BOOTY and a buc­ca­neer beast

Gang­way, land­lub­bers! Loaded-to-the-gun­wales tour­ing pirate ex­hi­bi­tion drop­ping an­chor at Man­i­toba Mu­seum in the fall

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - FRONT PAGE - KEVIN PROKOSH

THE Man­i­toba Mu­seum will be fly­ing the Jolly Roger flag next fall when it hosts the tour­ing ex­hi­bi­tion Real Pi­rates: The Un­told Story of the Why­dah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship. The Cana­dian pre­mière of Real Pi­rates, or­ga­nized by Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, will take vis­i­tors aboard a replica of the only au­then­ti­cated pirate ship ever dis­cov­ered in Amer­i­can wa­ters. The in­ter­ac­tive show will be an­chored here for al­most six months be­gin­ning Oct. 17 and dis­play pirate clothes, coins, jew­elry, can­nons, pis­tols and even grenades.

“It’s a top-notch world ex­hibit,” says mu­seum cu­ra­tor of his­tory Roland Sawatsky. “It’s huge, much big­ger than any­thing that we’ve done be­fore.” The Why­dah (pro­nounced WID-da) was a 28-gun mer­chant slaver cap­tured by pirate cap­tain Black Sam Bel­lamy in Fe­bru­ary 1717. Two months later the ship sank in a fe­ro­cious storm off Cape Cod, Mass., killing all but two of the 145 men on board and de­posit­ing a trea­sure trove of 400,000 plun­dered gold coins in Davy Jones’ Locker. In 1984, un­der­sea ex­plorer Barry Clif­ford lo­cated the rest­ing place of the Why­dah — a three-masted be­he­moth — and 200,000 ar­ti­facts, in­clud­ing the fibula and shoe of 11-year-old boy John King, who took up with the pi­rates, and the ship’s bell. “That bell (in­scribed with ‘The Why­dah Gally 1716’) con­firmed it was the pirate ship,” says Sawatsky. “It will be the first thing you see en­ter­ing the ex­hibit. It’s just not hang­ing there but is con­served and ex­hib­ited in this gi­gan­tic cylin­dri­cal tank. I think it will make quite an im­pres­sion.” The re­cov­ered coins, many one-of-a-kind, were looted from 50 other ships and date back to the reign of Fer­di­nand and Is­abella, Spain’s 15th-century king and queen. What all this pirate booty is worth is any­body’s guess. “We say it’s price­less be­cause it is the only collection of pirate trea­sure in the world,” Clif­ford says over the tele­phone as he drove around his home­town of Cape Cod this week. “It’s ex­tremely, ex­tremely valu­able. I’m hes­i­tant to put prices on them be­cause I don’t sell them.” What’s more valu­able, ac­cord­ing to Clif­ford, are the in­sights the Why­dah pro­vided about life on the high seas of pi­rates, whose golden age was from 1680 to 1730. Myths and mis­con­cep­tions have grown up around them like bar­na­cles on their ships. When Clif­ford was a kid, the im­age of pi­rates had been formed by swash­buck­ling Er­rol Flynn movies. “To­day we know that’s not true,” says the near-70-year-old diver. “A third of them were people of African ori­gins, most of whom were for­mer slaves. On board the Why­dah, blacks were be­ing elected as of­fi­cers and on other pirate ships as cap­tains. The point is they were ex­per­i­ment­ing with democ­racy aboard a ship that had a li­cence to buy and sell people.” Clif­ford has been a pirate-hunter for most of his life and rec­og­nizes it’s a dan­ger­ous busi­ness. The ocean cur­rent around the dive site of the Why­dah is so strong his Cana­dian-made, 21-me­tre boat The Vast Ex­plorer re­quires seven an­chors to hold it in place. He also had to fight off rogues af­ter his trea­sure chest of gold. The state of Mas­sachusetts sued him for 25 per cent of what­ever was taken from its wa­ters. Clif­ford con­tested the claim and won. “The ad­mi­ralty judge said the day we won that there were more sharks in the court­room than were in the Bay of Cape Cod, and they were all wear­ing grey suits,” says Clif­ford with a chuckle. “So I’ve had my share of mod­ern-day pi­rates.” He and his crew will be back at the site this sum­mer look­ing for what he’s dubbed his yel­low brick road, an un­der­wa­ter trail lit­tered with more coins and ar­ti­facts. Of the 400,000 coins es­ti­mated to have been on board, Clif­ford has found only 15,000. “Oh, my God, we have a lot more to find,” he says. “Ba­si­cally ev­ery time we dig a test pit we find trea­sure.” As sat­is­fy­ing as that would be to un­cover, it is not nearly as his­toric as if he were able to dis­cover the where­abouts of the Santa Maria, Christo­pher Columbus’s flag­ship ves­sel when he sailed for the New World in 1492. Clif­ford is con­vinced the wreck is off the coast of Haiti. “I’m closer than I want to talk about,” he says. “We have re­cently come up with very con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence. To me, It’s re­ally the Mount Ever­est of ship­wrecks. It’s the ship that changed hu­man his­tory and there are some in­cred­i­ble lessons to learn. It’s like the pi­rates, it’s not like what you read about in school.”


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