It was a weird fact to learn, but in all the history of nautical archeology there has been one, and only one, completely authenticated pirate ship wreck that has been discovered. It was the Whydah, which sank in 1717 but was discovered by Barry Cliffords in 1984. Now, the surviving artifacts from the ship are on display at the Moody Gardens Discovery Pyramid.
The Whydah started out as a slave ship. It was taken by Captain Sam Bellamy, a sailor turned pirate lord on a quest for the gold needed to marry the woman he loved. He took a fancy to the ship and made it his own personal vessel. Over the course of a year he plundered more than 50 ships using Whydah before deciding to return home with the loot and fulfill his promise to his beloved. A deadly storm made sure his promise was broken, and Bellamy was lost with his ship. Several men survived to bring the tale back to England, and only one escaped death to regale others of the magnificent Whydah.
The tale of Bellamy and his crew, including nine-year-old pirate John King, forms the background of the exhibit, with extremely well done recreations of life at sea in set pieces with mannequins serving as human reminders among the recovered bits of their life as pirates. Cannons, pistols, rifles, and real honest-to-goodness pirate treasure ate all on display along with dramatic audio descriptions narrated by their previous owners.
One piece that was particularly interesting was a metal dinner plate. While that sounds really boring, the exhibit cautions us to look at how deep the knife scratches are on the surface. Because of the poor diet available to 18th century sailors their teeth were often rotten and weak, meaning that they had to cut up the food they had very fine. It's just one little factoid, but it paints this amazing picture of the reality behind the fantasy... all from a few deep cuts on a metal plate.
The exhibit lives up to its name, though. It's a bald look at piracy, and considering I took my little four-year-old obsessed with Jake and the Neverland Pirates daughter with me to see the artifacts that necessitated some quick, hard conversations. I found myself explaining that the meaning of the iron slave collar on display, telling her how Africans were kidnapped and forced to work plantations or be killed.
I tried to spin the story more positively. For instance, I said that Bellamy and his crew took over the ship, even recruiting to their crew from it, and that meant that there was no more slaves to be shipped as long as Bellamy was the captain. Instead, the Whydah would be run with the fair, progressive, and democratic rules then in place on pirate ships.
I also told her that many pirates in the golden age of piracy actually wore frilly dresses that they stole because their own rage usually rotted away in the harsh conditions. She refused to believe me, even though it's totally true.
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Unfortunately, my softening of the blow trying to portray the Whydah's crew as heroes in the end was not very effective. Almost the last thing you see before you exit through the gift shop is an iron gibbet, the form-fitting cages where convicted pirates were hung above the Thames to rot. Explaining that wasn't hard since there was a cartoon illustrating the practice nearby. She seemed rather morbidly fascinated with the device, staring at it silently for almost ten minutes before being lured away with the promise of ice cream.
It's weird to realize that the reality of the golden age of piracy is so vastly different than the colorful Disney one kids are immersed in these days. While I found it a little disturbing to watch her come face to face with the inarguable realism of the brutality and darkness of the world at that time, I do hope that it's tempered her knowledge a little. That's what exhibits like this are for, aren't they? To teach us the difference between our misconceptions and the real history of the world.
Real Pirates runs through September 28 at Moody Gardens.