The Sinking of the Whydah Galley

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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Generally speaking, history works like this: winners win and write the books, while losers lose and get dunked on in text books until someone like Howard Zinn writes a book about how the winners lied.

But pirates, even though they always lost, buck the pattern.

The thing about pirates is, by and large, they didn’t even pretend to be the good guys, yet we still lionize them with our fascination. Sure, sometimes they claimed political cause for their acts of rebellion, but really it was about the cash, rum, and violence. We even create sanitized fictional pirate characters so that we don’t need to justify the sh*tty behavior of the pirates who actually existed. Meanwhile, the captains who hunted them are remembered as stuffy, imperial killjoys.

Why? Is it the ships? The good guys had ships, too. The rebel spirit? They were rebels without causes, mostly. I think we have an attraction to deviant behavior, so long as it’s distant enough from our own lives to be “fun” and not tragic.

I can’t say for sure about piracy in general, but when it comes to the Whydah, my interest is clear: It’s the only discovered, fully authenticated pirate wreck surviving from the Golden Age of Piracy (around 1650 to 1730); and it was discovered just off Cape Cod, where I grew up.

So, this sh*t being personal, I decided to cobble together a brief history of the Whydah, its two lives, and its death.

First Life: Slave Ship and the Triangle Trade

Before the Whydah ever hoisted its proverbial Jolly Roger, it was something far worse.

The Whydah was commissioned in 1715 in London. She was meant to be a cargo ship, and she would soon house the most dangerous cargo of all: man.

The Whydah. This here’s just a model, of course. The real one is A) bigger, and B) destroyed.

I’m trying to lighten this up a bit, but the ugly fact remains: the Whydah was built to run the Atlantic Triangular Trade between Europe, the Americas, and Africa. The most notorious leg of that trip was the transport of enslaved Africans from their homes to the Americas.  

So, when the Whydah set her sails and left London in 1716, she hung left past Portugal and pointed her bow toward Africa.

Her captain was Lawrence Prince—an experienced slave trader and, dare I say, sh*tty person who sold people for money. Prince didn’t own the Whydah outright. She was essentially a business, owned by a number of businessmen, and Prince likely owned a share of the ship.

But let’s not hold all of that against the Whydah itself: she was a tool, destined to help bad men earn blood money. Guilt by association aside, she was a good ship. Her design was state-of-the-art, with a sleek hull that made her fast, but also maneuverable. She also had a literal boatload of guns in her arsenal—enough to protect her human cargo from warships and, theoretically, from pirates.

So the Whydah, all kitted out and ready to do some evil sh*t, sailed her way down the coast of Western Africa, nabbing captives along the way, until she reached the slave port, Ouidah, which—whoa! Same name, kinda! Actually, Ouidah was just an alternate spelling of “Whydah,” so they were totally the same name.

The Whydah’s bell, dredged up off the coast of Wellfleet.

See, when a captain owns their ship, they name it something creative or personal. The Whydah, however, was more of an investment mutually owned by a group of slave traders, and I don’t think they were particularly sentimental. They named her after the port she was heading to, and kicked her on her way.

After Captain Price and his crew were finished with kidnapping folks and buying war prisoners in Africa, they took the Middle Passage to the Caribbean. The ship was overcrowded to maximize profits, with around 367 captives in the hold. She was a transatlantic cattle car for the better part of the 12-week journey—a cramped, suffocating pit of disease and misery.

When the Whydah finally reached Jamaica, she had 312 surviving captives to sell at the slave markets. There, her human cargo was swapped out for piles of ill-gained (but legal) profit.1

Second Life: Piracy

At this point in her young life, the Whydah had already done the worst sh*t I can think of, so things could only get better.

And they did get slightly better. After leaving Jamaica, Captain Price began the journey back to England, by way of the Bahamas. As a rule of thumb, it’s usually a good idea to go to the Bahamas. It’s a good place to drink four to six daiquiris before dinner.

