When we think of pirates, I bet most of us imagine "Pirates of the Caribbean," both the Johnny Depp movies and Disney ride. But the Disney version of pirates is kind of… Disney. It's fun. It's fantasy. It's guys wearing eyeliner swinging on ropes from ship to ship. People don't get killed. Everyone ends the day at a port bar chugging beer.
Actual history was not quite so… Disney.
In reality, life in the time of piracy was violent and unforgiving. If a ship wasn't getting attacked by pirates, it was just trying to survive crossing extremely harsh oceans for months at a time with a starving crew.
When a ship did come under attack by pirates, it wasn't a fun day of swashbuckling and swinging on ropes. People were murdered up close and personally. Throats were cut. People were thrown overboard into shark infested waters. Ships with hundreds of passengers, many of whom were innocent slaves locked in a lower galley, sank to the bottom of the ocean.
Take what happened in 1717 to a ship called the Whydah Gally. On the return trip of its maiden voyage, the ship was captured by the notorious pirate Captain Samuel Bellamy – he's better known as "Black Sam."
When it sank, the Whydah Gally was carrying a ship full of pirates and an enormous fortune. A fortune that would not be discovered for 260 years…
The Whydah Gally was commissioned in London in 1715 by Sir Humphrey Morice. Morice was known as the "foremost London slave merchant of his day."
The Whydah was 110 feet long and could travel at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. The ship was named after the Kingdom of Whydah, a West African slave trading organization.
Movies typically show merchant ships of this era transporting innocuous items like spices and other dry goods. In reality, a lot of merchant ships were built for one purpose: To transport slaves from Africa westward, then bring other goods from the Americas and Caribbean back to Europe on the return trip.
It was not sexy. It was evil.
The Whydah Gally's maiden voyage was in early 1716. When the ship left Africa, it carried roughly 500 slaves, gold and ivory.
Whydah stopped in the Caribbean where the cargo and slaves were traded and sold for rum, ginger, precious metals, and medical ingredients which were bound for England.
In late February 1717, the Whydah was sailing through the Caribbean when it was attacked and captured by a band of pirates led by Black Sam Bellamy.
For three long days Bellamy chased the Whydah through the Caribbean before taking the ship in the waters near the Bahamas.
After capturing the vessel Black Sam made the Whydah his fleet's new flagship and loaded it up with all the hoard's best treasures. The pirate armada set sail for what was then still the American colonies.
A Sunken Fortune
On April 26, 1717, the Whydah Gally was caught up in a violent storm. The ensuing damage caused the ship to sink off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Out of 146 souls aboard, only nine survived; two crew members and seven people who had been captured by Black Sam earlier that same day.
Six of the nine survivors were hanged. The two survivors who could prove they were forced into piracy were set free. A 16-year-old Central American crew member was sold as a slave to the great-grandfather of John Quincy Adams. Unfortunately this survivor was hanged 16 years later on other charges. Not a great life.
Growing up in Hyannis, Massachusetts, in the 1950s Barry Clifford was told bedtime stories of the pirate treasure that sank right off the coast of his childhood home. He daydreamed about finding the boat and claiming the treasure.
Unlike most daydreamers, Barry turned his childhood fantasies into a reality. After earning a degree in history and sociology from Western Colorado University, he devoted his adult life to underwater exploration.
Barry and a team spent years searching for the Whydah.
In 1984, Barry's boyhood dreams came true. The wrecked Whydah Gally was discovered just off the coast of Wallfleet, Massachusetts.
Incredibly, she was sitting just 500 feet off shore covered by 20 feet of sand.
The ship had not been seen in 260 years.
Over a painstaking recovery process, Barry and his team eventually pulled more than 200,000 pieces of treasure out of the water.
The total estimated value of the recovered treasure?
There was one teeny tiny problem…
Who Owns Found Treasure?
Believe it or not, the Whydah Gally still stands as the first and only pirate treasure ship ever to be discovered in American-controlled waters. Upon the ship's discovery, no one really knew who had the right to its treasures.
And because governments gotta government, pretty soon the state of Massachusetts claimed ownership of the wreck and its contents.
So Barry Clifford sued.
The case took six years to wind its way through various state and Federal courts, eventually ending up before the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1988.
In his majority opinion, Associate Justice Neil L. Lynch concluded that Federal Admiralty law gave title to the wreck to the finder. Literally finders keepers, losers weepers.
The ruling gave Barry Clifford the right to the shipwreck itself and all of its contents.
As it turns out, the court was impressed by Barry's professional archeological methods. He didn't just go searching for the shipwreck willy-nilly like a pirate. Before starting the treasure hunt he applied for a state permit from the Board of Underwater Archeological Resources. He also obtained permits from the Army Corps of Engineers and a Federal Advisory Board for Historic Preservation. When recovering items he followed all generally accepted professional standards and practices for preserving and itemizing historical items.
Basically he crossed every "t" and dotted every "i".
In 1987 Congress actually passed a law to prevent this situation from happening again. According to the Federal Abandoned Shipwreck Law, from 1988 onward, states would have jurisdiction over shipwrecks in their own waters. This didn't impact the Whydah since it had been discovered in 1984, but if you found a pirate treasure today in American waters, you might want to "re-find" it over in international waters 🙂
What Happened To The Treasure?
Barry opened his own museum!
To date, Barry has never sold a single item from the collection, the majority of which is kept in a private facility. However some amazing pieces can be viewed by the public at the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth, Massachusetts. He also lent a portion of the collection to National Geographic for a touring exhibit called "Real Pirates."