Architectural reconstruction of the Whydah galley.

The Whydah Is For Real
An Archaeological Assessment

By Bob Cembrola


The discovery of any ancient shipwreck inevitably leads to debate as to its exact identi­ty. This is to be expected, and it is a useful tool in the painstaking job of fitting all the pieces of the puzzle together. As the consulting archaeologist on the Whydah excavation I am always aware that much research remains to be done. At this point in time, however, I am convinced that the wreck we are excavating off Wellfleet, Cape Cod, is, in fact, “Black Sam” Bellamy’s infamous Whydah and that our research and recovery operations are on-target.

To give credibility to this conclusion, a little historical perspective is in order.

Historical Background

Few incidents have inspired so much immediate and pro­longed fascination as the wrecking of the galley Whydah on April 26, 1717. “Black Sam” Bellamy was a noted pirate of his day whose demise was met with less than heartfelt sorrow by Massachusetts Governor Samuel Shute. After learning of the wreck, Shute dispatched Cyprian Southack, a salvor, to Wellfleet to attempt recovery of “Money, Bullion, Treasure, Goods and Merchandizes taken out of the said Ship,” according to a May 4, 1717, notice in the Boston News Letter.

But Cape Codders by the hundreds beat Southack to the site. By May 3, when he reached the wreck, Southack found “the Pirate Wreck all in

pieces North & South Distance from each Other 4 miles, and that there has been at least 200 men from several places at 20 miles distance plundering the Pirate Wreck of what came ashore when she turned bottom up. Next day she came ashore but what they got I know not as yet.”

Fortunately, Southack kept a daily journal which provides the most important documentary evidence for the distribution and location of the Whydah. Southack was a salvor and a cartographer whose bearings and chart, along with his journal, led three shipwreck salvage groups to file claims with Massachusetts in 1983. Based on interpretations of the exact location of land marks used by Southack, these groups stated that the remains of the ship were in three adjacent areas stretching north and south along the beach for a distance exceeding the four mile area of distribution observed by Southack; each group believed the bulk of the treasure and other heavy cargo was confined to a relatively small area.

Encrusted pistols were recovered from the site.
(Photo courtesy of Bob Cembrola)


Archaeological Evidence

Following these attention grabbing proclamations by the salvors, the burden of proof was on each group to locate artifacts of the proper age and type to justify moving from a reconnaissance phase to a field testing mode. The first question to be asked is: What would an archaeologist expect to find on a pirate ship, and how would it differ from the remains of hundreds of other vessels wrecked in the area? While it is not necessary to prove the identity of a vessel to acquire a permit to excavate it, the fundraising effort required to conduct a major project is greatly enhanced by targeting a unique, famous vessel. Obviously, a pirate ship with a valuable cargo and the potential to provide significant archaeological and historical information is attractive to investors and scholars.


But the uniqueness of a pirate wreck is a double edged sword. The lack of hard information on pirate behavior or a detailed description of the cargo and armament of the Whydah make it difficult to predict the type and quantity of strictly Whydab materials likely to be encountered. We would not expect a skull and crossbones to be emblazoned on every object, but certain basic param­eters for the materials can be based on two points:


* The activities of the pirates prior to the ship

wrecking, as stated in the accounts by several of Bellamy’s crew who survived the sinking.



*      The complex system of influences acting on the ship during and after its destruction, known collectively as “site formation processes.”

From survivor accounts we obtain names, rigs, and nationalities of some of the vessels Bellamy plundered. Such data helps to form preliminary expectations of a very mixed cargo due to the indiscriminate way in which Bellamy apparently chose victims, Based on this documentary evidence, it appears that one of the primary cargoes onboard the Whydah were bags of coins “booty” to be shared by the entire crew. The pirate crewmen John Shuan, Peter Hooff, Thomas Davis, Thomas Baker and John Brown all mentioned the existence of large quantities of coins during their trial for piracy. Our Whydah salvage group, Maritime Explorations, Inc. (MEl), has recovered a sufficient quantity of coins to attribute a site date of 1717 or shortly thereafter. The dates of the coins range up to 1716, providing what is known as a "terminus post quem,” or date after which the artifacts must have been deposited.

