As a kid growing up in Massachusetts, Barry Clifford was familiar with the old tale of a pirate ship wrecked just off the coast in one of the worst Nor’easters on record.
As an adult, he went out and found it.
The Whydah, a slave ship seized by pirates and used to plunder some 53 other vessels, was said to be laden with stolen treasure when it sank in a storm in 1717. Nearly 300 years later, it became the first pirate ship ever discovered in North America, when underwater explorer Clifford found the Whydah’s bell, inscribed with the name of the ship and the year she was built, 1716.
That impressive artifact — still encased in a chamber of briny water to protect it from decay — is one of more than 200 objects on view in “Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship.” A touring exhibition organized by National Geographic, it opens Sunday at Arizona Science Center.
“For anyone who’s ever dreamed of finding pirate treasure, anyone who’s ever read Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Treasure Island,’ this is the only pirate treasure ever discovered. The only certified, documented pirate treasure in the world is here,” says Clifford.
Spanish coins, jewelry, dinnerware, silk ribbon and smoking pipes are on display. So are cannon and roundshot, sword handles, fancy pistols and pikes — long spears with double-edged blades that pirates would use for close combat when boarding ships.
The items, dragged up from the sea floor by Clifford and his team over nearly 30 years, offer an authentic glimpse into piracy’s golden age — 1680 to 1725.
“On board the ship, at least a third of the crew were of African origin, and everyone had an equal vote, and everyone had an equal share of the treasure. They had their own type of social security. If a man lost an arm or a leg, he would be given so much money. If he was killed, his family would receive almost a type of insurance. Prior to us finding the ship, I didn’t really understand any of that. They were actually experimenting in democracy, (these) outlaws and former slaves,” says Clifford.
The exhibition features a life-size replica pirate ship, complete with the sights, sounds and smells of life below deck. Highlighted along the walk-through are stories of the Whydah’s crew, including captain “Black Sam” Bellamy and child pirate John King. A femur bone, silk stocking and leather shoe believed to belong to the youngster are on view.
The show also delves into the economic and social context of the day. Multimedia displays establish background on the West African port for which the ship was named (Ouidah, in today’s Benin) and the trading boom that drove traffic between Europe, Africa and the Americas.
Another section details the science behind Clifford’s work, showing how concretions, or masses of compacted marine materials, conceal artifacts, from muskets and belt buckles to tea kettles and carpenter’s tools.
“From an archaeological perspective, we have the discovery of the shipwreck, its excavation and the process by which it was authenticated,” says National Geographic’s Terry Garcia, in a statement. “From a cultural perspective, we explore the rich history of the Caribbean trade routes during the 18th century and the inextricable link between the slave trade and piracy. This is the first time that this amazing story, with all of its interconnected layers and characters, will be presented in such an engaging format.”
Clifford says his team is still uncovering artifacts from the deep. This summer, they found a coin from 1717, the year the Whydah was lost to the sea.
“We found a whole new layer of the ship deeply buried in the sand, so we’re continuing to bring things up,” he says.
“Real Pirates” is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except Thanksgiving and Christmas days) through Jan. 15, 2011, at Arizona Science Center, 600 E. Washington St., Phoenix. Admission ($18-$23 per person) includes access to the entire museum. For information, call (602) 716-2007 or visit www.azscience.org
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