Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship
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.”
Captured pirates were strung up in a gibbet like the one recovered from the Whydah.