Just before midnight on April 26th, 1717, the pirate flagship Whydah wrecked on the Cape Cod coastline during a powerful nor’easter. At the time of her demise, the Whydah pirates were the most powerful sea rovers anywhere in the world, with a flagship mounting 28 cannons, a flotilla of consort vessels, and a company of nearly 200 souls. They were also among the most successful, capturing plunder from over 50 ships.
It is easy three centuries later to be transfixed by the thousands of pounds of silver and gold that were scattered beneath the sand that fateful night, but it should not overshadow the loss of 144 men—128 pirates and 16 prisoners—who were aboard the Whydah. Although outlaws, their untimely death was no less tragic than any other sailor who braved the sea.
Few of us can imagine the conditions the Whydah’s crew faced that fateful night. The pirates sailed in absolute darkness that was interrupted only by violent bursts of lightning. Towering swells reached thirty, possibly forty feet high. The wind howled through the rigging at more than 70mph—the strength of a category one hurricane.
The crew fought valiantly to keep the 300-ton vessel away from the breakers. Unfortunately, large galleys handled particularly poorly in high winds and with the Whydah carrying plenty of weight in the form of treasure and extra cannons, she was virtually unmanageable.
When the Whydah struck the sandbar, the force of the collision flung most of the men still in the rigging into the raging sea. Those on the weather deck were soon swept overboard as massive whitecaps crashed over the gunwales. The fate of those below deck was even worse. After the mainmast snapped off, the waves rolled the ship over, putting the more than forty spare cannons in the hold suddenly on top. That huge mass of iron smashed through the decks, tearing the ship apart and crushing sailors in the process.
The remains of John King, likely crushed by a falling cannon
For those who may have survived the initial crash and destruction of the ship, the danger was far from over. Castaways then had to swim 500 feet through churning waters that hovered around a temperature of forty degrees. If they managed to make it to shore on what is now Marconi Beach, they would have found the beach all but non-existent. The surf was washing all the way up to the bluffs. Cold, exhausted, and traumatized, they would still have to climb nearly a hundred feet up the sandy cliffs, without being swatted off by the waves. Given the conditions, it’s not surprising that only two men from the Whydah survived.
Many early accounts of the Whydah’s history consider her destruction the just punishment for the vile acts of the greedy, bloodthirsty scoundrels aboard. Oddly enough, centuries later the destruction of the Whydah provides a plethora of archaeological and historical evidence that suggests the pirates were not merely “greedy, bloodthirsty scoundrels.” While the Whydah pirates were far from saints, historians have found no record of them killing or even harming any of their captivities. They were a surprisingly egalitarian and fraternal group, splitting their loot equally and voting on major decisions. They found a common purpose that transcended race, beliefs, and backgrounds, and banded together to achieve a degree of freedom and fortune they could never have found in 18^th century European society.
As we show reverence for their passing, we at the Whydah Pirate Museum are equally grateful that the artifacts and historical records they left behind can teach future generations about the daring exploits and democratic ideals of these eclectic, bold, but otherwise ordinary men. Rest in peace to all those claimed by the ocean.
Journey into the exciting world of Real Pirates at the Whydah Pirate Museum and experience true adventures that are more powerful than the stuff of legends!