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Pirates of the Whydah

By Donovan Webster

From the May 1999 issue

Within sight of the pale, bluff-lined beach of Cape Cod [Massachusetts], at a spot a quarter mile from shore, a flood of bubbles bursts across the surface of a glassy sea. Emerging from the center of the explosion, clad head to toe in a blue neoprene dry suit, pops 53-year-old professional treasure hunter Barry Clifford. Decked out with an aluminum scuba tank and a full-face diver's mask, Clifford is flutter-kicking his swim fins for all he's worth, slicing through the iridescent foam and lugging an unwieldy, four-foot [1.2-meter] black cylinder to the surface.

Gently, almost gingerly, Clifford sets the object on an aluminum platform hung from the rail of the 65-foot [20-meter] workboat Vast Explorer II.

"That's a swivel gun!" he says, breathing hard and patting the small cannon with a gloved hand. "It would have been mounted on a pivot near the ship's stern. Swivel gun! Guaranteed. The stern almost has to be nearby."

After 15 years of searching the ocean floor off the town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Clifford believes he's finally zeroing in on what's left of the hull and loot from the first pirate ship ever discovered in North America. Called the Whydah Galley, it was said to be heavy with treasure stolen from at least 53 ships when it sank in a storm on April 26, 1717.

The swivel gun—the latest find in an artifact trail that includes more than 100,000 pieces—has Clifford so jazzed he launches himself onto the platform behind it. The cannon drips with weeds and is encrusted with shards of scallop shells. In the July sun, it exudes a dank odor of seawater mixed with spoiled eggs. As we gently hoist it across the Vast's rail, Clifford grins.

"There's more," he says.

He pulls a mesh sack from his belt and removes a plastic bag filled with sand that's flecked with gold dust.

"Nice," says Cathrine Harker, an underwater archaeologist from Scotland.

"There's a river of gold dust down there," Clifford says. "Really fine dust. Oh, yeah. . . ."

He peels back the wrist on his left dive glove and extracts two Spanish pieces of eight, silver pieces blackened like small, charred pancakes. He smiles, turning the centuries-old coins in his gloved fingers.

"Look at these," he says, the grin of treasure fever now spreading across his nine-person crew. "The last time a human touched them, they were either being handled by a pirate—or being used to buy human lives."

* * *

The Whydah's story begins in London in 1715 when the hundred-foot [31-meter] three-master was launched as a slave ship under the command of Lawrence Prince. Named for the West African port of Ouidah (pronounced WIH-dah) in what is today Benin, the 300-ton [272-metric-ton] vessel was destined for the infamous "triangular trade" connecting England, Africa, and the West Indies. Carrying cloth, liquor, hand tools, and small arms from England, the Whydah's crew would buy and barter for up to 700 slaves in West Africa, then set out with them on three to four weeks of hellish transport to the Caribbean. Once there, the slaves were traded for gold, silver, sugar, indigo, and cinchona, the last being a source of quinine, all of which went back to England.

The Whydah was fast—she was capable of 13 knots—but in February of 1717, on only her second voyage, she was chased down by two pirate vessels, the Sultana and Mary Anne, near the Bahamas. Led by Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy, a raven-haired former English sailor thought to be in his late 20s, the pirates quickly overpowered the Whydah's crew. Bellamy claimed her as his flagship, seized a dozen men from Prince, then let the vanquished captain and his remaining crew take the Sultana.

By early April the pirates were headed north along the east coast, robbing vessels as they went. Their destination was Richmond Island, off the coast of Maine, but they diverted to Cape Cod, where legend says Bellamy wanted to visit his mistress, Maria Hallett, in the town of Eastham near the cape's tip. Others blame the course change on several casks of Madeira wine seized off Nantucket. Whatever the reason, on April 26, 1717, the freebooter navy sailed square into a howling nor'easter.