But it didn’t turn out so hot for Captain Larry Price, because Captain Sam “Black” Bellamy was already there, all daiquiried up and itching for some nautical grand theft auto. Also, Bellamy was a pirate. I think that’s pretty clear from the “Black” Bellamy nickname—earned by going au naturel, wearing his real, black hair tied back with a black bow, rather than jumping on the powdered wig bandwagon.

Samuel “Black” Bellamy—the world’s richest pirate, in 1717.

He was a particularly successful pirate, too—the wealthiest in history, according to some sources.2

Bellamy must’ve been fond of the cut of Price’s jib, literally, because he chased that son of a b*tch for three days to capture the ship. Bellamy’s pirate fleet caught up with the Whydah, and Price let him have it.

To be clear, I’m not using “let him have it” as a euphemism. Price literally let Bellamy have the ship. Captains and crews wouldn’t usually put up much of a fight to keep a ship that’s owned by some rich fellas back in London. It’s kind of like when a bank robber gets a security guard to surrender by asking him if he’s willing to die for his boss for $16 per hour. The answer, usually, is “nope.”

So Bellamy got his pirate paws on the Whydah. He liked it better than his current lead ship, the Sultana, so he transferred all his loot from the Sultana to his new acquisition. Then, he took on some of the Whydah’s former crew, and set Price and the rest of his crew loose on the Sultana. Honestly, it all seems like pretty decent behavior for a pirate. The dude even gave Price the Sultana so he could go home. How many pirates catch you and give you a ship?

Maybe Bellamy was just in a good mood because of his new prize. Slave ships were a real score for pirates—they were typically fast and outfitted with good firepower, and the Whydah was especially fast and violent.

Also Black Bellamy. This is the world’s richest pirate leg bone.

That isn’t to say she couldn’t be more fast and violent. Bellamy streamlined her by clearing off the top deck, losing the pilot’s cabin, slave barricade, and anything else that made her too top heavy. Bellamy also gunned her up further. Alongside the 18 guns she was already sporting, he added another 10 guns, and secured another 12 guns in her cargo hold. Her slaving days were over—the Whydah’s new game was all about chasing and intimidation.3

Suffice to say she was still being used for some relatively bad sh*t, but at least she was no longer an affront to human dignity.

Death of the Whydah (and Her Crew)

Bellamy, with his flotilla and new flagship, Whydah, eventually made his way from the Bahamas to New England, doing the pirate thing along the way. That is to say, he did what he did to Captain Price, only to other people: catching ships and stealing their cargo. By the time he reached New England, Bellamy’s flotilla carried plunder from over 50 vessels.

And I’m gonna give Black Bellamy a little credit here since, spoiler alert, he’s about to die. Bellamy called himself the “Robin Hood of the Sea,” and his men fancied themselves “Robin Hood’s men.” As far as pirates go, these guys were about as Disney-friendly a crew as you could find. No records exist of Bellamy ever killing a captive, and he was known to return ships and their cargo if he didn’t need them.

The location of the Whydah wreck, superimposed on an 18th-century educated guess as to what Cape Cod actually looks like.

Bellamy also ran his ship like a democracy: most of his crew were once slaves, or sailors forced into service, and each was given an equal vote when it came to making important decisions. He saw his piracy as a mission against his oppressors—the wealthy merchants who lawfully forced and cheated poor young men into working at sea.4

But, good or not, pirates live short lives, and Bellamy was already a ripe 28 years old in 1717.

Bellamy had a lady friend named Maria Hallet in Wellfleet, a village on the outer reaches of Cape Cod. While we don’t know exactly what Bellamy’s plan was, it appears he intended to cash in his pirate chips and get to wooing Ms. Hallet. Once he had loads of money, he thought, Maria’s wealthy family might like him more.

Bellamy followed his heart (and maybe his wallet, or both), to Cape Cod. He arrived the evening of April 26, 1717, just as the Cape was hit by one of its worst ever nor’easters.

