National Geographic Real Pirates exhibition at The Field Museum

Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship, an exhibit organized by National Geographic and Arts and Exhibitions International (AEI) LLC, tells the compelling story of a real pirate ship, the Whydah, which started out as a slave ship, and the stories of the diverse people whose lives converged on the vessel. The exhibition can be seen at The Field Museum through Oct. 25, 2009, a stop on its five-year U.S. tour.

Sunk in a fierce storm off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., in April 1717, the Whydah was located by underwater explorer Barry Clifford in 1984, becoming the first fully authenticated pirate ship to be discovered in American waters. The exhibition will feature more than 200 treasures recovered from the wreck and provide visitors an unprecedented glimpse into the world of early 18th-century piracy and Caribbean slave trade.

“This unique and extraordinary exhibit defines the best of exploration,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic, Mission Programs, executive vice president. “From an archaeological perspective, we have the discovery of the shipwreck, its excavation and the process by which it was authenticated. From a cultural perspective, we explore the rich history of the Caribbean trade routes during the 18th century and the inextricable link between the slave trade and piracy. This is the first time that this amazing story, with all of its interconnected layers and characters, will be presented in such an engaging format.”

The three-masted, 300-ton galley Whydah was built as a slave ship in London in 1715 and represented the most advanced technology of her day. She was easy to maneuver, unusually fast and, to protect her cargo, heavily armed. She was built to transport human captives from the West Coast of Africa to the Caribbean, but was fated to make only one such voyage.

In February 1717, after the slaves were sold in the Caribbean, the Whydah was captured off the Bahamas by Sam Bellamy, one of the boldest and most successful pirates of his day. Bellamy and his crew hoisted the Jolly Roger—the slave ship was now a pirate ship.

Just two months later, on April 26, 1717, in one of the worst nor’easters ever recorded, the Whydah, packed with plunder from more than 50 captured ships, sank off the Massachusetts coast. All but two of the 146 people on board drowned.

“This was a unique period in our history,” said Jeffrey Bolster, professor of Early American and Caribbean History at the University of New Hampshire. Bolster also is a member of an advisory panel comprised of academic and other scholarly experts that was created by exhibit organizers to review and provide feedback on proposed content for the exhibit. “Through the cache of artifacts brought to the surface by Clifford and his team, we see a world generally undisclosed, one in which the Caribbean was the economic center and values were very different, an era before civil rights, before individual liberties, and before democracy was institutionalized. Without the slave trade and the wealth of the region, piracy would not have existed. This is a story of the making of America—a true story more powerful than fiction.”

In 1984, some 270 years after the Whydah sank, Clifford found the first remains of the ship. In a recovery operation that spanned more than two decades, Clifford and his team have brought up thousands of artifacts, not only gold and silver, but everyday objects that shed light on this tumultuous period of American and world history. Real Pirates is an evolving exhibition; new treasures will continually be incorporated into the exhibit as they are recovered from the wreck site, offering a unique experience for visitors in each host city.

“Discovering the Whydah was the most exciting moment in my career,” said Clifford. “The sheer volume of artifacts the Whydah carried, from more than 50 ships Bellamy and his men captured, provides a rare window into the otherwise mysterious world of the 18th-century pirates. I see this exhibition as the culmination of my many years of work. Most important, it is a chance to bring the real story of pirates, as it’s never been told before, to the public—through real objects last touched by real pirates.”

Many of the artifacts recovered from the ocean floor will be on display in the exhibit, including the ship’s bell inscribed “Whydah Galley 1716,” which was the key object used to authenticate the shipwreck site as that of the Whydah. Also included in the exhibit will be the massive anchor; pirate dress items such as a silver pin, buckles, buttons and cufflinks; muskets, cannons and swords; gold and silver coins; Akan gold jewelry; and such day-to-day objects as a tea kettle, a teapot, pewter tableware, an inkwell, gaming tokens and clay pipes.

“When we first heard about this exhibit, with its comprehensive look at the untold stories behind the Whydah, from its slave ship origins to its last mission as a pirate ship, we knew it would be a perfect fit for Cincinnati Museum Center and this community,” said Douglass W. McDonald, president/CEO of Cincinnati Museum Center. “It’s a world-class educational and historically significant experience, created by the best exhibition developers in the world and premiering in our landmark facility. We’re proud to be a part of this exciting collaboration.”

Real Pirates will allow visitors to experience a virtual journey on the Whydah. Upon entry, every visitor will be handed a copy of the ship’s Articles, the code of conduct agreed to and signed by everyone on board a pirate ship. Guests also will be introduced to four members of the Whydah pirate crew—real people who ended up on the same pirate ship for very different reasons. One of them, John King, is the youngest known pirate on board the Whydah, believed to be younger than eleven years old at the time of the shipwreck. When the ship he was traveling on with his mother was taken over by Sam Bellamy, young John insisted on taking up with the pirate crew, despite his mother’s objections.

An introductory video will present the age of piracy in the 18th century, introduce Barry Clifford and give a history of the slave ship Whydah. Visitors then will move through nearly a dozen multimedia galleries, showcasing the reality of the slave trade in West Africa and the economic prosperity in the Caribbean in the early 18th century, the journey of the ship, its capture by Bellamy, the violent storm that sank the ship, its discovery by Clifford, and the recovery and conservation of its artifacts.

One gallery will feature a detailed scale model of the Whydah. Another will show the captain’s cabin, while in a third, visitors will proceed below deck to the cramped crew’s quarters and experience life on board a pirate ship. The treasure gallery will feature some of the thousands of silver and gold coins pulled up from the wreck and select examples of Akan gold jewelry. Pirates were so insistent on dividing loot equally among the crew that even valuable and beautiful jewelry was broken into tiny fragments and divided by weight to ensure everyone on board, with the exception of the captain and a few officers, got an equal share.

Another highlight will be the storm gallery, which will recreate the powerful storm that downed the legendary ship, complete with wind machines and sprayers so visitors can feel the “sea salt” on their faces, and giant screens depicting images of the violent storm.

The final gallery will examine the recovery and conservation of the artifacts, a project led by Barry Clifford and his team. In this gallery, a replica of Clifford’s laboratory will allow visitors to see first-hand the techniques and new technologies used in examining items recovered from the ocean floor. A dramatic large concretion—a mass of sandstone, barnacles and metal—will be displayed and constantly sprayed with water to keep it wet to preserve the artifacts within. Another display will show the various stages in the conservation process and a demonstration of the way digital x-ray technology and CT scanning is used to unlock some of the mysteries contained in the concretions.

“Similar to our other exhibitions such as Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, Real Pirates will present real history in a way that ensures an entertaining and engaging experience with broad appeal,” said John Norman, president and CEO, AEI, which co-produced the exhibition. “This exhibit will tell the real story of pirates in an unprecedented way and will have something for everyone who has ever been interested in the mystery and lore that surrounds 18th-century piracy.”

National Geographic will publish the official companion book to the exhibit and a children’s book. A rich Web site will complement the exhibition and provide additional educational content and suggested programming for schools.

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