Pirates, the Reality: Loot From the Whydah
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
CINCINNATI -- Imagine touching a silver coin that rested on the ocean floor for more than two centuries.
Or hearing the crash of thunder while feeling the wind on your face and seeing lightning flash on angry waves as it did when a violent storm drove the pirate ship Whydah beneath the Atlantic Ocean.
Those are among the experiences in an exhibit on the first fully authenticated pirate ship discovered in American waters -- a display expected to draw scores of visitors fascinated by pirate treasure and swashbucklers, seen in movies such as the hit "Pirates of the Caribbean" series.
However, organizers of "Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship," which had its world premiere Saturday at the Cincinnati Museum Center, believe people also want to see pirates as they were.
"There's so much more to this exhibit than pirate treasure," said underwater explorer Barry Clifford, who located the first remains of the Whydah in 1984 and is still recovering its artifacts. "It's the story of people who were outlaws but practiced a democracy where former slaves could be elected captains and officers and crew members were treated equally."
The display tells the story of the Whydah, built as a slave ship in 1715 and captured by pirate Capt. "Black Sam" Bellamy two years later. The Whydah sank in a ferocious storm off Cape Cod in 1717, killing Bellamy and all but two of the 146 men on board.
The exhibit was organized by National Geographic and the Aurora-based Arts and Exhibitions International, a producer of major exhibitions at museums worldwide. It is scheduled to visit Philadelphia, Phoenix, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities over the next 5 1/2 years and possibly Europe.
Clifford and his team have recovered more than 100,000 artifacts and expect to recover thousands more. The former schoolteacher -- intrigued by stories of the shipwreck as a young boy -- decided not to sell or give away any of the collection.
"It's so important to me that more people now have the opportunity to see what we've recovered from this extraordinarily important shipwreck," said Clifford, who has displayed some objects at his small museum in Provincetown, Mass., near the shipwreck site.
Clifford researched the Whydah for years, first diving for it in 1982 accompanied by friend John F. Kennedy Jr., who remained interested in the project in the years before his 1999 death.
An archaeological chart prepared by Kennedy and other team members led Clifford to follow a hunch and return in 2005 to the site where the first artifacts were found. He thinks the mother lode of artifacts will be recovered there, buried deeper than originally thought.
Clifford said many people believed he was chasing a foolish dream when he first started looking for the ship.
"There hadn't been many recoveries then and -- like moon shots -- it wasn't something many people did," he said. "But I knew it was out there."
The Whydah carried plunder from more than 50 ships when it went down, and more than 200 objects will be displayed along with thousands of coins. The exhibit will include the ship's bell that confirmed the wreck's authenticity, cannons, swords, jewelry and personal items such as pewter tableware and a silk stocking. The stocking is believed to have belonged to John King, the ship's youngest pirate, who is thought to have been younger than 11.
Accompanied by music and sound effects, exhibit visitors will stroll through a pirate tavern before boarding a reproduction of a portion of the Whydah. Chests filled with thousands of silver coins taken from the ocean floor will be on view.
"The allure of pirate treasure may get some people in the door, but a tremendous amount of research has gone into making sure this depicts the true story of pirates," said John Norman, Arts and Exhibitions International's president.
An advisory panel of academic experts was formed to help ensure accuracy. Panel member and University of New Hampshire history professor Jeffrey Bolster said the exhibit is much more than the story of a pirate ship and its crew.
"You also have this dramatic story showing the impact of the slave trade and slave-produced wealth on that 18th-century era and the role of New England and the Caribbean in servicing that whole system," Bolster said.
Visitors also get a glimpse into underwater archaeology and the high-tech processes used to recover and conserve artifacts.