Featured Stories & Articles from Cape Cod Travel Magazine: Pirates Of The Cape

February 25, 2008

Many who have spent time on a beach have surely given in to thoughts of the possibility of unearthing buried pirate treasure. For one Cape Cod native those notions have become reality.    

Not only did underwater explorer Barry Clifford fulfill a boyhood dream by discovering the wreck of a pirate ship off the coast of the outer Cape, but he also made—and continues to make—a significant contribution to history. The Whydah is the only verified pirate ship ever to be found in North America.    

“I remember growing up here on the Cape and listening to stories about the pirate ship Whydah told to me by my uncle, and I guess I could never let that go,” says Clifford.    

During the last two decades, Clifford and his crew have pulled more than 200 artifacts from the shipwreck. As recently as last summer, divers discovered about 30 cannons buried in 10 feet of sand on the ocean floor.    

The National Geographic Society has recently teamed up with Clifford to conduct a national traveling exhibit, “Real Pirates,” with hundreds of Whydah artifacts on display. Check the website, www.whydah.com, for more information.     

The story of the Whydah is the stuff of legend, but what’s better, the story is true. Back in the early dawn hours of April 26, 1717, the sailing vessel, which began its life as a slave ship, was caught in a horrendous nor’easter off the coast of Cape Cod. Its captain, the British-born Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, was believed to be headed for Provincetown to reunite with his love, Maria Hallet, and to retire from his life of plundering on the high seas.     

It was a voyage that began almost exactly where it tragically ended, just off the coast of Eastham on what is now Marconi Beach, which houses the remnants of Marconi’s transatlantic communication towers. The Whydah shipwrecked fewer than five miles shy of its return destination after being away for more than two years, stealing from other sea-faring vessels. While the Whydah sank with tons of gold and silver, it was also carrying a treasure trove of historical artifacts, which lay preserved just 30 feet below the water’s surface about 500 yards from shore. Some 140 pirates were aboard the ship when it sank, including John King, a boy of not more than 11 who is believed to have been the youngest member of the ill-fated crew. His leg bone, silk stocking and shoe were found among the wreckage.    

Clifford shares his thoughts about discovering the wreck of the Whydah in 1984: “In the beginning, sure, when we first found the Whydah, we were all gung-ho and thought of ourselves as treasure hunters, but we quickly changed our tune as we started unearthing these wonderfully preserved historical items. I couldn’t help but think, ‘Wow, here is something so unique, and I am the only one seeing these things’…it just didn’t seem right.”    

As more and more artifacts were retrieved from the ocean floor and their historical significance became clearer, Clifford started seeing the real treasure not in the many gold and silver coins—which to date are believed to be valued at nearly $400 million dollars—but more so in the untold stories buried beneath the ocean floor. Clifford and his crew continue to mine the wreck for answers.    

The discovery of the Whydah has stirred interest in all areas of research, and some of the “unique” items Barry is talking about are quite frankly worth their weight in gold, in a historical context. For instance, Clifford has in his possession a ceramic plate bearing the earliest ever recorded symbol of the Freemasons—the compass and square—dating to 1717. Also, a find he considers to be one of his greatest yet is that of a captain’s stove called a “caboose.”     

Clifford gives credit to 19th-century author Henry David Thoreau for leading him to it. In his book, Cape Cod, published in 1865, Thoreau recounts a chance meeting while visiting the beaches of the outer Cape. The stranger told him, “ . . . the violence of the seas moves the sands on the outer bar, so that at times the iron caboose of the ship at low ebbs has been seen.”  More than a century later, Clifford is able to produce the very artifact that served as the topic of conversation between two passing strangers in the 1800s.     

“As we continue to bring these amazing pieces to our labs,” Clifford says, “it’s becoming clearer to me that this shipwreck wasn’t just a typical pirate ship, but because many of its crew were Freemasons, it appears that this ship was a political wreck.”    

These findings have significantly added to the growing chest of pirate lore and have shed some much-needed light on the day-to-day structure and activities aboard a pirate ship. “This ship might very well be the first form of democracy,” Clifford says, “one in which we base our very own views on here in the United States, and on the Whydah we are learning more and more how it was put into practice and carried out.”    

For the most part, pirates have been depicted as the derelicts of society. This appears not to have been the case with the Whydah and her crew. Clifford says, “On the Whydah, there were people from all walks of life, each having an equal share of the profits and an equal say in decisions, no matter what their background, race, religion or color.”    

When he talks about the meticulous process used to extract one silk ribbon from a hand musket, and how that process took more than six months, Clifford exudes the same amount of excitement as if he were speaking about finding another chest full of Spanish doubloons.    

“We found this one concretion which contained a pistol in it,” he notes. “Wrapped around this pistol was this fabric of some sort, which, after six months of careful examination and meticulous preservation, turned out to be a silk ribbon tied to the handle of the gun. We believe the pirates used these fabrics so that they could sling the gun from their necks, much like a modern-day American would drape a scarf over their shoulders in the winter in order to ward off the cold. They did this because the muskets they carried were single-shot guns, so in order to have multiple shots when boarding another vessel at sea, the pirates would tie three or four of these guns over their shoulders and let them dangle, allowing them to get four quick shots off before having to stop to reload.”     

Not only are academics interested in the Whydah discoveries, but Hollywood has been knocking on Clifford’s door, as well.    

“Because of all the artifacts I am finding, apart from the gold, I have had many movie production companies contact me over the years, including Disney,” Clifford says. “With all the new ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies being released, they want to be as historically accurate as they can, and these discoveries are helping to fill those voids.”       

The story of the Whydah, Clifford says, will carry on “well past my lifetime and probably well into my son’s.” (His son has worked closely with him on these expeditions.) The story remained dormant for nearly 300 years, kept alive only as local legend, until the right person came along to tell it. 

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