By Charles Hallman
A 300-ton, three-masted ship was built in London in 1715 but completed only one voyage. It went to the West Coast of Africa, where it picked up Blacks who were captured as slaves and sold them in the Caribbean.
Afterwards, the ship was captured off the Bahamas by Sam Bellamy, then considered one of the boldest and most successful pirates of his day, in February 1717. Two months later, it sank off the Massachusetts coast.
More than 200 artifacts, including gold, silver, and everyday objects, along with the remains of the Whydah is now on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota in downtown St. Paul.
“Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship” opened February 18 and runs through September 3. It is organized by National Geographic and Arts & Exhibitions International. St. Paul is its fourth stop on a national tour.
Organizers say the Whydah is the only authenticated pirate ship discovered in U.S. waters. Barry Clifford found the ship’s first remains in 1984, and has spent more than two decades documenting the wreck site and artifacts. The exhibition also tells the story of what life was like on a ship, and tries to dispel long-standing myths about pirates, such as they were mainly thieves.
Pirates were former sailors, and a pirate ship normally included a surgeon, craftsmen such as carpenters, an artillery master, a navigator and a pilot. Also, a pirate ship often operated on equity. The captain would be elected through a vote, and other matters, such as where to sail and whether or not to engage in battle, also would be decided by a vote, with the majority ruling.
“I was born in Holland, but I don’t claim Holland because I have been at sea my entire life,” says the actor playing Hendrick Quintor, a Dutch-bornBlack man. He was one of the Whydah crew members: “I am the ship cook,” he points out. “[But] everyone is equal on a pirate ship. Life on a pirate ship is better than any other life.”
Local actor Darius Dotch plays Quintor, who survived the Whydah shipwreck but was later convicted and hanged for piracy. He is a member of the Science Museum’s Science Live performing troupe who will portray members of the Whydah crew throughout the exhibition.
“We have our cadre of actors playing actual pirates” throughout the exhibition, Science Museum Senior Vice President Mike Day points out.
Besides seeing more than 200 artifacts, including cannons, swords and a “treasure chest filled with authentic coins” from the Whydah, as well as being able to climb aboard a re-creation of the ship, visitors also will learn the ship’s history, including its main purpose.
“The history of this ship is as a slave ship,” admits Day. “In its maiden voyage, it had taken almost 400 slaves… Over 300 survived and [were] sold into slavery in Haiti. On the money it had earned from selling the slaves, it was on its way back to England when it was taken over by [pirates].”
Real Pirates also features a dozen multimedia galleries that shows the slave trade in West Africa and the economic prosperity in the Caribbean in the early 18th century, which reportedly gave rise to piracy.
“A third of the pirates during this period, known as ‘The Golden Age of Piracy’ were people of African origin,” says Clifford.
“We want to present that history in the broadest sense and in an authentic way,” surmises Day. “The exhibit was targeted to try and reach school-age children.” However, what about the “treasures” — more than 100,000 artifacts recovered from the Whydah and conserved to date — doesn’t it rightfully belong to the West Africans?
According to the exhibit notes, it is seen as “a model for private archaeology” by state and federal oversight agencies. Also, Clifford is still actively excavating the wreck site and finding gold and silver and other items from the shipwreck.
“That’s a very good question,” responded Day. “Barry Clifford is the rightful owner as governed by the state of Massachusetts.”
The MSR then asked Clifford, who was in town at the February 17 media-only showing. “Actually we have thought about that. Nothing has been sold from the collection. The collection has been kept entirely intact.
“I think it is important to educate people in this country…as a wake-up call on what really went on in the slave-trade business,” he says.
For show times and ticket information, call the Science Museum at 651-221-9444 or visit www.smn.org.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.