Think "pirate" and your mind fills with wild thugs from fiction and fancy. But now the world's only known pirate shipwreck is giving us glimpses of the truthmore complex, more interesting.
The Whydah sank off New England in April 1717. Her captain, "Black Sam" Bellamy, and 143 others died with her. Armed with Whydah clues and informed imaginations, historians have begun speculating about Bellamy's crew. Explore the real life of real pirates.
Capt. Samuel Bellamy
- Pirate captain of the Whydah.
- English (probably from Devonshire).
- Born in 1689. Mother died soon after.
- Became a sailor in his teens. Probably saw combat.
- Turned pirate at 26 or 27. Elected commander of a pirate fleet in 1716.
- Captured more than 50 ships before age 29.
"Black Sam" Bellamy went down with the ship in 1717.
Sam Bellamy was in love. The object of his affection, according to Cape Cod lore, was Maria Hallett of Eastham, Massachusetts. Her parents liked Sam well enough but didn't think a poor sailor would make much of a husband. So in 1715 Bellamy went looking for his fortune.
He and his friend Palgrave Williams started out as ordinary treasure hunters, looking for shipwrecks. They found none. Rather than return empty-handed, the legend says, the determined lover became a pirate"Black Sam" Bellamy.
It was the perfect job for him. In just a year of raiding Bellamy and his crew plundered more than 50 ships on the Caribbean and Atlantic. They were getting richquick. And they were rebelling against a world that had sentenced them to grinding poverty. Bellamy's crew called themselves "Robin Hood's Men" and lived by a remarkably democratic set of rules.
Then came the coup of a lifetime. In February 1717 Bellamy captured the Whydah, a three-masted English slave ship. With her came gold and silver worth more than 20,000 pounds sterlingmoney earned from the sale of human beings. For men who might have earned two pounds a month as honest sailors, it was a fortune beyond belief.
"Lads, we've gotten enough," Bellamy is said to have told his men. "It's time to go home." The pirate fleet headed to New Englandand Maria. But triumph turned to tragedy on April 26, 1717. A fierce storm sank the ship, killing Bellamy and all but 2 of his 145 men.
Pirate Under Pressure
- Captured by Samuel Bellamy and pressed into service as a carpenter on the Whydah.
- Born in 1695.
- One of only two known survivors of the Whydah shipwreck.
Thomas Davis was jailed, tried, and acquitted of piracy in 1717.
Thomas Davis wasn't much of a pirate. Actually, he wasn't a pirate at all. He was a carpenter on a ship called the St. Michael when Samuel Bellamy and his band captured her.
Carpenters are always handy on wooden ships, so Bellamy drafted Davis for the Whydah crew. Davis was not pleased. In fact, he kicked up such a fuss that Bellamy promised to set him free as soon as he'd found some other unlucky carpenter to take his place.
Davis survived the Whydah sinking in 1717, only to wind up in a Boston jail on charges of piracy. To buttress his defense, he produced several testimonialsthe written equivalent of character witnesses. One, from a former employer, assured the court that Davis "had a good Education in a Religious and Orderly Family, and that his Conversation, Carriage and Behaviour all that while was very decent and becoming."
Verdict: not guilty.
Mystery Medicine Man
- Served as surgeon on the Whydah.
- Scottish (born in Paisley).
- May have been a rebel against King George I.
James Ferguson went down with the ship in 1717.
As a man of science, Dr. Ferguson would have wanted us to stick to the facts. But they're pretty sparse in his case. We know he was Scottish; we know he tended the the sick and wounded in Samuel Bellamy's pirate crew.
At least he tried to. A ship's surgeon had few supplies and none of the antibiotics we count on today. So when something got infected, the answer was often to cut it off. The surgeon grasped the limb tightly, since the wide-awake patient wasn't likely to sit still. Then he cut as quickly as he could and cauterized the stump with a red-hot ax.
But there may have been more to Dr. Ferguson. Many of Scotland's citizens were unenthusiastic about King George I, who'd been imported from Germany. Some even launched a rebellion in 1715, and the good doctor may have been part of it. If so, turning pirate might have been his way of escaping punishment when the revolt failed.
Only Free at Sea
- Pilot of the Whydah.
- Half-blood Mosquito Indian (born in Central America).
- Probably one of the first pirates recruited by Samuel Bellamy.
- One of two known survivors of the Whydah wreck.
John Julian was probably sold into slavery. He was likely executed in 1733 for killing a bounty hunter.
Pirates threw the law of the land overboard. That was good news for John Julian, a half-blood Mosquito Indian who joined Samuel Bellamy early in his brief, brilliant career. On land, Julian's skin made him nobody. On water, his skill made him somebody. He eventually piloted the Whydah, which was the leading ship of Bellamy's fleet. Julian was one of 30 to 50 people of African descent in the pirate crewall treated as equals.
