At Real Pirates Salem, you’ll meet Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, the most successful pirate of all time.Photo Credit : Kim Knox Beckius
Stories abound about pirates hiding, burying, or going down to sea in ships loaded with treasure, yet only one lost pirate treasure has ever been recovered and authenticated. That find—the loot aboard the Whydah, which sank off the Cape Cod coast in a fierce Nor’easter on April 26, 1717—anchors the highly engaging exhibits at Real Pirates Salem, named Massachusetts’ Best New Attraction by our Yankee editors in 2023.
It’s rare in the museum world to be able to touch anything. So you’ll thrill at running your fingertips over silver coins that spent nearly 300 years beneath the ocean floor: coins that once were in the hands of the richest pirate who ever lived (according to Forbes) and his diverse crew of sailors of assorted ages, races, and nationalities. These swashbucklers for sure intended to spend their booty on gambling, drinking, and fancy duds. Pirates’ love of elaborate dress is one thing Hollywood gets right, says museum founder and former Massachusetts state senator Bill Golden.
Speak with Golden for 30 seconds… or purchase your Real Pirates Salem admission, select your tattoo (grown-ups, too), pose for a photo op, and settle into the dark theater (best views are from the very back row)… and you will immediately realize there’s a much deeper story being told here. It’s a narrative—woven from artifacts, life-sized recreations, multimedia installations, interactive exhibits, and high-tech special effects (like scent cannons!)—that will leave you with a new perspective on pirates.
Whydah Captain “Black Sam” Bellamy, you see, had suffered abuse since joining the British Royal Navy as a teen. While he may have been branded a criminal in his day for forming his own “pirate nation” and seizing more than 50 ships in a span of less than two years, a different picture emerges on closer examination.
Bellamy harmed few. He generously returned ships after stealing their cargo. And he was known for operating in a way that was far more democratic than the empires whose ships he plundered. His crewmates shared equally in the spoils and had equal say… including Hendrick Quintor, a free Black Dutch sailor, and John King, who was maybe 9 or 10 and not the nicest kid, according to accounts that say he threatened his mother when she tried to squash his pirate ambitions. Bellamy was what some would call a social bandit. A Robin Hood.
You’ll meet a cast of pirate characters as you progress from the theater through the museum, viewing scene-setting tableaus and artifacts as large as cannons. You can choose to tour on your own or with a costumed pirate docent.
At interactive stations, you’ll learn how the Jolly Roger—the famous pirate flag with a skull and crossbones—came to be. You’ll sign, if you’d like, the Articles: committing yourself to upholding the pirate code. In its first year of operations, the museum has already filled three books with signatures.
You’ll hear the story, too, of underwater explorer Barry Clifford, who discovered the wreck of the Whydah in 1984 with the aid of an honest-to-goodness treasure map from 1717. Golden has dived several times with Clifford’s team, which continues its recovery efforts for the 41st season in 2023. There are estimates Whydah’s treasure is worth $400 million, but Clifford has not sold a single object, preferring, in very un-pirate-like fashion, to share the bounty of his discovery with the public. More than 200,000 artifacts have been recovered to date.
What was the fate of Black Sam and his pirate band the night the Whydah, a former slave ship, sank? You’ll soon find out (if you visit… we’ll leave you in suspense here!), but first: No story is worth its salt without a love interest, a mystery, and—because this is Salem—a witch. All three are represented by one tattered artifact that Golden says is his favorite.
You’ll see the piece of faded ribbon, found wrapped around an ornate pistol believed to be Bellamy’s, in a display case. A legend, relayed through time by descendants of Maria Hallett, the “Witch of Wellfleet,” says she and the dashing young pirate were in love. When he departed, she gave him a ribbon embroidered with red roses and thistles as a love token, and she instructed him: “Keep it close to you, look at it every day, and come back to me,” Golden recounts. Of course, Hallett hoped he would come back rich, as her father had thus far deemed him unworthy.
Is this salvaged scrap of cloth proof the love story is true? That’s just one of the questions for you to ponder as the Whydah is caught in a terrible storm, survivors are put on trial, and eventually… you find yourself smiling for photo op number two and passing through the gift shop. But there’s one more cool exhibit to explore: the Discovery Lab.
The great white shark hanging from the ceiling of this working laboratory is a reminder of the risks Clifford and his underwater exploration team face. It’s dangerous work to bring artifacts to the surface, but can you imagine the exhilaration of finding the bell inscribed THE WHYDAH GALLY 1716, which proved beyond doubt the ship had been found?
In the Discovery Lab, you’ll see concretions: concrete-like masses that form when metals, sand, and sea elements fuse, trapping other non-iron artifacts, too. They’re X-rayed or scanned to determine what might lurk within. Then, electrolysis and chemical reactions are employed, over long stretches of time, to set concreted artifacts free. “It’s like Christmas morning; you don’t know what’s in it,” says Golden. Jewelry… dinner plates… gold dust… human remains?
Real Pirates Salem exists to ignite curiosity and respect for our seas in a new generation of explorers. And to encourage us all to consider whether pirates may have actually been the good guys. Perhaps there are things we can learn from this band of rogues. Golden hopes: “Maybe we can get back to a society as equal and just as this pirate society.”
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