Real Pirates Opens at Field Museum

February 27, 2009 12:52:27 PM PST
Visitors to the Field Museum can explore more than 200 artifacts, including cannons, swords, coins, gold and jewelry, recovered off the coast of Cape Cod from the first authenticated pirate ship discovered in U.S. waters. The classical age of piracy comes to life in Chicago when The Field Museum welcomes Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship. The 8,400-square-foot interactive exhibition showcases more than 200 artifacts including everyday objects, personal items, and treasures from the first fully authenticated pirate ship ever to be discovered in U.S. waters.

Real Pirates, a touring exhibition, is organized by National Geographic and Arts and Exhibitions International (AEI) LLC. Real Pirates tells the true story of the Whydah ? a pirate ship that sank off the coast of Cape Cod nearly 300 years ago. The exhibition features treasure chests of gold coins and jewelry, as well as technically advanced weaponry of the time ? 18th century cannon, pistols, and swords. These artifacts were painstakingly recovered from the ocean floor over the last 25 years and form the core of this exhibition. "This isn't fantasy ? it is the real pirates' treasure that bears witness to this ship's fate," said Scott Demel, PhD, Field Museum head of collections management.

Visitors are provided with an unprecedented glimpse into the unique economical, political and social circumstances of the early 18th century Caribbean. Highlighted throughout the exhibition are compelling true stories of the diverse people whose lives converged on the Whydah before its demise. Multimedia galleries showcase this period of history, including the slave trade based in West Africa and the economic prosperity in the Caribbean. Visitors can get a sense of everyday life aboard the Whydah pirate ship, and meet Captain Sam Bellamy, one of the boldest and most successful pirates of his day. Continue on the journey with Bellamy as he sails, looting dozens of ships before a violent storm sank the vessel off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, April 26, 1717.

"This unique and extraordinary exhibit defines the best of exploration," said Terry Garcia, National Geographic's executive vice president, Mission Programs. "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."

In this exhibition, visitors can hoist a pirate flag, tie pirate knots, and enter the ship as the pirates did, by ducking through a large wooden door and going "below deck" of the Whydah in a life-size replica of the ship's stern.

Real Pirates personally relates to visitors by sharing the stories of four members of the Whydah crew ? people who ended up on the same pirate ship for very different reasons ? such as John King, the youngest-known pirate on board the Whydah, who was believed to be younger than 11 years old at the time of the shipwreck. King's piracy began when the ship he was traveling on with his mother was captured by Captain Bellamy and he joined the pirate crew despite his mother's objections.

Whydah History

The three-masted, 300-ton Whydah was built as a slave ship in London in 1715 and embodied the most advanced ocean-going technology of her day. She was easy to maneuver, unusually fast and, to protect her cargo, heavily armed and ready for battle. She was built to transport human captives from the West Coast of Africa to the Caribbean ? but only made one such voyage before being captured by pirates in February, 1717. Soon after the ship's slaves were sold in the Caribbean, the Whydah was captured near the Bahamas by Bellamy. His crew quickly hoisted the Jolly Roger, signaling to others that the slave ship was now a pirate ship.

April 26, 1717, the Whydah, heavy with loot from more than 50 captured ships, sank during a powerful nor'easter storm off the Massachusetts coast. All but two of the 146 people on board died.

"This was a unique period in our history," said Jeffrey Bolster, professor of early American and Caribbean history at the University of New Hampshire and member of an advisory panel composed of academic and other scholarly experts that assisted exhibition organizers. Bolster added, "Through the cache of artifacts [from the ship] 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, 267 years after the Whydah sank; the ship was located by underwater explorer Barry Clifford after years of searching. "Finding the Whydah was the most exciting moment in my career," said Clifford. "The sheer volume of artifacts the Whydah carried from more than 50 other ships captured by the pirate captain Sam Bellamy and his men, provides a rare window into the otherwise mysterious world of 18th century pirates. I see this exhibition as the culmination of my many years of work. Most importantly, it is a chance to bring the real story of pirates to the public as it's never been told before - through real objects last touched by real pirates."

After more than two decades, Clifford is still actively excavating the wreck site and continues to bring gold and silver to the surface, as well as everyday items that shed light on this tumultuous period of American and world history. At the end of the exhibition, visitors see first-hand how Clifford discovered the ship and can delve deeper into the extensive recovery and conservation process.


Gold Pass tickets to Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship includes basic admission to the Museum and are priced at $23 for adults, $20 for seniors and students with ID, and $13 for children 3-11. Discounts are available for Chicago residents. Visit or call 866-FIELD-03. Special rates are available for tour operators and groups of 15 or more. Call our Group Sales office toll-free at 888-FIELD-85 (888-343-5385).

Location and Travel Information

The Field Museum is located at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, on CTA bus lines #6 and #146, and close to the Metra electric and South Shore train lines. An indoor parking garage is located just steps from the main entrance. For more travel information, call the Illinois Department of Transportation, 312-368-4636, or the RTA Travel Center Hotline, (312) 836-7000.