According to eyewitness accounts, gusts topped 70 miles [113 kilometers] an hour and the seas rose to 30 feet [9 meters]. Bellamy signaled his fleet to deeper water, but it was too late for the treasure-laden Whydah. Trapped in the surf zone within sight of the beach, the boat slammed stern first into a sandbar and began to break apart. When a giant wave rolled her, her cannon fell from their mounts, smashing through overturned decks along with cannonballs and barrels of iron and nails. Finally, as the ship's back broke, she split into bow and stern, and her contents spilled across the ocean floor.

The following morning, as farmers and other locals arrived at the wreck site, more than a hundred mutilated corpses lay at the wrack line with the ship's timbers. To halt looting, colonial governor Samuel Shute sent Cyprian Southack, a cartographer and sea captain, to recover what might be salvaged for the crown. When Southack arrived, he reported "at least 200 men from several places at 20 miles [32 kilometers] distance plundering the Pirate Wreck of what came ashoare [when] she turned bottom up."

Of the Whydah's crew of 146, only two men survived: John Julian, a half-blood Indian who soon vanished, and Thomas Davis, a Welshman who was captured and put on trial in Boston. There he testified that the amount and variety of stolen booty on the Whydah were dizzying, including 180 bags of gold and silver that had been divided equally among the crew and stored in chests between the ship's decks.

After Southack issued public demands for the return of items salvaged from the wreck, the cape's locals handed back some wooden beams, guns, and a few gem-studded rings cut from the fingers of dead pirates. But Southack recovered little of the Whydah's legendary booty. He did, however, note the location of the shipwreck on one of his maps. This map, along with Southack's journals and letters, became Barry Clifford's most valuable tool in his search for the lost treasure.

* * *

"You'd better get down here," Clifford calls out to Bob Cembrola, a marine historian and longtime associate who is waiting on the deck of the Vast Explorer II. Clifford is down on the sea bottom, talking through a two-way speaker in his diver's mask. "We got a great big section of hull, with all the timbers showing. Wow!"

It is afternoon on day three of Clifford's treasure-collecting expedition in July 1998. During his years of searching, Clifford has found plenty of artifacts from the Whydah (including the ship's bell, inscribed "The Whydah Gally—1716"), but he's never found any of the hull, which he believes may contain the missing treasure.

Cembrola dives to join Clifford 30 feet [9 meters] below in a green murk of weeds and algae. When he returns to the surface, he's carrying a chunk of blackened, rough-hewn timber, pinned by a long, hand-forged screw.

"Of course, I'd like more conclusive proof," he says, his black wet suit dripping with seawater. "The dimensions are right, and it's the right shape. The wood looks old enough. It's in the right location, and the artifacts in and around it are consistent with the other artifacts that have been collected. I could be wrong, but for the moment I'd say that's a section of the Whydah's hull."

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 seafloor 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, as Clifford's team points out, 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 to destructive cannon battles.

Among the custom-made weapons recovered have been 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.

Finally, among the coins and weapons there remains one truly impressive find: a leg bone with a small, black, leather shoe, complete with its silk stocking. Along with salvaged clothing, the bone strongly suggests that the average pirate was about five feet four inches tall (1.6 meters)—not the giant of Hollywood movies.

* * *

Tall and thin, with a shock of unruly black hair and sideburns, Kenneth J. Kinkor resembles Abe Lincoln gone piratologist. As research director of the Whydah Project, Kinkor's job for the past decade has been to open a window on the golden age of piracy from 1680 to 1725. Removing a padlocked chain, Kinkor raises the lid of a deep freezer in the small conservation laboratory at the expedition's museum on MacMillan Wharf in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Reaching inside, he pulls out a bundle of white fabric wrapping a foot-long [0.3-meter] black pistol stock and hands it over.

"The owner of this pistol belonged to no nation," Kinkor says. "These men gave up such loyalties when they became pirates. They were African slaves, displaced English seamen, Native Americans, and a scattering of social outcasts from Europe and elsewhere. They had no common language, no shared religion. They were truly a deviant subculture held together by a common spirit of revolt."

In his 1724 book, A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, the novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe quotes Bellamy through a secondary source, a Captain Beer who did battle with the Whydah from his sloop. "I am a free Prince," Bellamy is said to have speechified, "and I have as much Authority to make War on the whole World as he who has a hundred Sail of Ships at Sea and an Army of 100,000 Men in the Field; and this my Conscience tells me."

