Tag Archives: Cape Cod

Sorting through facts and legends of Samuel Bellamy, pirate

In 1984, “Black Sam” Bellamy became New England’s most famous pirate when Barry Clifford discovered the wreck of Bellamy’s ship Whydah off the coast of Cape Cod. Today, one can go to a museum and see some of the material salvaged from the wreck. But who was Bellamy, and what can his story tell us?

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

Location of the wreck of the Whydah

In brief, Samuel Bellamy was born in 1689, tried to salvage treasure from the wrecked Spanish treasure fleet of 1715, and when he had little success at that, turned pirate. In February, 1717, he captured the Whydah, a newly-built slave ship, while sailing in the Caribbean. Subsequently he headed up the coast. Late in the evening of April 26, 1717, the Whydah was caught in a thunderstorm and driven onto the reefs, where the ship broke up, with the loss of all but two hands. Bellamy himself perished, along with 143 crewmen.

As such, it’s not that interesting a story, and it’s not surprising that Capt. Charles Johnson didn’t get to it until the second volume of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in 1728. And he probably got his information from two newspaper accounts and a sermon printed in 1717.

However, Johnson wasn’t above embellishing the accounts to make a political point or two. Typically, Johnson embellished to establish the criminal nature of the pirates and how their sins contributed to their downfall. That explains his probably fictional account of Avery’s (Every’s) downfall. But sporadically through his work, Johnson had pirates speak out against the established social order and its injustices. He even invented a pirate captain named Misson to show what a utopia based on reason, justice, and mercy might look like.

Johnson wrote his account of Bellamy along the latter lines. Twice he related speeches in which he suggested that states are founded by force of arms and therefore have no more moral authority than any pirate! He had Bellamy declare at one point that “I am a free prince, and I have as much authority to make war on the whole world, as he who has one hundred sail of ships at sea, and an army of 100,000 men in the field . . .” What’s curious is that while Johnson probably made up one of the speeches out of whole cloth, the one I’ve quoted has a factual basis, as it was taken from the account of a ship captain robbed by Bellamy and his crew!

Stories of romances between outlaws and reputable women still pull in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Bellamy’s and Hallett’s romance still pulls in readers, as this 2010 book demonstrates.

Nor was Johnson the only person to embellish Bellamy’s life. There is a possibility that Bellamy was sailing by Cape Cod in order to rekindle a romance with a young woman, Mary Hallett, who lived on the Cape. According to legend, he had met and romanced Mary on a previous visit, and even promised marriage. Mary succumbed to his charms, he sailed off, and she found herself pregnant. She hid her pregnancy, but was exposed when her dead child was discovered. Depending on which version of the story you hear, either she went mad pining away for her missing love, she became a witch and caused the storm that wrecked him, or he escaped the wreck of the Whydah, and the two ran off to have a happy life together. All of which suggests that a legend has overtaken the facts. There was a young Mary Hallett living in Eastham in that era, but the rest is legend, and she died decades later, unmarried.

Strangely, Johnson had little to say about the wealth Bellamy’s crew discovered when they took the Whydah: “elephants’ teeth, gold dust, and other rich merchandise.” Later historians added “sugar, indigo [used for dying] and Jesuit’s bark [used in the treatment of malaria].” The money on board was reported to run to £20,000, or £30,000, portioned out in 50-pound bags. If true, then the Whydah had 4.5 tons of gold and silver money on board. By some estimates, that would make Bellamy and his crew the richest pirates in history.

Whydah treasure

Whydah treasure


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.