Julian's life took a nosedive after he survived the Whydah wreck in 1717. He was jailed in Boston but apparently never indicted. More likely, he was sold into slavery. He was probably the "Julian the Indian" bought by John Quincywhose grandson, President John Quincy Adams, became a staunch abolitionist.
If so, he suffered. A purported "unruly slave," Julian the Indian was sold to another owner and tried often to escape. During one attempt he killed a bounty hunter who was trying to catch him. He was executed in 1733.
Bad Career Move
- Young passenger on the sloop Bonetta when she was captured by Samuel Bellamy in 1716.
- Demanded to join the Whydah crew.
John King went down with the ship in 1717.
John King should have listened to his mother. She tried to warn him that becoming a pirate was not one of his better ideas.
But the young passenger on the sloop Bonettacaptured in the Caribbean by Samuel Bellamycould only see the flutter of the black flag and the wild, exciting lives of the men who flew it. As the pirates boarded the Bonetta, he demanded to join their crewor he would kill himself.
When his mother counseled caution, he threatened to kill her. His determination carried the day, and he joined Bellamy's band. Less than a year later he sank with the Whydah.
- Bellamy's quartermaster.
- Irish (born in Dublin).
- Sailed with a pirate named Ben Hornigold, then joined Bellamy's crew.
- Commanded the Anne, part of Bellamy's fleet.
- Later sailed with the notorious Blackbeard.
Richard Noland retired from piracy in 1718.
You could argue that Richard Noland was the most important man in Samuel Bellamy's pirate fleet, for he looked after the treasure. Elected and trusted by the men, the quartermaster made sure that each pirate received a fair portion of the loot.
His other jobs included inspecting weapons, punishing minor infractions of the pirates' rules, assigning work details, overseeing elections, managing provisionsand keeping the captain in line. Juggling more than a hundred egos took plenty of "blarney," as they still call a smooth tongue in Noland's homeland, Ireland.
Noland's verbal virtuosity came in handy on land too. He retired from piracy in 1718 under one of the pardons granted periodically by the British crown. Unlike many ex-pirates, who speedily gambled and drank their way to poverty, Noland managed to establish himself as a respectable citizen. Indeed, he even served as a character witness at the trials of other pirates.
- Served on the Mary Anne in Samuel Bellamy's pirate fleet.
- African-Dutch (born in Amsterdam).
- Born in 1692.
Hendrick Quintor was hanged for piracy in 1717.
Probably the son of a sailor, Quintor spent most of his life at sea. Working on a Spanish vessel in the Caribbean, he was captured by a 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. His support helped Bellamy become the pirates' new leader.
Quintor was not aboard the Whydah when she sank in 1717. That sounds lucky but wasn't. He was captured not long afterward and found guilty of piracy in October 1717. The penalty: death by hanging.
Bostonians crowded by the gallows to watch as Quintor and five other pirates were hanged. To the audience, the slow writhing of the dangling bodies was a form of entertainmentand a warning to anyone considering piracy.
Old Dog, Old Tricks
- Served on the Whydah.
- Was captured by the British Royal Navy in 1701 but wasn't executed. Returned to piracy.
Joseph Rivers went down with the ship in 1717.
Joseph Rivers was a rarity: a pirate with a long resume. Most pirates died young, sometimes at the end of an executioner's rope. Others snared their loot, then took early retirement. Not Rivers.
His career as a pirate spanned two decades, and not even his arrest in 1701 slowed him down. Joining Samuel Bellamy about 1715, he was probably one of the most seasoned men aboard the Whydah. Younger, brasher pirates may have rolled their eyes as he spun stories of battling the Royal Navy. But they knew where to get survival tips.
- Pirate captain of the Mary Anne (a ship in Bellamy's fleet).
- American (born in Rhode Island).
- Born in 1678.
- Was a wealthy goldsmith before turning pirate in 1715 or 1716.
Palgrave Williams retired from piracy in 1723.
Maybe he felt old. That's one plausible answer to the riddle of Palgrave Williams. Why, historians still wonder, would a wealthy 39-year-old leave his wife and kids to become a pirate?
Whatever spurred him, Williams joined Samuel Bellamy in "the sweet trade" of piracy. He served as Bellamy's quartermaster, then became captain of the Mary Anne, a sloop in Bellamy's small fleet.
When the fleet sailed north from the Bahamas in the spring of 1717, Williams took a detour that saved his life. He stopped at Block Island, Rhode Island, to visit his mother and sisters. Thus he escaped the storm that sank the Whydah and most of his compatriots.
Williams retired from piracy a year later, but quickly grew bored. Returning to piracy, he sailed and stole for several more years. At 45, in 1723, he retired a second, final time. It is believed that Williams settled down with a new wife and a new name and began another family. He eventually died in peacea rare ending for a pirate.