Steve Helber  /  AP
Students looking over an exhibit of artifacts from the Pirate ship Whydah at Nauticus in Norfolk, Va.
updated 12/4/2009 10:02:54 AM ET 2009-12-04T15:02:54

Growing up on Cape Cod in seafaring Massachusetts, explorer Barry Clifford was fascinated by the romantic tale of "Black Sam" Bellamy. Three centuries ago, the pirate sailed to the British colony to rendezvous with his mistress but encountered en route a terrible storm that sent him, most of his crew and tons of gold, silver and jewels to the ocean's bottom.

The lore launched Clifford on a life of treasure-hunting — including the discovery in 1984 of the Whydah, Bellamy's treasure-laden three-master, which sank off of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on April 26, 1717.

"I was looking for treasure, and I found it," Clifford, 64, said. "More treasure than I could have ever imagined. The whole bottom was layered with it."

A sliver of Clifford's discovery is on display through next April 4 at Nauticus, a marine science museum perched on the Norfolk waterfront. "Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship," organized by National Geographic, includes thousands of gold and silver coins and hundreds of other displays in a 16,000-square-foot (4,900-square-meter) interactive exhibition.

They include treasure chests, painstakingly restored cannon, pistols and swords, slabs of weathered timber from the shipwreck and a bell inscribed with the ship's name, which cemented Clifford's claim that the Whydah is the world's only fully authenticated pirate ship to be discovered.

The Norfolk exhibit taps into a growing national fascination in the United States with pirates. Examples include the extraordinarily popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, the movie version of which starred Johnny Depp, and a growing re-enactor craze that rivals the re-enacting tableaux of students of the U.S. Civil War, who restage famous battles, munch on hardtack and dress in scratchy wool uniforms. One popular Web forum, Ye Pirate Brethren, claims hundreds of members who discuss topics ranging from pirate wear (Pantalones and Stockings) to food (Grubniks & Schluessel).

Another manifestation of the pirate craze are the dozens of pirate festivals held around the country. The Portland Pirate Festival in Oregon is awaiting Guinness World Record certification for the largest number of dressed-up pirates in one place: 1,651 last September. Tampa, Florida, has one of the oldest pirate events, the Gasparilla Pirate Fest, which started in 1904 and typically attracts some 250,000 people; the next event is scheduled for Jan. 30. Pirates have become popular subjects for museums, too, with a permanent exhibit on Blackbeard's life at the North Carolina Maritime Museum and a proposal under consideration for a pirates museum in Atlanta, Georgia.

International Talk Like a Pirate Day has grown from a joke between a couple of friends to a craze with apparatuses for iPhones and Facebook. For generalists, Michael Crichton's "Pirate Latitudes," just published posthumously, also takes on the subject in a fictional setting.

Steve Helber  /  AP
The bell that was recovered from the site of the wreckage of the Pirate ship Whydah now on display at Nauticus in Norfolk, Va.
The Nauticus display also arrives at a time when pirates are being redefined. It turns out, they were not all bad, although they were far from good.

Clifford is among those who believe pirates have gotten some bad press over the centuries. He notes, for instance, that the so-called golden age of piracy, generally defined as from 1650 until 1720, offered opportunities to all in a period when birth and social standing often predestined a person's life. Fully one-third of pirates were of African origin, and many Native Americans were among pirate crews, he said.

"Make no mistake, these people were outlaws, but there were few choices for them," Clifford said during a visit to Nauticus in November for the show's opening.

The former slave ship's original purpose is reflected in its name, which is based on the West African trading town of Ouidah.

A new book, "The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates," casts pirates and piracy as downright progressive, politically and economically. They embraced democracy, for instance, and were quite tolerant of racial and sexual differences, as Depp's Jack Sparrow might suggest. They even created an early form of worker's compensation and health care.

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Author Peter T. Leeson, himself hooked on piracy from an early age after a family trip to Disney World and a spin on the popular ride "Pirates of the Caribbean," casts an economist's eye on piracy and finds their business practices sound. They were no Robin Hoods, he is quick to add.

"The key thing to recognize is that it's not because pirates were inherently nice guys or progressive in their thinking," Leeson said of crew-friendly initiatives. "It's profit maximizing, and that's why they did it."

The Whydah was carrying the cargoes of 50 ships when it sank.

"Thousands and thousands of artifacts have yet to see the light of day," Clifford said in an interview. Estimates put the haul of silver and gold at 5 to 10 tons plus a casket of egg-sized jewels, he said.

Centuries after Bellamy sailed the seas, it is the pirate glitter that still enthralls. Clifford was fascinated by the coins the Whydah would give up occasionally.

Clifford, whose gnarled fingers reveal the backbreaking work of underwater exploration, said education and not riches is what keeps him returning to the Whydah wreck and others around the globe.

"It means a lot to me to see kids and people really enjoy this — much more than the treasure could have meant to sell it," he said. "It doesn't mean anything to me now what it's worth."

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