Unlike their reputation as tyrants, many pirate captains were elected by their crews in a rough version of democracy. "'Pirate' was literally their nationality, their social structure," Kinkor says. "They were thrown together outside the law and designed their own laws to govern community behavior. Black, white, English, French, whatever. They were as free as men could be at that time."

Thanks to court testimony of captured pirates and the depositions of merchant captains who had fallen prey to Bellamy, Kinkor believes that 30 to 50 men on Bellamy's crew were black. "Most of them were former slaves," he says. "The pirates would raid slave ships and offer male slaves their choice: Join the pirate ranks or continue to the New World in slavery. Which would you take?"

Once aboard a pirate ship, it didn't matter if a man happened to be an English refugee from Monmouth's Rebellion of 1685, when Protestant forces attempted to seize the crown from James II, who was Roman Catholic. Nor did anyone care if he was one of the thousands of out-of-work sailors decommissioned after Queen Anne's War in 1713. All any loot-minded individual needed to do was take a small step from being a legal privateer seizing goods at sea by royal authority to going "on account" as an outlaw. And between 1680 and 1725 as many as 10,000 men—and even a few women—plowed the seas as pirates, their allegiance to navy and king thrown overboard.

A crowd of tourists has gathered on MacMillan Wharf in Provincetown to gape at the treasure hunters as they trundle vats of artifacts from the workboat to the project's small museum. Before long, news of Clifford's find has spread across the wharves, and several local fishermen are coming in to congratulate him and his crew. For Clifford this is the beginning of a frenetic period of phone calls and visits. Within the week, as the story makes the front section of the New York Times, old friends and former investors will telephone, and offers will come in to build a larger museum.

"It's like being queen of the prom," Clifford says of the instant attention. "Everybody wants to be at my side."

* * *

In his book, Expedition Whydah, Clifford characterizes Black Sam Bellamy as equal parts hero, freedom fighter, and likable scoundrel. But Clifford, with his rugged good looks and natural salesman's charisma, might as well have been describing himself, considering his longtime skirmish with certain members of the historic preservation community over the project.

From the start Clifford's claim to the Whydah has rankled preservationists, who argue that historic resources on public land should remain in public hands. Much to their dismay, Massachusetts' highest state court ruled in 1988 that under the federal "law of finds"—neatly summed up by the expression "finders keepers"—the pirate ship was Clifford's to do with as he saw fit.

Two years before his court victory Clifford had made a deal with a group of 300 or so investors pieced together by a brokerage firm. The group raised six million [U.S.] dollars to fund the salvors for three years, with an eye toward auctioning the pirate loot. But at the end of three productive dive seasons the backers decided that auctioning the artifacts would net too little profit, and so the idea was scrapped.

"Most treasure hunters don't make money by selling treasure," says Paul F. Johnston, curator of maritime history at the Smithsonian Institution and one of Clifford's most outspoken critics. "Instead they make money selling shares to investors. They're selling dreams."

Clifford shrugs off such criticisms. "I just have to factor them into the job, like rough seas, broken boat parts, and the weather," he says with a gleam in his eye. "Some of those academic guys are jealous. I took the chance. I spent nine years looking for the Whydah, and I'm the one who found her."

Clifford points out that he has met all the conditions of his salvor's permit, hiring people to record finds, keeping artifacts together, and conserving them in a lab. But preservationists still mistrust him, suspecting that, sooner or later, he will sell off the treasure.

Right now, though, Clifford decides it's time for a celebration, inviting his team into an amber-lit fisherman's bar. For the next hour, as they gobble pizza and drink beer, there are invocations of "180 bags of pirate treasure" yet to be found. Exhausted and grinning, Clifford shakes his head at all the speculation.

He knows that a proper excavation of the Whydah's stern, if that is what the newly discovered wood on the bottom proves to be, must wait for the next dive season, the summer of 1999, when the weather and resources will allow it. Only then will he know whether the wreck will yield its legendary gold or whether its greatest treasure will be what it has taught us about the true lives of pirates.