Pirate Ships > Famous Ships > Whydah
The Whydah was believed to hold treasure from more than 50 ships when it sank in a storm off the coast of Cape Cod on April 26, 1717. Professional treasure hunter Barry Clifford discovered the ship in 1984 and has since recovered more than 100,000 artifacts from the site. The Whydah was originally launched from London as a slave ship in 1715; the name was derived from the West African port of Ouidah in present day Benin. While navigating the Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispaniola on its second voyage, the Whydah was overrun by pirates led by "Black Sam" Bellamy, who claimed the vessel as his flagship. Bellamy and his crew sailed north along the eastern coastline of the American colonies when they ran into a Nor'easter. The boat slammed into a sandbar, split, and sank. Of the ship's 146-man crew, only two survived.
Whydah Gally (commonly known simply as Whydah or Whidah, and rarely, written as Whidaw, or Whido), pronounced "wi-duh", was a fully rigged galley ship that was originally built as a passenger, cargo, and slave ship. On the return leg of its maiden voyage of the triangle trade, it began a new role in the Golden Age of Piracy, when it was captured by the pirate Captain Samuel "Black Sam" Bellamy, and was refitted as his flagship. Immediately heading northward, Bellamy captured a few more ships along the coast of Colonial America, and was caught up in a storm which heavily damaged the Whydah and broke one of its masts. Patch-ups and repairs were effected until they reached the waters near Nantucket Sound, where greater repairs were effected, possibly at Block Island or Rhode Island.
Two months later, Whydah Gally headed east to open ocean and turned northward with a heading for Damarscove Island near Maine; but Bellamy ordered a course correction, taking the ship to the "elbow" of Cape Cod, and on 26 April 1717 they captured the ship Mary Anne with a hold full of Madeira wine. The captain of Mary Anne refused Bellamy's request to pilot them up the coast, so Bellamy arrested the captain and five of his crew and brought them aboard Whydah Gally, leaving three of the original crew aboard Mary Anne. Then Bellamy sent 7 of his own men onboard of Mary Anne - one of whom being the carpenter Thomas South who had been forced by Bellamy and his crew to make repairs; not wanting to join the pirate crew he had been offered release by Bellamy after work was completed, but the surviving pirates later testified to the court that they had over-ruled Bellamy's decision and forced South to stay due to his much whimpering and complaining. South testified that it was his choice to accompany the 6 pirates going aboard Mary Anne in hopes of escaping, possibly by jumping overboard and swimming ashore as they drew near to the Cape. Sometime around sunset that evening, the winds completely died, and a massive fog bank made visibility virtually nil. The four ships in Bellamy's fleet lost sight of one another. Bellamy's ships Anne and Fisher moved out to sea (eventually making it to Damascove Island with heavy damage).
Just after midnight, Whydah Gally was suddenly struck by an extremely powerful Nor'easter storm with the force of a Category-One hurricane. Running bow-first into a sandbar 16-feet deep at about 500 feet from the shore at what today is Marconi Beach of Wellfleet, she was battered by 30 to 40 feet waves. Within minutes the masts fell and the ship was pulled into 30 feet of water where she completely capsized, sending over 4.5 short tons (4.1 tonnes) of silver and gold, more than 60 cannons and 144 people to the ocean floor; with churning shoals and monstrous waves throwing many pieces of Whydah's shattered body, her rigging and sails, 102 human bodies, and thousands of objects across four miles of the beach. Mary Anne was also wrecked that night, ten miles south, being thrown by the waves on the beach at Pochet Island [pronounced po-chee]. Of the 146 souls aboard Whydah, only two men (Welshman Thomas Davis and 18-year-old Central American Mosquito [Moskito] Indian John Julian) are known to have made it to the beach alive; all seven of Bellamy's men and the three original crewmen from Mary Anne survived as well. Arrested by Justice Joseph Doane and his posse, they were all locked up in Barnstable Gaol (currently the oldest wooden jail house in United States), and then brought, by order of Governor Samuel Shute, to Boston for a nearly seven-month trial, after which six of the men would be executed by hanging, two set free, and one sold into slavery.
Whydah and her treasure eluded discovery for over 260 years until 1984, when the wreck was found – buried between 10 and 50 feet of sand, under water depths of 16 to 30 feet deep, spread four miles parallel to the Cape's coast. With the discovery of the ship's bell in 1985 and a small brass placard in 2013, both inscribed with the ship's name and maiden voyage date, Whydah is the only fully authenticated Golden Age pirate shipwreck ever discovered.
1 Slave ship
2 Pirate ship
6 Archaeological evidence
9 External links
Whydah was commissioned in 1715 in London, England, by Sir Humphrey Morice, a member of the British Parliament, known as 'the foremost London Slave merchant of his day'. A square-rigged three-masted galley ship, it measured 110 feet (34 m) in length, with a tonnage rating at 300 tuns burthen, and could travel at speeds up to 13 knots (24 km/h; 15 mph).
