Piracy's rich and brutal N.E. history

Email|Print| Text size + By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / October 26, 2003

PROVINCETOWN -- Captain Kidd. Black Sam Bellamy. Their names live in legend; in history, they were notorious pirates who sailed the waters off New England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Two Massachusetts museums tell their stories, and those of other pirates: The New England Pirate Museum in Salem, and Expedition Whydah Sea Lab and Learning Center in Provincetown.

The New England Pirate Museum, more a haunted house than a museum, takes visitors on a tour, guided by a blackguard in pirate garb, through scenarios depicting pirate life. The guide tells the often ghastly but true stories of the pirates and their booty.

Expedition Whydah Sea Lab and Learning Center homes in on the story of Black Sam Bellamy, whose ship, the Whydah, loaded with the spoils from more than 50 plundered vessels, sank off Cape Cod near Wellfleet in a storm in 1717. Undersea explorer Barry Clifford located the wreck in 1984; an archeological dig there continues. Many of the artifacts are on exhibit, including clothing, cannons, coins, and gold jewelry.

Piracy was a common and lucrative crime 300 years ago. England was a great maritime power, but when James I took the throne in 1603, he pared down his navy, and many impoverished seamen became pirates. Others turned from privateering to piracy in wartime, when governments commissioned private vessels to take and plunder the cargo of ships that sailed under enemy flags. Often, the line between piracy and privateering was a thin one. In 1704, John Quelch was hanged in Boston for piracy after he had attacked Portuguese merchant vessels. He had left port a privateer, but while he was at sea, Britain signed a treaty with Portugal, so he returned home an unwitting pirate.

The infamous Captain William Kidd suffered a similar fate, according to ''The Pirates of the New England Coast" by George Francis Dow and John Henry Edmonds (Dover, 1996). Kidd had sailed from New York in 1696 as a privateer commissioned by the governor, the Earl of Bellomont, to capture pirates off Madagascar and on the Arabian coast. His orders were to bring his booty to Boston and deliver it to Bellomont.

In 1698, the East India Company, the British trading monopoly, accused Kidd of piracy. Rumors had it that Kidd's crew had mutinied and turned pirate. Kidd showed up in Boston the next year, saying he had left a ship loaded with gold and other valuables off the coast of East Africa. He declared that his booty was taken legally from French ships, and that he had written passes to prove it. But the East India Company wanted his head. Bellomont shipped Kidd to London to be hanged. Kidd took the French passes with him, but they disappeared, and Kidd was executed.

In 1999, Barry Clifford located Kidd's flagship off the coast of Madagascar, and while fears of terrorism have temporarily halted excavation of that site, Ken Kinkor, acting director of Expedition Whydah, says Clifford hopes to continue the project soon.

Rachel Wall has the dubious honor, according to the New England Pirate Museum, of being New England's only woman pirate. Wall played the damsel in distress, luring innocent ships toward her husband's rig by waving and calling for help. George Wall and his crew would then board the rescuing ship, take its crew and cargo, and sink the vessel. Rachel Wall was hanged on Boston Common.

Every man on a pirate ship, even those forced to serve, was paid in the gold and silver they plundered. The captain took what share he wanted; the rest was distributed equally. Men who suffered injuries were given extra pay. ''For a right arm, 600 Spanish pieces of eight were awarded or a corresponding value in slaves," write Dow and Edmonds. Legs and the left arm garnered 500 pieces of eight, and an eye brought 100. That may be why pirates of myth and legend are portrayed with eye patches, peg legs, and hooks.

As for the Bellamy's booty, Expedition Whydah Sea Lab and Learning Center will not estimate the value. At the time it sank, Kinkor says, it was said to be carrying 20,000-30,000 pounds sterling. ''Today, a pound sterling is worth about $1.60," Kinkor says. ''But then, it was considerably higher. Two pounds sterling was a month's wages for a merchant seaman."

Cate McQuaid is a freelance writer who lives in Haverhill.

If you go...

I HOPE Expedition Whydah Sea Lab and Learning Center

16 MacMillan Wharf, Provincetown


Open 1-5 p.m. daily through October, then weekends through December. Reopens April 15. Admission: $8 adults; $6 children 6-12.

New England Pirate Museum

274 Derby St., Salem


Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through October, weekends in November.

Admission: $6.

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