Real Pirates: From England to Africa to the Caribbean to Cape Cod (and Milwakee?)


The exhibition “Real Pirates” opened at the Milwaukee Public Museum on Friday, December 6, and will be on view through May 27, 2914. As Jackie Loohauis-Bennett writes, “with more than 150 artifacts recovered from the wreck of a real pirate ship, the exhibit presents buccaneer life as no ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film can.” The Milwaukee Public Museum is located at 800 W. Wells Street, Milwakee, Wisconsin.

No Black Pearl. No Davy Jones. And no Johnny Depp. Aye, but there be cannon, cutlasses and enough pieces of eight to satisfy Blackbeard himself.

“We know there’s an expectation with the perceived fun of the Hollywood version of piracy. But any exhibition we do is with real pieces of real history,” said Mark Lach, spokesman for Premier Exhibitions Inc., which owns the traveling exhibit. “Pirates were bad guys. They took things that didn’t belong to them. But there is a fantasy and a fun element to them, and I hope we put together a good balance to show what it was like to be a pirate.”

The show’s artifacts come from the Whydah (pronounced wi-dah), “the first fully authenticated pirate ship discovered in American waters,” said Barry Clifford, the underwater explorer who discovered the wreck in 1984 off Cape Cod. “We can trace everything on the Whydah to the real pirate ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy.” Bellamy was one busy buccaneer. The Whydah was operating as a fast slave galley sailing between Africa and America when it caught Bellamy’s eye; he captured it and made it his flagship in February 1717. The Whydah’s hull was filled with the loot of more than 50 plundered ships when the 40-foot waves of a nor’easter sank it on April 26, 1717. All but two members of the 146-man crew went down with the ship.

Visitors to “Real Pirates” will get to spy on what was going on below the Whydah decks on that day, and see everything from the pipes Bellamy’s crew smoked to the gold they collected. The exhibit even allows visitors to walk aboard a large-scale replica of the ship. A figure of handsome “Black Sam” is in the captain’s cabin playing host. Other, more somber, tales also get told here. The story of how slave ships such as the Whydah bore their captive human cargo is revealed, with the types of chains used on those evil voyages on display. [. . .]

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