The Whydah Gally
(variously written as Whidah, Whidaw, or Whido) was a fully rigged
galley ship that was originally built as a slave ship for the
Atlantic slave trade. On the return leg of its second voyage of the
triangle trade, it began a new role in the Golden Age of Piracy,
when it was captured by the pirate Captain "Black Sam" Bellamy, and
was refitted as his flagship. Two months later, on April 26, 1717,
the ship ran aground and capsized during a strong gale force storm
off of Cape Cod, taking Bellamy, 143 of his crew, and over 4.5 short
tons (4.1 tonnes) of gold and silver with it, leaving two survivors
behind to tell its tale.
The Whydah was commissioned in 1715 in London, England by
independent merchants. A square-rigged three-masted galley ship, it
measured 31 metres (102 ft) in length, with a tonnage rating at 300
tuns burthen, and could travel at speeds up to 13 knots (24 km/h; 15
Christened Whydah after the West African slave trading kingdom of
Ouidah (pronounced WIH-dah), the vessel was configured as a heavily
armed trading and transport ship for use in the Atlantic slave
trade. It set out for its maiden voyage in early 1716, carrying
goods from England to exchange for slaves in West Africa. After
traveling down West Africa through modern-day Gambia and Senegal to
Nigeria and Benin, where its namesake port was located.
It left Africa with 367 captives, gold, including Akan jewellry and
elephant tusks aboard, and traveled to the Caribbean, where it
traded the 312 survivors for precious metals, sugar, indigo, rum,
and medicinal ingredients, which were to then be transported back to
England. Fitted with a standard complement of eighteen six-pound
cannon, which could be increased to a total of twenty-eight in time
of war, the Whydah represented one of the most advanced weapons
systems of the time.
In late February 1717, the Whydah, under the command of Captain
Lawrence Prince, was navigating the Windward Passage between Cuba
and Hispaniola when it was attacked by pirates led by "Black Sam"
Bellamy. At the time of the Whydah's capture, Bellamy was in
possession of two vessels, the 26-gun galley Sultana and the
converted 10-gun sloop Marianne. After a three-day chase, Prince
surrendered his ship near the Bahamas with only a desultory exchange
of cannon fire. Bellamy decided to take the Whydah as his new
flagship; several of its crew remained with their ship and joined
the pirate gang. In a gesture of goodwill toward Captain Prince who
had surrendered without a struggle—and who in any case may have been
favorably known by reputation to the pirate crew—Bellamy gave the
Sultana to Prince, along with £20 in silver and gold.
The Whydah was then fitted with 10 additional cannons by its new
captain, and 150 members of Bellamy's crew were detailed to man the
vessel. Bellamy and his crew then sailed on to the Carolinas and
headed north along the eastern coastline of the American colonies,
aiming for the central coast of Maine, looting or capturing
additional vessels on the way. At some point during his possession
of the Whydah, Bellamy loaded an additional 30+ cannons below decks,
possibly as ballast. Two cannons recovered by underwater explorer
Barry Clifford in August 2009, weighed 800 pounds and 1,500 pounds
Accounts differ as to the destination of the Whydah during its few
days. Some evidence exists to support local Cape Cod legend: the
Whydah was headed for what is now Provincetown Harbor at the tip of
Cape Cod, so that Bellamy could visit his love, Maria Hallett – the
"Witch of Wellfleet". Others blame the Whydah's route on navigator
error. In any case, on April 26, 1717, near Chatham, Massachusetts,
the Whydah approached a thick, gray fog bank rolling across the
water – signaling inclement weather ahead.
That weather turned into a violent nor'easter, a storm with gale
force winds out of the east and northeast, which forced the vessel
dangerously close to the breaking waves along the shoals of Cape
Cod. The ship was eventually driven aground at Wellfleet,
Massachusetts. At midnight she hit a sandbar in 16 feet (5 m) of
water about 500 feet (152 m) from the coast of what is now Marconi
Beach. Pummeled by 70 mph (110 km/h) winds and 30-to-40 ft (9-to-12
m) waves, the main mast snapped, pulling the ship into about 30 ft
(9 m) of water, where she violently capsized. The 60+ cannon on
board ripped through the overturned decks of the ship and quickly
broke it apart, scattering its contents over a 4-mile (6.4 km)
length of coast. One of the two surviving members of Bellamy's crew,
Thomas Davis, testified in his subsequent trial that "In a quarter
of an hour after the ship struck, the Mainmast was carried by the
board, and in the Morning she was beat to pieces."
By morning, hundreds of Cape Cod's notorious wreckers (locally known
as "moon-cussers") were already plundering the remains. Hearing of
the shipwreck, then-governor Samuel Shute dispatched Captain Cyprian
Southack, a local salvager and cartographer, to recover "Money,
Bullion, Treasure, Goods and Merchandizes taken out of the said
Ship." By May 3, when Southack reached the location of the wreck, he
found that a part of the ship was still visible breaching the
water's surface, but that much of the ship's wreckage was scattered
along more than 4 miles (6.4 km) of shoreline. On a map which he
made of the wreck site, Southack reported that he had buried 102 of
the 144 Whydah crew and captives lost in the sinking (though
technically they were buried by the town coroner, who surprised
Southack by handing him the bill and demanding payment).