Christened Whydah after the West African slave trading kingdom of Ouidah (pronounced WIH-dah), the vessel was configured as a heavily armed trading and transport ship which included the Atlantic slave trade. It set out for its maiden voyage in early 1716, carrying a variety of goods from different businesses to exchange for delivery, trade, and slaves in West Africa. After traveling down West Africa through modern-day Gambia and Senegal to Nigeria and Benin, where its namesake port was located, it left Africa with an estimated 500 captives, gold, including Akan jewelry, and ivory aboard. It traveled to the Caribbean, where it traded and sold the cargo and captives for precious metals, sugar, indigo, rum, logwood, pimento, ginger, and medicinal ingredients, which were to then be transported back to England. Fitted with a standard complement of 18 six-pound cannon, which could be increased to a total of 28 in time of war.
In late February 1717, Whydah, under the command of Captain Lawrence Prince, a former buccaneer under Sir Henry Morgan, was navigating the Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispaniola when it was attacked by pirates led by "Black Sam" Bellamy. At the time of Whydah's capture, Bellamy was in possession of two vessels, the 26-gun galley Sultana and the converted 10-gun sloop Mary Anne. After a three-day chase, Prince surrendered his ship near the Bahamas with only a desultory exchange of cannon fire.
Bellamy decided to take Whydah as his new flagship; several of its crew remained with their ship and joined the pirate gang. Pirate recruitment was most effective among the unemployed, escaped bondsmen, and transported criminals, as the high seas made for an instant leveling of class distinctions.
In a gesture of goodwill toward Captain Prince who had surrendered without a struggle—and who in any case may have been favorably known by reputation to the pirate crew—Bellamy gave Sultana to Prince, along with £20 in silver and gold.
black flag with traditional skull and crossbones
"...they spread a large black flag, with a Death's Head and Bones across, and gave chase to Cap't. Prince under the same colors." – Thomas Baker (Bellamy's crew) on Whydah pursuit
Whydah was then fitted with 10 additional cannon by its new captain, and 150 members of Bellamy's crew were detailed to man the vessel. They cleared the top deck of the pilot's cabin, removed the slave barricade, and got rid of other features that made her top heavy.
Bellamy and his crew then sailed on to the Carolinas and headed north along the eastern coastline of the American colonies, aiming for the central coast of Maine, looting or capturing additional vessels on the way. At some point during his possession of Whydah, Bellamy added another 30+ cannon below decks, possibly as ballast. Two cannons recovered by underwater explorer Barry Clifford in August 2009 weighed 800 and 1,500 pounds (360 and 680 kg), respectively.
They could not wipe out the North-East gales
Nor what those gales set free —
The pirate ships with their close-reefed sails,
Leaping from sea to sea.
—Rudyard Kipling, "The Pirates of England"
Accounts differ as to Whydah's destination in her last few days. Some evidence supports local Cape Cod legend: Whydah was headed for what is now Provincetown Harbor at the tip of Cape Cod, so that Bellamy could visit his love, Maria Hallett – the "Witch of Wellfleet". Others blame Whydah's route on navigator error. In any case, on April 26, 1717, near Chatham, Massachusetts, Whydah approached a thick, gray fog bank rolling across the water – signaling inclement weather ahead.
The location of the wrecked Whydah Gally in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod
That weather turned into a violent nor'easter, a storm with gale force winds out of the east and northeast, which forced the vessel dangerously close to the breaking waves along the shoals of Cape Cod. The ship was eventually driven aground at Wellfleet, Massachusetts. At midnight she hit a sandbar in 16 feet (5 m) of water about 500 feet (152 m) from the coast of what is now Marconi Beach. Pummeled by 70 mph (110 km/h) winds and 30-to-40 ft (9-to-12 m) waves, the main mast snapped, pulling the ship into about 30 ft (9 m) of water, where she violently capsized. The 60+ cannon on board ripped through the overturned decks of the ship and quickly broke it apart, scattering parts of the ship over a 4-mile (6.4 km) length of coast. One of the two surviving members of Bellamy's crew, Thomas Davis, testified in his subsequent trial that "In a quarter of an hour after the ship struck, the Mainmast was carried by the board, and in the Morning she was beat to pieces."
By morning, hundreds of Cape Cod's notorious wreckers (locally known as "moon-cussers") were already plundering the remains. Hearing of the shipwreck, then-governor Samuel Shute dispatched Captain Cyprian Southack, a local salvager and cartographer, to recover "Money, Bullion, Treasure, Goods and Merchandizes taken out of the said Ship." When Southack reached the wreck on May 3, he found that part of the ship was still visible breaching the water's surface, but that much of the ship's wreckage was scattered along more than 4 miles (6.4 km) of shoreline. On a map that he made of the wreck site, Southack reported that he had buried 102 of the 144 Whydah crew and captives lost in the sinking (though technically they were buried by the town coroner, who surprised Southack by handing him the bill and demanding payment).