The hull shapes of a galleon (top), galley (middle), and frigate (bottom) differed according to the times in which they were built. Archaeological study of the
Whydah hull remains may provide new information about "galley-built” ships.
(Drawings by Bill Muir
© 1984)




Of course, the existence of quantities of coins in itself does not identify a site, but the density and distribution is consistent with the descriptions offered by the pirate survivors.

The other cultural material recovered includes objects which qualitatively support attributing an early Eighteenth Century date to the site. These artifacts include types which were produced and often discarded in a short span of time, such as fragments of kaolin tobacco pipes and glass bottles. Though the sample size of these artifacts is not sufficient to attribute a site date in and of themselves, they do not refute the other supporting data. Other classes of artifacts gun furniture, lead bale seals and cannons have been discovered in sufficient quantities to support the hypothesis that the site is that of an extremely well armed vessel of approximately 300 tons, as reported by the pirates and Cyprian Southack.

The documentary record of the pirates tells us that the Whydah broke up very quick­“In a quarter of an hour after the ship struck, the Mainmast was carried by the board, and in the Morning she was beat to pieces,” says Thomas Davis.

This precipitous destruction, combined with the four-mile-long distribution of wreck materials as observed by Southack, strongly suggests a highly localized deposition of heavy objects where the vessel struck and turned turtle. We would expect an elongated north-south scatter of lighter and floating objects influenced by long shore currents, surf and swell conditions, and the prevailing winds during and after the wreck.

The distribution of excavated materials and the remote sensing data support these site formation hypotheses.


This consistency with eyewitness accounts does not mean that a ship similar to the Whydah could not have wrecked in the same area at about the same time. Yet there appears to be substantial site integrity vis-a-vis other vessels, particularly those of Eighteenth Century vintage. The only “intrusions” encountered have been identifiable products of arbitrary disposal---nothing to suggest

anything but a vessel of early Eighteenth Century origin. It seems unlikely that a vessel of such heavy armament and so precious a cargo could have wrecked in the same area as the Whydah at about the same time without mention being made of it in the literature or folklore of Cape Cod. It is more improbable that such an event could have escaped the notice of Cape Cod’s famous

and opportunistic wreckers (also known as “Mooncussers”) who turned out in droves for virtually any shipwreck.

But if the Whydah was so much sought after since the moment of her sinking, why has it taken more than two centuries to find her? The most likely answer is that the sand overburden over the deflated, essentially horizontal artifact-bearing strata is more than 10 feet deep. The decision to search in the location present­ly being tested was arrived at through research and sophisticated electronic remote sensing technology only recently available to the public.

Any lingering doubts about positively identifying the Why­dah should have been satisfied when MEl recovered a bronze ship’s bell in the fall of 1985. The bell, still containing the clapper and the wooden yoke, read “THE WHYDAH GALLY 1716”. Hopefully, this will put to rest the allegations which detract from the goals of deriving the maximum public bene­fit from a true treasure trove of knowledge regarding the fascinating community of pirates.

MEl’s archaeological reports to Massachusetts authorities have been carefully reviewed. The research and recovery continues with the state’s confidence intact. In time, we will bring “Black Sam” into three-dimensional focus and, when that day arrives, his ill gotten gains and his bloody ways will become positive historical revelations that will enrich all of us.


Bob Cembrola is an experienced wreck diver and a marine archaeologist with an MA degree in Archaeological Studies from Boston University. He is presently the Executive Director of the Marine Museum at Fall River, Massachusetts.


The following two stories, “Gold Rush Off Cape Cod” and “The Whydah Is For Real” cast a detective’s eye on one of the most famous shipwreck discoveries of the 1980’s “Black Sam” Bellamy’s Eighteenth Century pirate galley, Whydah. But wait. Is the ship being excavated off Wellfleet, Gape Cod, really what it appears to be? Massachusetts writer and historian William P. Quinn says he’s not so sure. Quinn says it will take a lot more detective work to get the fingerprints and a foolproof “make” on this ancient vessel. Mean­while, the detective on the scene, archaeologist Bob Cembrola, says Quinn is up a blind alley. Cembrola says he’s got the fingerprints and a smoking gun that points straight to “Black Sam” and the Whydah. Seafarers presents both cases. You be the judge.



 Reprinted with permission from Seafarers,
 Journal Of Maritime Heritage Volume 1

 An Official Publication of The Atlantic Alliance For Maritime Heritage Conservation
PO Box 1528
Key West, Florida 33041-1528

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