Magazine article USA TODAY

The Real Pirates of the Caribbean

Magazine article USA TODAY

The Real Pirates of the Caribbean

Article excerpt

THE CLASSICAL AGE of piracy comes to life in "The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship," an interactive exhibition that has more than 200 artifacts on display, including everyday objects, personal items, and treasures from the first fully authenticated pirate ship ever to be discovered in U.S. waters. "Real Pirates" tells the true story of the Whydah--named after the West African trading town of Ouidah--a ship that sank off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., nearly 300 years ago. Showcased are treasure chests of gold coins and jewelry, as well as technically advanced weaponry of the time--18th-century cannons, pistols, and swords. These artifacts painstakingly were recovered from the ocean floor over the last 25 years and form the core of this exhibition.

"This isn't fantasy--it is the real pirates' treasure that bears witness to this ship's fate," points out Scott Demel, head of Collections Management at The Field Museum.

Visitors are provided with an unprecedented glimpse into the unique economical, political, and social circumstances of the early 18th-century Caribbean. Highlighted in the multimedia galleries are compelling true stories of the diverse people whose lives converged on the Whydah before its demise. Visitors can get a sense of everyday life aboard the Whydah and meet Capt. "Black Sam" Bellamy, one of the boldest and most successful pirates of his day. Continue on the journey with Bellamy as he sails, looting dozens of ships before a violent storm sank the stored vessel.

"This unique and extraordinary exhibit defines the best of exploration," indicates Terry Garcia, National Geographic's executive vice president of Mission Programs. "From an archaeological perspective, we have the discovery of the shipwreck, its excavation, and the process by which it was authenticated. From a cultural perspective, we explore the rich history of the Caribbean trade routes during the 18th century and the inextricable link between the slave trade and piracy. This is the first time that this amazing story, with all of its interconnected layers and characters, will be presented in such an engaging format."

Museum-goers can hoist a pirate flag, tie sailing knots, and enter the ship as the pirates did, by ducking through a large wooden door and going "below deck" in a life-size replica of the ship's stem. "Real Pirates" personally relates to patrons by sharing the stories of four members of the Whydah crew--people who ended up on the same pirate ship for very different reasons--such as John King, the youngest-known pirate onboard; he was believed to be under 11 years old at the time of the shipwreck. King's piracy began when the ship he was traveling on with his mother was captured by Capt. Bellamy and he joined the pirate crew.

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The three-masted, 300-ton Whydah was built as a slave ship in London in 1715 and embodied the most advanced oceangoing technology of the day. She was easy to maneuver, unusually fast, and, to protect her cargo, heavily armed and ready for battle. She was built to transport human captives from the west coast of Africa to the Caribbean--but only made one such voyage before being captured by pirates in February 1717. Soon after the ship's slaves were sold in the Caribbean, the Whydah was captured near the Bahamas by Bellamy. His crew quickly hoisted the Jolly Roger, signaling to others that the slave ship now was a pirate ship. On April 26, 1717, the Whydah, heavy with loot from more than 50 captured ships, sank during a powerful Nor'easter storm. All but two of the 146 people onboard died.

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"This was a unique period in our history," proclaims Jeffrey Bolster, professor of Early American and Caribbean History at the University of New Hampshire and a member of an advisory panel composed of academic and other scholarly specialists who assisted exhibition organizers. "Through the cache of artifacts, we see a world generally undisclosed, one in which the Caribbean was the economic center and values were very different, an era before civil rights, before individual liberties, and before democracy was institutionalized. …

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