Going to see the Whydah

The Whydah Pirate Museum

The Whydah Pirate Museum

In the early morning hours of April 26, 1717, Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, pirate commodore, died along with most of his crew when his ship, the Whydah, ran aground and broke up in a storm off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In 1984, Barry Clifford found what remained of the wreck of the Whydah. It was the first pirate ship wreck from the “Golden Age of Piracy” to be discovered, and the first to have some of its treasures recovered. Clifford set up a museum on the wharf in Provincetown on the Cape to exhibit some of the recovered objects from the ship and to explain their significance. That’s where I went on August 12.

Cape Cod is a summer tourist spot, and its space and economy are structured accordingly. The south coast of the upper Cape is for kitschy family entertainment. I’d never seen a mini-golf course with multiple waterfalls, at least one 20 feet high, until we hit route 28 east of Hyannis. The north coast of the upper Cape is by contrast more rural and a bit quieter. The east coast of the lower Cape is enveloped by the National Seashore (the first one established), which keeps that stretch of the coast relatively unspoiled. There’s only one main road running the length of the lower Cape, and it tends to drop and add lanes seemingly at random. Expect to get caught in at least one traffic jam if you travel to the lower Cape in the summer. And that includes Provincetown, where the museum is. There’s a ferry from Boston to Provincetown, which sits at the very end of the Cape; it’s an alternative, albeit an expensive one, to driving there.

While Provincetown has a reputation as a gay-friendly community, it’s really a compact and walkable tourist trap. Every business is geared toward housing and feeding tourists, or finding other ways to separate them from their money for an experience. It’s the sort of place that would be fun to spend a day being a tourist in. But after a day or two, you’d either have to get away from downtown, or be bored stiff. (Though I could see spending a few months conducting a sociological study of the community.)

Whydah treasure

Whydah treasure (credit: Wikipedia/Theodore Scott)

The Whydah Museum sits on the same wharf as the ferry to Boston. I gather Clifford wanted to set it up elsewhere (Boston and Tampa were floated as possible sites), and still plans to build a bigger and more permanent museum. So this museum is a small one. Still, you can spend a few hours in it, if you watch the video, read the material posted on the walls, and examine the exhibits with some care.

The exhibits and the information posted on the walls are structured as self-contained modules, which can be examined in any order. That probably makes the museum easier to visit when it is crowded; one can skip from one display to another and eventually cover the whole museum without losing the thread of the story. On the other hand, it means there really isn’t a single story line running through most of the exhibits. If you don’t know who Bellamy was or have any other context to understand the exhibits, then definitely watch the introductory video. Otherwise you’ll be seeing a lot of information that you won’t be able to pull together unless you have an eidetic memory.

On the positive side, nowhere else (with one exception, see below) can you see exhibits from an actual pirate wreck, whether silver coins, cannonballs, or even the ship’s bell. And one of the three “rooms” of exhibits covers Clifford’s most recent project, to salvage the remains of a pirate ship that went down near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. On the negative side, if you want to get a solid understanding of the Golden Age of Piracy, read a book instead. The information displays in the museum only cover some aspects of the subject, and doesn’t pull the pieces together.

The proof the wreck was the Whydah: its bell (credit: Wikipedia/jjsala)

The proof the wreck was the Whydah: its bell (credit: Wikipedia/jjsala)

Oh, the other place you can see exhibits from an actual pirate wreck? Some of the Whydah exhibits are on tour, including the famous ship’s bell. Catch it on tour, or wait until it returns, if you have your heart set on seeing the object that proved Clifford had found the Whydah.

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13 thoughts on “Going to see the Whydah

    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      For a modern overview that a lot of people have liked, there’s David Cordingly’s “Under the Black Flag” (1996), which is a nice, handy, and not terribly lengthy volume that covers the major features of pirates and pirate life, concentrating on the Golden Age of pirates.

      For period works, as mentioned in the Sillyverse post, Capt. Charles Johnson’s “A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates” (1724) is the best for 1680-1724, alongside Alexander O. Exquemalin’s 1678 “The Buccaneers of America” which covers the earlier (1650-1680) pirates in the Caribbean.

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      1. Brian Bixby Post author

        There are versions of Johnson’s book available for free online, as it’s long out of copyright. Be careful which edition you find, since the work was expanded and split into two volumes for the 1726-28 fourth edition. Also, be aware that because of a scholarly argument, the book is sometimes listed as having been written by Daniel Defoe (which it was not).

        Cordingly’s book should be available, as it was quite popular. Exquemalin (whose name is variously spelled) originally wrote in Dutch; I’ve been using a translation I bought from Dover Books years ago.

        One other author whose books often turn up as Angus Konstam, who writes general histories of pirates, not just Golden Age, with his 2008 volume being among the most recent.

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  1. crimsonprose

    You make an excellent tour-guide. A shame I’m stuck herein the UK. But who knows, maybe one day a handsome prince will kiss me, then I’ll be able to hop on the lily-pads across the pond. In the meantime, I look forward to reading more of your articles.

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    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      I’d suggest, less romantically, that you could walk across the ocean on all the trash we dump in it, but the Gulf Stream would be against you. So much for that idea. Calling all handsome princes!

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      1. crimsonprose

        Actually, if we kiss a frog to turn him into a HANDSOME Prince, it might work better to be kissed by an UGLY Prince to turn me into a pond-hopping frog. Ugly princes, gosh, there’s gotta be plenty of those. 🙂

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