Monday, September 30, 2013

Black Sam Bellamy and the Wreck of the Whydah

Barry Clifford was off the coast of Cape Cod, looking for pirate treasure with a map he had found in the public library. An underwater archaeologist, Clifford was perusing his lifelong fascination with a local legend. “Black Sam” Bellamy, so it was said, had fallen in love with a local girl, and gone to sea to seek the fortune necessary to marry her. He had turned to piracy, and had come back a rich man, only to be wrecked in a freak storm. All the loot had gone down with him.

Barry’s team had been returning to the site for years, and had recovered coins, dinner wear, and other small items, but no proof that this was a pirate ship, let alone the one pirate ship they sought. Finally, in July of 1998, at the end of a long day of diving, a final artifact was dragged to the surface. It proved to be a huge, brass, ship’s bell. And cast into the very fabric of the bell was the ship’s name.
Whydah 1716
Barry had found his proof. He was on the site of Bellamy’s fabled ship. The Whydah was the first verified pirate ship ever recovered from the bottom of the sea.

But how did it get there?

The story of the pirate ship Whydah begins with Sam Bellamy, a boy born to a poor family in Devonshire England in 1689. Like many people of the time, the Bellamy family moved to Plymouth in search of more opportunity. Young Sam found work on a ship, and by all accounts ended up in the Royal Navy, helping his country to fight the numerous wars that broke out during the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

No record of Bellamy’s service has yet been found, though his later exploits indicate that he was probably good at the hard, adventurous work. But strength, talent and intelligence did him little good when the wars eventually petered out in 1714. England left most of her sailors high and dry, often without the back-pay they had been promised for years. Sam found himself in Boston, the largest English city in the New World. It was here that he met blond haired, blue eyed, sixteen-year-old Mary Hallett.

Local legend says that the two were so smitten with each other that, despite Mary being from a well-to-do, landed family, they consummated their relationship that very night, and began to talk of marriage. But Sam was an unemployed sailor, and Mary’s parents would never agree to such a match. Sam, the story goes, tore himself away from his beloved, and set out to seek his fortune.

He teamed up with a friend, and better-connected young man named Paulsgrave Williams, and together they headed south. They puttered about, doing this and that, until 1715, when opportunity presented itself in the wreck of the Spanish Treasure Fleet.

A tropical hurricane had sunk most of the fleet, and driven one galleon onto the uninhabited coast of Florida. There it lay, millions of dollars’ worth of gold, abandoned in the surf for anyone who could claim it. Fortune hunters came from all over the world.

But work on the wreck was grueling. The main part of the ship was under too much water for unassisted diving, and sand quickly covered parts of the ship that washed ashore. Worse, the Spanish sent their military to win back the lost gold. Gangs formed, determined to hold the most valuable parts of the beach, and hand-to-hand fighting escalated to full-scale battles with the authorities. In between, slaves were forced at gunpoint to dive to inhuman depths in pursuit of the treasure. When they died of drowning or the bends, others were captured and sent down.

When Sam and his friend finally sailed away, they had little to show for their efforts but a handful of men loyal to Bellamy. Traveling south to the Bay of Honduras, they picked up more starving buccaneers, and a pair of deep-water sailing canoes. With these they began to plunder local shipping.

Bellamy’s goal, from the very beginning, was to take from the rich and give to the poor sailors, money which had so often been stolen from them by ship captains and rich merchants.

During his early career, he came across the privateer, Henry Jennings. Jennings had been a privateer, but pickings had been slim, and he was just on the cusp of turning pirate. Jennings had four sloops under his command, and together they had trapped a large French merchant in an island cove. But the wind had died down to nothing. All the ships sat staring at each other, unable to move. Bellamy approached the pirates and offered his services.

In short order, the French merchant was faced with a terrifying sight. Two large canoes, filled with nearly naked, wild-looking men, carrying knives and cutlasses in their teeth, and paddling furiously. Behind them, the two largest of the pirate sloops, full of heavily armed men screaming at the tops of their lungs, were being towed by the canoes.

The French captain, whose much larger ship might have out-fought the pirates, gave up without firing a shot. Bellamy had learned a tactic that would last him for the rest of his career. Sheer terror could achieve more than actual bloodshed.

The prize secured, Jennings set out to find and attack the merchant’s sister ship. He soon realized that it had been captured by the notorious pirate Benjamin Hornigold, Jennings’ arch-rival. Apparently Bellamy didn’t like Jennings and his crew, who had been torturing prisoners. While Jennings and his captains were distracted, Bellamy and his men threw most of the captured cash into one of the canoes and paddled away with it.

The take of Bellamy and his handful of cohorts, converted to English money, amounted to £7,125. The annual salary of a British sailor, if he actually received his pay, was £65.

Next week

The most successful pirate in the Caribbean.

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