinating story of Sam Bellamy, the commanding officer of the captured Whydah. Bellamy was an experienced sailor from a poor family and had little to lose when he chose a life of piracy. Quickly, he became one of the most successful pirates of his day, looting dozens of ships in a year’s time before finally capturing the Whydah in 1717. Visitors can pore over a legend detailing an accurate account of Bellamy’s pirating journey through Honduras, Panama, and the Caribbean.
Capture of the Whydah
Bellamy chased the ship for three days straight before finally capturing the Whydah in the central Bahamas. After boarding the ship and forcing off the merchant crew, Bellamy spent days refitting the vessel from a slave ship to a pirate ship. Visitors can study a painstakingly-detailed scale model of the Whydah and view a computerized virtual tour of the ship that looks into the configuration of the spaces below deck.
Cannons were kept loaded at all times on pirate ships to ward off attack. Three of these cannons are shown in this part of the exhibition along with a 10-step explanation of how to fire cannons (it took four to six men to operate one mounted cannon). Also on display here are recovered weapons such as sword pieces, pistols, and grenades, along with interactive kiosks where visitors can attempt to tie a pirate knot and hoist the Jolly Roger. It is also in this gallery where visitors are introduced to three more members of the Whydah crew who ended up on the same pirate ship for very different reasons. They are:
Hendrick Quintor: of African and Dutch descent, Quintor turned pirate when the Spanish Brigantine he sailed on was captured. Although little is known about the lives of most black pirates, piracy did offer black men an opportunity to participate on an equal footing and some achieved leadership positions. The Whydah had at least 30 crew members of African descent; the famous pirate Blackbeard’s crew was 60 percent black.
John Julian: a 16-year-old Miskito Indian from southeastern Central America. Julian was a pilot of the Whydah, navigating the ship out of difficult waterways or hiding the ship in secluded spots during frequent pursuits.
John King: no older than 11, the youngest known pirate on board the Whydah. According to legend, when the ship he was traveling on with his mother was captured by Bellamy, young John insisted on joining the pirate crew. Despite his mother's objections, King became a pirate.
Board the Whydah
Next, visitors board a life-size partial recreation of the Whydah. First stop: the captain's cabin. These were Captain Sam Bellamy’s private quarters — it is a small space and features replicas of the types of personal items he used in everyday life. Visitors will then proceed “below deck” to the crew's quarters, which is crowded and cramped. These dioramas recreate scenes of how pirates led their daily lives aboard the ship. Authentic artifacts in this gallery include a real Whydah tea kettle in which the pirates boiled water for cooking. In the early 1700’s, stored water upon a ship quickly stank and squirmed with organisms, so pirates rarely drank water. Instead, they drank anything else they could get their hands on, and rum was predominantly their first choice. The tableware in this section tells an interesting story. Sailors of the 18th century were responsible for their personal utensils and dishes, and pirates were no exception. The table setting seen here is inscribed with the initials of the pirate owner. Pirates actually ate well — even better than sailors of that time. Their meals included food and drink from looted ships as well as fish, turtles and birds caught in their free time.
Some pirates were hardcore gamblers. Tokens used on this ship to compete in games such as backgammon, cards, or dice are carefully displayed. Visitors can also delve deeper into the various roles and responsibilities pirates had aboard the ship; learning about the Quartermaster, or purser — a position only given to those pirates who were able to read and write. The ship’s carpenter is also seen here. The carpenter did not just refit the ship; when there was no doctor aboard, the carpenter doubled as the ship’s surgeon.
This part of the exhibition features a portion of the thousands of silver and gold coins from all over the world recovered from the Whydah. When the Whydah sank she was carrying booty plundered from more than 50 ships. There was a fortune on board in gold and silver, jewelry from Africa, as well as elephant tusks, sugar, and other commodities. Visitors are welcomed to touch a few pieces of real pirate treasure — actual coins recovered from the Whydah shipwreck. Folklore has led many to believe pirates buried their treasure in the sand. As witnessed by the wealth in this gallery, the historical record does not support the legend.
Loss of the Whydah
This part of the exhibition focuses on the powerful nor'easter storm that downed the ship on April 26, 1717 off the coast of Cape Cod. Here visitors will see a large-scale video recreating the violent storm and its horrendous effect on the Whydah. At the time of the storm, the ship was only 500 feet away from the beach, but the ocean’s bitter temperature was cold enough to kill even the most skilled swimmers.
As visitors round the corner of the gallery they will encounter the original ship's bell, inscribed "Whydah Gally 1716." The bell is submerged in a large cylinder of water in order to preserve it. When the bell was found by underwater explorer Barry Clifford, it was the key to authenticating the shipwreck as that of the Whydah.
The nor’easter was deadly. Only two of the 146 people (130 pirates and 16 prisoners) on board the Whydah survived the storm. Now, the two men faced a storm of controversy from the public awaiting them on the shore.
Both of the survivors managed to swim ashore, but were soon captured by authorities. Unsurprisingly, they were arrested after stopping off at a tavern for an ill-conceived drink prior to their escape. Seven months later the men were found guilty of piracy and robbery and were hung on the harbor in Charleston. The tide lapped at their feet as they swayed from the gallows.
Featured on display here is the gibbet, a device not used to execute, but rather to display dead pirates. Authorities thought it was a good warning for those seeking a life of lawlessness.
During the Golden Age of Piracy, there were more than 2,000 pirates operating throughout the Caribbean and North American coast. Throughout the Whydah’s short lifetime (1715-1717), the British Navy never captured a single pirate ship.
Discovery and Recovery
More than 250 years after the sinking of the Whydah, underwater explorer Barry Clifford began searching for the shipwreck. In this final gallery, visitors can examine the recovery and conservation efforts led by Barry Clifford and his dedicated staff. A sample of the devices Clifford's team uses underwater and in their laboratory on land is shown here. Visitors can see firsthand the techniques and technologies used to examine items recovered from the ocean floor including concretions — a conglomerate of rock, sand, and clay that have formed around metal artifacts. Some concretions are constantly sprayed with water to preserve the artifacts within, others rest inside water tanks. If exposed to outside elements, the artifact could be lost forever.
This time-consuming conservation takes many steps, and therefore it can take several months before an artifact is safely removed from a concretion. An explanation of the conservation process and a demonstration of how digital X-ray technology and CT scans are used in underwater exploration are featured in this final section of the exhibition. Clifford is still actively excavating the wreck site, bringing treasures from the Whydah to the surface.