The Whydah Galley was built at London in 1715 as a transport for captive humans. Having made two voyages under command of veteran slave-trader Lawrence Prince, it was captured homeward-bound in the central Bahamas by pirates during January or February of 1717. Owing to its size, speed and armament, the pirates, led by Samuel Bellamy, decided to keep the vessel and convert it to their flagship.
Bellamy’s multi-national pirate crew, consisting of nearly two hundred men, had already been in operation for about a year, capturing dozens of British, French, Spanish and Dutch merchant ships throughout the Caribbean. They had been associated with such other important pirates of the period as Ben Hornigold, Henry Jennings, Oliver Le Vasseur and the notorious “Blackbeard”.
During its passage up the North American seaboard, the pirate’s new flagship was wrecked on April 26, 1717 off the coast of Wellfleet, Cape Cod, in one of the most severe “nor’easters” in New England history. Only two men are known to have survived, making it the worst shipwreck ever to occur on the shores of Cape Cod. Three other vessels in Sam Bellamy pirate flotilla were either wrecked, or seriously damaged, and a number of pirates from these vessels were captured by the authorities, and eventually tried.
Shortly after the wreck, Governor Shute of Massachusetts dispatched Captain Cyprian Southack, a noted cartographer and commander of the Bay Colony’s naval militia, to salvage what he could for the Crown. Southack found that the ship had capsized and had broken up in the storm surf. Wreckage from the ship was quickly swallowed up in the shifting sands of the Cape.
Although Southack recovered little of value from the wreck, his journal and reports to Governor Shute recorded a number of important clues to its location.
Utilizing this and other historical evidence, together with cutting-edge electronic remote-sensing technology, a team led by underwater explorer Barry Clifford discovered the wreck site in 1984. Since the wreck is blanketed with loose sand approaching thirty feet in depth, is less than two thousand feet from shore, and since treacherous local sea conditions severely limit boat and dive operations, artifacts are still being recovered in a careful and painstaking underwater archaeological excavation project.
While the history of the Whydah encompasses the entire Atlantic world—Europe, Africa and the Americas—it has special significance to North American colonial history in general, and the history of New England in particular.
The first satisfactorily identified pirate shipwrecks ever discovered—as such it provides unique insights into the material culture of 18th-century piracy in the Atlantic world.