'Real Pirates' offers insight into the swashbuckling life

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Who among us, at one time or another, hasn’t wanted to be a pirate – if only for the fashion statement?

But the closest any of us will come to sailing the Spanish Main is a trip to “Real Pirates,” the ongoing exhibition at the Milwaukee Public Museum that opened Dec. 14. Sponsored by National Geographic, the exhibit highlights the life and times of Capt. “Black Sam” Bellamy and the Wydah Gally – the pride of the pirate captain’s fleet. The Wydah sank along with two other ships off the shores of Cape Cod, Mass., in 1717 during a violent nor’easter that took the lives of all but two of the Wydah’s crew.

The wreck was discovered in 1984 by underwater explorer Barry Clifford. He used a chart of the wreck site that was created just days after the Wydah sank – a virtual treasure map. Clifford and his crew have unearthed 200,000 items, including a bell emblazoned with the ship’s name. With that discovery, the Wydah became the first clearly identified pirate vessel ever to be recovered.

About 200 artifacts from the ship are on display at the museum. Local actors dressed in pirate garb add an element of interpretative fun to the exhibit. 

From slave ship to pirate ship

Among the exhibit’s most interesting revelations was the way that pirates undermined the West African slave trade that flourished during the 16th and 17th centuries. The pirates interfered by seizing the slave ships, including the Wydah.

Commissioned in 1715, the Wydah was owned by a consortium of British merchants and named after Ouidah, located in what is now Benin and considered one of Africa’s leading slave ports. At 102 feet long, the 300-ton slaver could travel 13 knots (about 15 mph) and carry more than 350 slaves. Most of them were men between the ages of 16 and 30 who were destined to work on the New World’s sugar and cotton plantations.

The ship, among the fastest sailing the seas, was heavily armed to counter revolts mounted by either the slaves or their families – a feature that made the ship especially attractive to pirates. The slaves who survived the months-long trans-Atlantic voyages would be traded for rum, precious metals, medicinal herbs and other New World goods.

The Wydah arrived at the tail end of what was known as the Golden Age of Pirates, a period of plundering Spanish gold shipments and providing a profitable living for sailors who found themselves out of work after the War of Spanish Succession. By the early 18th century, the British Crown had grown tired of dealing with the pirate scourge, making pirating a capital offense punishable by death. As pressure mounted on pirates in the Caribbean, many turned to the Atlantic shipping lanes for targets. Slave ships once again drew favor, with armadas of as many as 500 pirates under multiple captains interrupting the trade significantly, effectively eliminating many of the slave shipments to the New World.

The Wydah had completed only one slave mission before it was seized in February 1717 while navigating the windward passage between Cuba and Hispaniola (now Haiti). After a three-day chase Capt. Lawrence Prince surrendered the Wydah. The 28-year-old Bellamy was so pleased with his prize that he made the Wydah his flagship, giving his own vessel to Lawrence and the crew members who wished to remain with him.


There were no slaves aboard at the time. But if there had been, it was the pirates’ practice to either offer them freedom or a place on the crew. That was partly due to the pirates’ lack of legal access to slave markets and partly due to a fledgling form of democracy that became part of pirate culture.

Whereas navies and merchant ships of the day were homogenous collections of largely white males from specific countries, pirate crews offered significant diversity, according to the exhibit. Often headed by British captains, pirate crews included Native Americans, runaway slaves and seafarers from countries around the world. Bellamy’s crew included 11-year-old John King, captured with his mother during a pirate raid. He was made part of Bellamy’s crew.

There were also occasional female pirates, including Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who joined the crew of pirate “Calico Jack” Rackham dressed as men. They soon found themselves productive members of the crew. History reports that the pair were among the fiercest of pirates and were generally part of boarding parties during battles.

Sharing wealth

One thing that attracted people of all types to pirating was the extreme wealth that could be amassed even by the average pirate. Except for minor adjustments due to rank, treasure was generally shared equally among pirates, another revelation of the exhibit. 

While all treasure was shared, pirates could keep whatever clothing and goods they took from the passengers. Artifacts found in the Wydah indicate pirates tended to be more “dandified” in their dress than first thought, attempting to duplicate in style their upper-class victims.

Part of any seized treasure was saved for the ship’s treasury, which was used to buy supplies for the voyages. The booty also underwrote the pirates’ rudimentary “workman’s compensation” program. Pirates who lost an arm or leg in battle were awarded an extra $800, but only after the broken limb was sawed off by the ship’s surgeon. If there was no ship’s surgeon, the task usually fell to the ship’s carpenter and surgery was completed without anesthetic or antibiotics. (That may have been what part of the rum was used for.)

Pirate John Brown (local actor Bethany Liesman) grabbed our ear on the dock next to the exhibit’s replica of the Wydah. As a former British navy sailor, Brown made £1 per month, then lost the job when a war with Spain ended.

“Ask me how much I make as a pirate,” Liesman said in her colorful cockney accent. “£1,000 per month.”

Pirate's life for me

Liesman was one of several pirate characters prowling the exhibit, engaging us in conversation, asking us questions and all but pressing us into service. It was Capt. Bellamy (Zach Thomas Woods) who, spying our reporter’s notebook, took us to be spies of the Crown. We kept him from drawing his pistol by questioning him about the makeup of the pirate crew, the ratio of British captains and other issues.

We also were charmed by the Irish lilt of Anne Bonny (Alicia Rice), one of history’s fiercest female pirates and lover of “Calico Jack,” who was saved from the hangman’s noose, despite her murderous ways, because she was carrying Rackham’s child.

Bonny wondered why our grandsons, when asked, were not interested in becoming pirates. “Never met a boy who didn’t want to be a pirate,” she said.

I had to agree. Thanks to “Real Pirates,” I once again heard the rigging creak, the gulls cry and tasted the salt of the sea in the air. Apparently, there is still time to set sail for adventure.

Were there gay pirates?

Despite the occasional homoerotic overtones surrounding pirates, the literature is inconclusive when it comes to the prevalence of same-sex relationships on the high seas. Nonetheless, here are some anecdotes that provide a gay angle:

• Johnny Depp may have opened the closet door a bit on pirates with his portrayal of Capt. Jack Sparrow in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, much to the initial dismay of Disney executives charged with producing the films. Depp claimed to have patterned his character after Rolling Stones lead guitarist Keith Richards, which raises an entirely different set of questions.

• Traditional seafarers’ ballads contain no mention of the subject, but contemporary British singer Cosmo Jarvis tackled the theme in his song “Gay Pirates.” You can watch it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dysG12QCdTA.

• There are no known members of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball team who are gay, but this past fall Kevin McClatchy, board chairman of the McClatchy Newspapers chain, came out. McClatchy owned the baseball franchise 1996-2007 and cited homophobic language in the sport for causing him to remain closeted.

• And even if you can’t be a gay pirate, you can enjoy a cool drink of the same name, courtesy of the Drinks Mixer website. Blend 1 oz. Bacardi 151 proof rum with 1 oz. apricot liqueur, 1 oz. Malibu cocoanut rum, 3 oz. of pineapple juice and a splash of lemon juice. But make sure you’re sailing calm seas before imbibing, since this one is sure to shiver your timbers.