On April 26, 1717, notorious pirate, “Black Sam” Bellamy went to a watery grave when his flagship, Whydah, sunk off the coast of Cape Cod in a brutal nor’easter. Most of the crew and a belly full of booty went down with the ship, lying buried under the shifting sand for more than 250 years. Tales of Black Sam’s legendary treasure were passed down through the centuries.
English-born Bellamy was the scourge of the Caribbean, terrorizing and plundering European fleets, often with the British Royal Navy in hot pursuit. In 1716, Black Sam made his most prized seizure- the famed and fast slave ship, Whydah Galley, which he stockpiled with plunder from more than fifty other vessels. Bursting at the seams with liquor, ivory, gold and silver, the Whydah headed north along the Atlantic coast to a pirate hideout in Maine. According to tradition, the Whydah diverted to Cape Cod to retrieve Bellamy’s mistress, Maria Hallett from Eastham. The captain had the misfortune of sailing directly into a furious storm during which the Whydah was dashed to pieces on the rocks just a quarter mile off the coast of Wellfleet. The secrets of the Whydah remained hidden until 1984.
Treasure hunter and Cape Cod native, Barry Clifford was raised on pirate lore and spent his adult life researching the Whydah. Clifford was certain it would be found. Fifteen years of intensive underwater archaeological research paid off when, in 1984 the expedition made an important discovery of coins dating to 1715. Skeptics required nothing short of an artifact emblazoned with the name of the ship before the wreck would be confirmed as the Whydah. Clifford’s smoking gun came the following year in the form of a bell engraved with the words “Whydah Galley– 1716.”
The Whydah became the first authenticated pirate ship discovered in North America and one of only two from which loot has been recovered. To date, more than 100,000 objects have been salvaged, many of which are on display (including the bell) at its namesake museum, located on MacMillan Wharf in Provincetown, MA. It also serves as a working lab, where many of the finds are exhibited as they are being cleaned up. Leaves a little to the imagination!
Educational displays offer valuable and surprising insight to eighteenth-century piracy. You’ll find no proverbial rum bottles or eye-patches here! Rooms are chock full of artifacts ranging from intimate personal items and clothing to navigational equipment and weapons. Among the finds is an important collection of West African gold jewelry, reinforcing the pirate’s connection with the slave trade. Black Sam Bellamy may have been a rebel rogue, but according to research, he was a well-dressed, swashbuckling dandy of a thug, with a taste for the finer things in life. Not one’s traditional vision of pirates. This discovery has rewritten the way life aboard a pirate ship is viewed and the Whydah Museum does a fantastic job telling the story. For more information call (508) 487-8899 or view www.whydah.com.
This is an abridged version of the full story in my book, It Happened on Cape Cod (2006), which will be updated and re-released by Wanderlust Publishing this summer as Discover Cape Cod.