The three-masted, 300-ton galley Whydah was built as a slave ship in London in 1715 and represented the most advanced technology of her day. She was easy to maneuver, unusually fast and—to protect her cargo—heavily armed. She was built to transport human captives from the West Coast of Africa to the Caribbean, but only made one such voyage before being captured.
In February 1717, the Whydah was captured off the Bahamas by Sam Bellamy, one of the boldest and most successful pirates of his day. Bellamy and his crew hoisted the Jolly Roger—the slave ship was now a pirate ship.
Just two months later, on April 26, 1717, in one of the worst nor’easters ever recorded, the Whydah, packed with plunder from more than 50 captured ships, sank off the Massachusetts coast. All but two of the 146 people on board drowned.
“This was a unique period in our history,” said Jeffrey Bolster, professor of early American and Caribbean history at the University of New Hampshire and member of an advisory panel composed of academic and other scholarly experts that assisted exhibition organizers. Bolster added, “Through the cache of artifacts [from the ship] we see a world generally undisclosed, one in which the Caribbean was the economic center and values were very different, an era before civil rights, before individual liberties, and before democracy was institutionalized. This is a story of the making of America—a true story more powerful than fiction.”
In 1984, some 270 years after the Whydah sank, underwater explorer Barry Clifford found the first remains of the ship. In a recovery operation that spans more than two decades, Clifford and his team have documented the wreck site and artifacts with digital camera equipment and salvaged thousands of artifacts, not only gold and silver, but everyday objects that shed light on this tumultuous period of American and world history.
“Discovering the Whydah was the most exciting moment in my career,” said Clifford. “The sheer volume of artifacts, from more than 50 other ships, provides a rare window into the otherwise mysterious world of 18th century pirates. I see this exhibition as the culmination of my many years of work. Most importantly, it is a chance to bring the real story of pirates to the public as it's never been told before—through real objects last touched by real pirates.”
Visitors can board a replica of the Whydah, view hundreds of artifacts recovered from the ocean floor, try their hand at tying pirate knots, and much more at Real Pirates: the Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship, a touring exhibition organized by National Geographic and Premier Exhibitions, Inc., on view at theNAT through September 1.