According to surviving members of the crew – two from the Whydah and
seven from the Mary Anne, another of Bellamy's fleet which ran
aground in the storm – at the time of its sinking, the ship carried
from four and a half to five tons of silver, gold, gold dust, and
jewelry, which had been divided equally into 180 50-pound (23 kg)
sacks and stored in-between the ship's decks. Though Southack did
recover some of the all but worthless items salvaged from the ship,
little of this massive treasure hoard was recovered. Southack would
write in his account of his findings, that "The riches, with the
guns, would be buried in the sand." With that, the exact location of
the ship, its riches and its guns were lost, and came to be thought
of as nothing more than legend.
Including the seven men aboard the Mary Anne, nine of Bellamy's crew
survived the wrecking of the two ships. They were all captured
quickly, however, and in October 1717, six were tried as pirates in
Boston. They were found guilty and hanged, barely three weeks before
Boston received news announcing King George's official pardon of all
pirates – which had been issued the month before their trial.
Another two of the survivors from the Whydah – a carpenter named
Thomas Davis, and another man also named Thomas, who had been
conscripted by Bellamy, were brought to trial. However, possibly in
part due to the intervention of the famous Puritan minister Cotton
Mather, they were acquitted of all charges and spared the gallows.
The other survivor of the Whydah, a Miskito Indian named John
Julian, was not tried but rather is believed to have been sold into
slavery after his capture.
The wreck of the Whydah was discovered in 1984 by underwater
explorer Barry Clifford, who relied heavily on Southack's 1717 map
of the wreck site – a modern-day, true-to-life "pirate treasure map"
leading to what was at that time a discovery of unprecedented
proportions. That the Whydah had eluded discovery for over 260 years
became even more surprising when the wreck was found under just 14
feet (4.3 m) of water and 5 feet (1.5 m) of sand.
The ship's location has been the site of extensive underwater
archaeology, and more than 200,000 individual pieces have since been
retrieved. One major find in the fall of 1985 was the ship's bell,
inscribed with the words "THE WHYDAH GALLY 1716". With that, the
Whydah became the first ever pirate shipwreck with it's identity
having been established and authenticated beyond a shadow of a
Work on the site by Clifford's dive team continues on an annual
basis. Selected artifacts from the wreck are displayed at Expedition
Whydah Sea-Lab & Learning Center (The Whydah Pirate Museum) in
Provincetown, Massachusetts. A selection of the artifacts are also
on a tour across the United States under the sponsorship of the
National Geographic Society.
As bits and pieces of the pirates' weapons, clothing, gear, and
other possessions have been plucked from the wreck, researchers have
logged the locations where they were found, then gently stowed them
in water-filled vats to prevent drying. The artifacts have revealed
a picture of the pirates quite unlike their popular image as
thuggish white men with sabers. The abundance of metal buttons, cuff
links, collar stays, rings, neck chains, and square belt buckles
scattered on the sea floor shows that the pirates were far more
sophisticated—even dandyish—in their dress than was previously
thought. In an age of austere Puritanism and rigid class hierarchy,
this too was an act of defiance—similar in spirit, perhaps, to
today's rock stars.
The most common items found in the wreck haven't been eye patches
and rum bottles but bits of bird shot and musket balls, designed to
clear decks of defenders but not to damage ships. The pirates, it
seems, preferred close-quarters fighting with antipersonnel weapons
over destructive cannon battles. Among the custom-made weapons that
have been recovered are dozens of homemade hand grenades: hollow,
baseball-size iron spheres, which were filled with gunpowder and
plugged shut. A gunpowder fuse was run through the plug's center, to
be lit moments before the grenade was tossed onto the deck of a
victim ship. Pirates didn't want to sink a ship; they wanted to
capture and rob it.
Famously, the youngest known member of the Whydah's crew was a boy
aged approximately 11 years of age, named John King. Young John
actually chose to join the crew on his own initiative the previous
November, when Bellamy captured the ship on which he and his mother
were passengers. He was reported to have been so insistent that he
threatened to hurt his mother if he wasn't allowed to join Bellamy.
Among the Whydah artifacts recovered by Barry Clifford were a small,
black, leather shoe, together with a silk stocking and fibula bone,
later determined to be that of a child between 8 and 11 years old –
confirming yet another "pirate tale" as fact.
A museum exhibition entitled "Real Pirates: The Untold Story of The
Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship" toured the United States from
2007 to 2012. Venues included: Cincinnati Museum Center, Cincinnati,
OH; The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA; The Field Museum,
Chicago, IL; Nauticus, Norfolk, VA; St. Louis, MO; Houston, TX; and
the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN. In one instance, the
Whydah's brief participation in the Atlantic slave trade was a
source of controversy. The Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa,
Florida announced the exhibit and linked it to the 2007 release of
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. After being criticized for
trivializing the ship's role in slavery while glorifying its role in
piracy, the museum canceled the exhibit.
On 27 May 2007 a UK documentary/reality show titled Pirate Ship ...
Live! followed a team of divers, including comedian Vic Reeves, in
live coverage of a dive at the Whydah site.
On January 7, 2008 the National Geographic Channel aired a 2-hour
documentary, Pirate Treasure Hunters, about the ongoing excavation
of the wreck of the Whydah Gally, which includes detailed interviews
with Barry Clifford. It is currently available on DVD.