CHATHAM — Researchers at the Whydah Museum in West Yarmouth and Provincetown recently used DNA tests to draw some conclusions about the human bones Whydah divers have found at the site of the 1717 shipwreck off Eastham.
First, a thigh bone that had a one-in-40 chance of belonging to the Whydah’s Captain Sam Bellamy did not belong to the infamous pirate. DNA from the bone was compared to DNA from Bellamy’s relatives in England, and no match was made.
Second, DNA testing determined a thin fibula found in a silk sock in 1989 belonged to a young boy aged nine to 12. Corroborative research determined the boy was John King, who was traveling from his family’s plantation in Jamaica to England when the Whydah pirates captured his ship. King, who joined the pirates, died along with all but two of the 146 pirates on board the Whydah when it sank.
“This little guy probably had the time of his life on the Whydah,” Chris Macort said. Macort, an underwater field archaeologist and director of exhibits at the two Whydah museums, gave a talk called “Untold Stories of the Pirate Ship Whydah” to about 30 people at the Atwood House Museum last week. Macort has worked with Barry Clifford, who discovered the Whydah, and his crew for 21 years. This summer he is diving several days a week as the crew continues to bring up artifacts such as pewter spoons from the shipwreck. Since the wreck was discovered 30 years ago, over 200,000 artifacts have been brought to the surface and studied.
“The Whydah keeps giving stories,” Macort says. “The more we find, the more questions we have.”
Bellamy was born in Devon, England, and at age 23 moved to Cape Cod. In 1715 he was living somewhere in Eastham or Wellfleet when he met Maria Hallett, a local 15-year-old girl. Although Bellamy wanted to marry Hallett, her father objected as Bellamy did not appear solvent.
In short order in 1716 Bellamy became a pirate and captain of the pirate ship Sultana. “They weren’t all that interested in finding legitimate work,” Macort says. At 24, Bellamy was the captain of a crew of 90 young men.
Bellamy soon captured three ships and expanded his crew to 140 men. Sailing off the Bahamas he spotted the Whydah, which was on its maiden voyages as a slaver. Between 500 and 600 slaves had been sold and the ship was loaded with money on its way to London. The pirates chased the ship for three days before Bellamy and his crew boarded and rummaged the ship. They saw chests of silver and gold—close to four tons of it was on board. There were also elephant tusks, precious stones and more. Bellamy’s crew seized the Whydah and sent its crew off on the Sultana. Altogether the Whydah would plunder 50 ships.
By the end of March 1717, Bellamy was sailing back to Cape Cod perhaps to be reunited with Maria Hallett, who had borne his child. Along the way the Whydah captured the Irish ship the MaryAnn, a small ship loaded with 4,000 gallons of wine from Madeira, Spain. The pirates began drinking as a storm came up on the morning of April 26, 1717. “If anybody’s ever had wine in the morning, it never ends well,” Macort said.
In the blinding storm the drunken crew hit a sandbar and capsized about 500 feet off what is now called Marconi Beach. Locals reached the wreck quickly, and apparently stabbed those inebriated pirates who had made it to the beach. A local coroner buried 102 pirates in a mass grave near today’s National Seashore. Two pirates survived.
Clifford’s interest in the Whydah began in 1982. In August 1984 a diver with Clifford’s crew found a cannon in a sand pit and then a 1685 silver coin and a trigger guard from a pistol. It turned out the wreck was scattered for a half mile under the sand. In the fall of 1985, when a bell with the name Whydah on it was brought up, the Whydah became the first pirate ship and treasure wreck ever found.
Since then, everything from the wreck has been kept and studied. Macort joined the group in 1996. “We’re kind of like a group of pirates, we’re a fraternity,” he says of Clifford’s crew.
Between June and October, the divers visit the wreck, which now lies 1,500 feet off the beach and below 20-to-30 feet of water and 20-to-50 feet of sand. Visibility is near zero in the mung weed and divers are able to see only shadows. Sharks became a new threat to the divers five years ago. One day last week the crew was called from the bottom of the sea three times due to sharks. When asked why the crew can’t work using a shark cage, Macort said visibility is too low to flee to the protection of the shark cage, and also the metal cage would interfere with the metal detector.
“It’s very harrowing,” Macort says of the shark visits. “They’re beautiful animals but I don’t want to be eaten by one.”
For more information on the Whydah Pirate Museum visit www.discoverpirates.com.