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June 20, 2008 / howardmestas

Real Pirates!


One of the many fun events on our trip was the opportunity to see an exhibit of the pirate ship Whydah at the Franklin Institute of Science Museum, or “The Franklin” as referred to by locals.  Actually it is the world’s first exhibit that includes authenticated pirate treasure, including ingots of gold and silver and treasure chests of jewelry and coins…lots of precious coins!  But the real treasure was the story of the ship itself, and its incredible crew that went down in a storm just off of Cape Cod in 1717 along with the booty of 54 ships the buccaneers had plundered.

The Whydah (pronounced WIH-dah) was first launched in 1715 from London as a slave ship that took part in the infamous triangular trade that traversed the Atlantic with human cargo.  The name Whydah was taken from the west African trade city Ouida where slaves were loaded and taken to the Caribbean.  In 1717 it was taken over by pirates led by captain “Black Sam” Bellamy who led a successful crusade of robbery at sea before sinking just 1,500 feet from shore in Massachusetts.  The firepower was in evidence with the actual weaponry on display, including swords, pistols, cannons, and ammunition; all enclosed within a life sized replica of the ship recovered in 1984.  Sadly we were not allowed to take pictures.

Along with artifacts there was a glimpse of the every day life and responsibilities of a pirate crew, including that of navigators, surgeons, cooks, and carpenters; it was a very busy scene.  The makeup of the Whydah was typical of many pirate ships and could easily be described in two words; diversity and democracy.  The crew included Europeans, American colonists, Native Americans, and Africans who were experiencing their first real taste of freedom.  There was even a nine-year-old boy on board named John King, who had joined the crew against the wishes of his mother.  All had chosen their unseemly occupation simply because there were no better options available to them in life.  There were no women crew on this ship, although their service on pirate ships is well known to history.

The authority of a pirate ship represented the purest form of democracy ever known to the world.  The captain was elected by every single member of the crew and could be replaced with another vote at any time.  All received an equal share of the treasure, regardless of rank, and there was no social structure based on race, gender, occupation, past conditions, or even age.  The nine-year-old had the same income as the captain!

It was a lucrative, but risky occupation with few pirates ever dying poor, or from old age.  The life of a pirate was short, but sweet, and so it was for the crew of the Whydah who met their end just three years after assembling.  Even though they were criminals, their fate still represents a sad ending with all but one of the survivors of the wreckage meeting the hangman’s noose.  Their corpses were put on display and left to rot as a deterrent to others who may have had ideas of chosing piracy as their career.

The most macabre portion of the exhibit was the boot and actual fibula of the King boy who didn’t survive the wreck.  The tiny leg bone, found in a woolen stocking, was proportional to that of a child his age.  The bell, which must have rang repeatedly during the violent storm, clearly shows the inscription “WHYDAH” and is enclosed in a glass case filled with sea water to prevent rusting.





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