According to surviving members of the crew – two from Whydah and seven from Mary Anne, another of Bellamy's fleet that ran aground in the storm – at the time of its sinking, the ship carried from four and a half to five tons of silver, gold, gold dust, and jewelry, which had been divided equally into 180 50-pound (23 kg) sacks and stored in-between the ship's decks. Though Southack did salvage some nearly worthless items from the ship, little of the massive treasure hoard was recovered. Southack wrote in his account of his findings, that, "The riches, with the guns, would be buried in the sand." With that, the exact location of the ship, its riches and its guns were lost, and came to be thought of as nothing more than legend.
Including the seven men aboard Mary Anne, nine of Bellamy's crew survived the wrecking of the two ships. They were all captured quickly, however, and on October 18, 1717, six were tried in Boston for piracy and robbery. The following were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging: John Brown of Jamaica, Thomas Baker and Hendrick Quintor of the Netherlands; Peter Cornelius Hoof of Sweden; John Shaun of France; and Simon van der Vorst of New York.
Carpenters Thomas South and Thomas Davis, who were tried separately, had been conscripted by Bellamy – forced to choose between a life of piracy or death. Therefore, they were acquitted of all charges and spared the gallows. The last survivor was a 16-year-old Miskito Indian named John Julian – who was a skilled navigator, and also Whydah's pilot. He was not tried, but instead was sold as a slave (to John Quincy Adams's grandfather) after his capture, and finally hanged 16 years later.
On November 15, 1717, the famous Puritan minister Cotton Mather accompanied the six condemned men as they were rowed across Boston Harbor to Charlestown. All six men confessed and repented in the presence of Mather, but they still hanged.
Gold from the pirate ship Whydah. "The riches, with the guns, would be buried in the sand."
Barry Clifford found Whydah's wreck in 1984, relying heavily on Southack's 1717 map of the wreck site – a modern-day, true-to-life "pirate treasure map" leading to what was at that time a discovery of unprecedented proportions. That Whydah had eluded discovery for over 260 years became even more surprising when the wreck was found under just 14 feet (4.3 m) of water and 5 feet (1.5 m) of sand.
The ship's location has been the site of extensive underwater archaeology, and more than 200,000 individual pieces have since been retrieved. One major find in the fall of 1985 was the ship's bell, inscribed with the words "THE WHYDAH GALLY 1716". With that, Whydah became the first ever pirate shipwreck with its identity having been established and authenticated beyond doubt.
Work on the site by Clifford's dive team continues on an annual basis. Selected artifacts from the wreck are displayed at Expedition Whydah Sea-Lab & Learning Center (The Whydah Pirate Museum) in Provincetown, Massachusetts. A selection of the artifacts are also on a tour across the United States under the sponsorship of the National Geographic Society.
As bits and pieces of the pirates' weapons, clothing, gear, and other possessions have been plucked from the wreck, researchers have logged the locations where they were found, then gently stowed them in water-filled vats to prevent drying. The artifacts have revealed a picture of the pirates quite unlike their popular image as thuggish men with sabers. The abundance of metal buttons, cuff links, collar stays, rings, neck chains, and square belt buckles scattered on the sea floor shows that the pirates were far more sophisticated—even dandyish—in their dress than was previously thought. In an age of austere Puritanism and rigid class hierarchy, this too was an act of defiance—similar in spirit, perhaps, to today's rock stars.
The bell, inscribed, "THE WHYDAH GALLY 1716"
The most common items found in the wreck were bits of bird shot and musket balls, designed to clear decks of defenders but not to damage ships. The pirates, it seems, preferred close-quarters fighting with antipersonnel weapons over destructive cannon battles. Among the custom-made weapons that have been recovered are dozens of homemade hand grenades: hollow, baseball-size iron spheres, which were filled with gunpowder and plugged shut. A gunpowder fuse was run through the plug's center, to be lit moments before the grenade was tossed onto the deck of a victim ship. Pirates didn't want to sink a ship; they wanted to capture and rob it.
Famously, the youngest known member of Whydah's crew was a boy approximately 11 years old, named John King. Young John actually chose to join the crew on his own initiative the previous November, when Bellamy captured the ship on which he and his mother were passengers. He was reported to have been so insistent that he threatened to hurt his mother if he wasn't allowed to join Bellamy. Among Whydah's artifacts recovered by Clifford were a small, black, leather shoe, together with a silk stocking and fibula bone, later determined to be that of a child between 8 and 11 years old – confirming yet another "pirate tale" as fact.