The storm thrashed the Whydah, running her into a sandbar, splintering her mainmast, and tearing her rigging apart. She rolled over just 500 feet from the beach, but it was too far. The sea warms slowly, so waters are still icy in April. Nearly all of the Whydah’s crew were dead before they could reach the shore, Bellamy included.

Whydah’s Walk

Out of 146 crew, only two survived: carpenter Thomas Davis, and pilot John Julian.

Everything else—crew, treasure, and the Whydah herself—was lost to time until the wreck was discovered in 1984 by explorer Barry Clifford. In 2018, a leg bone was found in the wreck, with reason to believe it may belong to Sam Bellamy.

For her part, Maria Hallet earned the name “The Witch of Wellfleet.” Local folklore asserted that Bellamy did something to piss Maria off, and she used witchcraft to summon the storm that killed him. The competing theory is that a cold front from Canada collided with a warm front that was moving north from the Caribbean, resulting in a gnarly storm. I’ll let you decide which theory rings true.5

Technical sketch of the Whydah—AKA, Whidah, because why bother spelling it consistently?

As for the fascination with this story, well, I don’t know. Does it fall in with the usual morbid curiosity and deviance worship that I think leads to a lot of modern pirate love? Maybe. But the Whydah’s story is different. The pirate captain, Sam Bellamy, seems like an empathetic character with some relatively modern values about the value of human life, equality, and resistance against the oppression of entrenched power.

As for the Whydah, she was born for evil purposes—if slave trading ain’t evil, I don’t know what is—but at least she found herself a relatively decent pirate bloke to look after her before her burial at sea. And now she’s got her own museum! So, not too bad, all things considered.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Field Museum. (2009). The Slave Ship Whydah. Retrieved from http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/pirates/slaveship.asp
  2. New England Historical Society. (Accessed May 5, 2018). Black Sam Bellamy, the Pirate Who Fought Smart, Harmed Few, Scored Big. Retrieved from http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/black-sam-bellamy-pirate-fought-smart-harmed-scored-big/
  3. Field Museum. (2009). The Pirate Ship Whydah. Retrieved from http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/pirates/pirateship.asp
  4. New England Historical Society. (Accessed May 5, 2018). Black Sam Bellamy, the Pirate Who Fought Smart, Harmed Few, Scored Big. Retrieved from http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/black-sam-bellamy-pirate-fought-smart-harmed-scored-big/
  5. Field Museum. (2009). The Fate of the Whydah. Retrieved from http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/pirates/whydahsloss.asp

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Aldrich, Ian. (2017, November 28). The Whydah Gally: Brief History of a Cape Cod Pirate Ship. Retrieved from https://newengland.com/today/living/new-england-history/whydah-gally-history-cape-cod-pirate-ship/
  • Field Museum. (2009). Life Aboard the Whydah. Retrieved from http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/pirates/lifeaboard.asp
  • Field Museum. (2009). The Fate of the Whydah. Retrieved from http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/pirates/whydahsloss.asp
  • Field Museum. (2009). The Pirate Ship Whydah. Retrieved from http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/pirates/pirateship.asp
  • Field Museum. (2009). The Slave Ship Whydah. Retrieved from http://archive.fieldmuseum.org/pirates/slaveship.asp
  • History Is Now Magazine. (2017, March 19). The Unknown Survivor—Just who survived an infamous 1717 shipwreck? Retrieved from http://www.historyisnowmagazine.com/blog/2017/3/19/the-unknown-survivor-just-who-survived-an-infamous-1717-shipwreck#.Wu3jN4iUuUk
  • New England Historical Society. (Accessed May 5, 2018). Black Sam Bellamy, the Pirate Who Fought Smart, Harmed Few, Scored Big. Retrieved from http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/black-sam-bellamy-pirate-fought-smart-harmed-scored-big/

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