How many kids dream about finding a pirate’s sunken treasure and then grow up to actually find one?
Well, Barry Clifford is one. Lucky for the rest of us dreamers, he’s been sharing his treasure with the world for more than 30 years. This month, he brought much of his loot to the Portland Science Center as part of “Real Pirates: An Exhibition from National Geographic” that will be on display through the summer. The exhibit opened May 26.
The exhibit, on two floors, features more than 150 pieces Clifford and his diving crews have salvaged from the wreck site of The Whydah, a pirate ship that sunk off Cape Cod in 1717. There are cannons, grenades, swords, dishes, tools and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of coins from all over the 18th-century world. The 7,000-square-foot exhibit also features lots of maps, art, text, video and audio displays to tell the true stories the famous outlaw pirates of the early 1700s.
Visitors gets glimpses into the life of Sam Bellamy, a young sailor from England who came to the Colonies to make his fortune and became a pirate. It also tells about how many pirate ships were filled with former slaves, Native Americans or others who were getting their first tastes of democracy by having a say in the ship’s matters.
Mainers viewing the exhibit can take pride in knowing that Clifford used a Maine-built boat, The Vast Explorer, when he first began hauling up artifacts from The Whydah in 1984. One of his divers was a young John F. Kennedy, Jr. Clifford, a Massachusetts native who went to high school at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, ran a diving business in the early 1970s. He made headlines around the world when he found pieces of the ship and its contents scattered on the sea floor in 1984.
Clifford was at the Portland Science Center last week helping to get the exhibit ready. He still gets a boyish grin when talking about what he found in 1984, and through the years, at the site. When asked what he thought was the highlight of the exhibit, he walked quickly down a couple flights of stairs at the Portland Science Center to a chest full of thousands coins displayed in a glass case.
The Whydah was loaded with loot stolen from 50 different ships when it sunk in a storm. The Whydah had been used as a slave-trading ship before it was captured by pirates, and many of the ships it plundered made their money for the slave trade.
“These coins paid for people 300 years ago,” said Clifford, standing in front of the coins. “It’s amazing that they’re here.”
The exhibit features several well-preserved cannons from The Whydah, along with pistols, cannon balls and various types of gunpowder and gun shot. There’s also the ship’s bell, several buttons and buckles, and other artifacts of shipboard life.
The exhibit starts with images and text about slave trade in the early 1700s, and how The Whydah and other ships owned by the Royal African Company brought captives from Africa to the Caribbean islands, to be sold into slavery and shipped off to other destinations. Colorful maps show the routes that were bustling with ships traveling between Europe, Africa and America.
Images and texts tell the story of Bellamy, a young and poor English sailor who came to Cape Cod and fell in love with a local girl. He sailed to Florida because he heard of a sunken Spanish treasure ship there. But he was too late, and decided he needed to make his fortune one way or another before returning to his love, so he turned to pirating. He joined a pirate crew, became a captain and eventually captured The Whydah and used it to raid other ships in early 1717. There’s a list in the exhibit of Bellamy’s pirating journey that year, with stops in Honduras, Panama and the Caribbean.
Besides the artifacts, there are recreations of what the interior of a pirate ship cabin would look like and artists’ renderings of Bellamy and other members of his crew, including a free black man named Hendrick Quintor, a South American native named John Julian and a young boy named John King. Legend has it that King was 8 or 9 when Bellamy’s crew captured a ship he and his mother were on, and that the boy demanded he be made part of the crew. He was.
The Whydah was en route to Maine, mostly likely to meet up with other pirate ships, when it sunk and most of the crew, including Bellamy, were lost.
Throughout the exhibit there are reminders that pirates were outlaws, stealing from merchant ships, and they were often hung and had their dead bodies displayed in ports as a warning to other pirates. But the exhibit makes it clear, too, that the world was a violent place then, with human beings bought and sold and treated viciously. So, for many pirates, being on a pirate ship meant being free and part of a democratic system, something they could not attain any other way.
“As a former teacher, it’s important for me that these things be used so people can learn something,” Clifford said.
WHERE: Portland Science Center, 68 Commercial St., Maine Wharf, Portland
WHEN: On view through the summer, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday.
HOW MUCH: $19.50, $17.50 seniors, Military and college students, $15.50 kids 3 to 12, under 3 are free.