Real Pi­rates: The Un­told Story of the Why­dah from Slave Ship to Pi­rate Ship

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT -

Man­i­toba Mu­seum To April 19, 2015 Tick­ets: $17-$21 at 204-956-2830 a cut­lass and shouted ‘Ar­rrrr!’ The pine chest, pre­sented un­der glass, over­flows with glit­ter­ing pieces of cargo and thou­sands of one-of-akind coins that date back to the 15th cen­tury. “How many peo­ple have walked a beach look­ing for this?” muses Clif­ford, a Bos­ton na­tive, nod­ding to­wards the dis­play. “To find a pi­rate trea­sure is ev­ery kid’s dream. I would take my chil­dren to the beach and I would take a few coins and bury them in the sand. Then I would point with a shak­ing hand where they should dig and they would find the coins.” His per­sonal favourite in the col­lec­tion is a seal on which is pic­tured two tur­tle doves fly­ing over wa­ter, ac­com­pa­nied by French words that trans­late to “Death if I should lose thee.” An un­com­monly ro­man­tic ma­rauder would use it to stamp a wax seal on a let­ter to his wife or lover. Sure also to draw plenty of at­ten­tion is the replica of a gib­bet, an iron cage sim­i­lar to the one in which Capt. Kidd’s dead body was sus­pended for two years near the en­trance to the Thames River as a rot­ting ex­am­ple as to what hap­pens to pi­rates. Clif­ford, a for­mer com­mer­cial sal­vage ex­pert and high school his­tory teacher, was in town re­cently and talked about his head­line-mak­ing claim to have dis­cov­ered the wreck of Christo­pher Colum­bus’s flag­ship, Santa Maria, off Haiti’s north­ern coast, and Capt. Kidd’s ship, the Ad­ven­ture Gal­ley, near Mozam­bique. He has re­cov­ered hun­dreds of mil­lions in pi­rate booty and has not sold one coin, opt­ing to pre­serve the Why­dah’s bounty as a com­plete col­lec­tion for the world to ap­pre­ci­ate. This un­der­wa­ter Sher­lock Holmes, sport­ing a black His­tory Chan­nel cap, is driven by the eter­nal quest for knowl­edge. “It’s not what you find, but what you find out,” he says. “I do it be­cause of my obli­ga­tion to tell the truth and make sure that the story gets told cor­rectly. I think it is im­por­tant to find th­ese ships or time will leave noth­ing left of them.” The Why­dah was the flag­ship of the no­to­ri­ous pi­rate Black Sam Bel­lamy, whose crew plun­dered 54 ships off the coast of North Amer­ica, mak­ing him the wealth­i­est pi­rate in recorded his­tory. That’s why the fleet, three­masted slaver, with its four tons of trea­sure, has been the sin­gle largest source of pi­rate ar­ti­facts. Clif­ford’s re­cov­ery is cred­ited with open­ing up a new page in his­tory. Pre­vi­ously, the im­age of pi­rates was based on tall, white Hol­ly­wood swash­buck­lers like Er­rol Flynn, when in fact onethird of the Why­dah crew was made up of for­mer African slaves. “On board the Why­dah, they were free, they could vote and they got an equal share of the trea­sure,” says Clif­ford, a youth­ful look­ing 69-yearold who is as well-pre­served as many of his ar­ti­facts. “Many Africans were be­ing elected as of­fi­cers by pre­dom­i­nantly Euro­pean crews. There was a very im­por­tant ex­per­i­ment in democ­racy go­ing on.” It’s been 30 years since he ex­ca­vated his first Why­dah ar­ti­facts, many of which were wrapped in a con­crete-like sub­stance. No one was sure that the ship was the Why­dah un­til a con­cre­tion was re­moved from around the bell, which was in­scribed with “Why­dah Gal­ley 1716.” Another con­cre­tion, which con­tained a cache of eight can­nons, was two me­tres tall, three me­tres wide and weighed 5,400 kilo­grams. Clif­ford and his crew of­ten did not know what they had found un­til the con­cre­tion was X-rayed and taken apart. He once gave his 10-year-old what he thought was a worth­less chunk un­til the boy chipped away the cov­er­ing to re­veal a spec­tac­u­lar wooden pis­tol with a gleam­ing im­age of King James on the butt end. They con­tinue to dis­cover much about the Why­dah, and last year took apart a con­cre­tion that re­vealed a chest with a bronze plaque that read “Why­dah 1713.” Clif­ford was per­plexed un­til he the­o­rized that the first Why­dah must have been sunk some time after 1713 and another built in 1716, on which the chest was stowed. “We have 30,000 pounds of con­cre­tions that we haven’t taken apart yet, with thou­sands and thou­sands of ar­ti­facts wait­ing to see the light of day,” says Clif­ford. “We’re still very much in­volved in ex­ca­vat­ing the Why­dah.”

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

Cap­tured pi­rates were strung up in a gib­bet like the one re­cov­ered from the Why­dah.

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