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Booty and a buccaneer beast

Gangway, landlubbers! Loaded-to-the-gunwales touring pirate exhibition dropping anchor at Manitoba Museum in the fall

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The Manitoba Museum will be flying the Jolly Roger flag next fall when it hosts the touring exhibition Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship.

The Canadian première of Real Pirates, organized by National Geographic, will take visitors aboard a replica of the only authenticated pirate ship ever discovered in American waters. The interactive show will be anchored here for almost six months beginning Oct. 17 and display pirate clothes, coins, jewelry, cannons, pistols and even grenades.

"It's a top-notch world exhibit," says museum curator of history Roland Sawatsky. "It's huge, much bigger than anything that we've done before."

The Whydah (pronounced WID-da) was a 28-gun merchant slaver captured by pirate captain Black Sam Bellamy in February 1717. Two months later the ship sank in a ferocious storm off Cape Cod, Mass., killing all but two of the 145 men on board and depositing a treasure trove of 400,000 plundered gold coins in Davy Jones' Locker.

In 1984, undersea explorer Barry Clifford located the resting place of the Whydah -- a three-masted behemoth -- and 200,000 artifacts, including the fibula and shoe of 11-year-old boy John King, who took up with the pirates, and the ship's bell.

"That bell (inscribed with 'The Whydah Gally 1716') confirmed it was the pirate ship," says Sawatsky. "It will be the first thing you see entering the exhibit. It's just not hanging there but is conserved and exhibited in this gigantic cylindrical tank. I think it will make quite an impression."

The recovered coins, many one-of-a-kind, were looted from 50 other ships and date back to the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain's 15th-century king and queen.

What all this pirate booty is worth is anybody's guess.

"We say it's priceless because it is the only collection of pirate treasure in the world," Clifford says over the telephone as he drove around his hometown of Cape Cod this week. "It's extremely, extremely valuable. I'm hesitant to put prices on them because I don't sell them."

What's more valuable, according to Clifford, are the insights the Whydah provided about life on the high seas of pirates, whose golden age was from 1680 to 1730. Myths and misconceptions have grown up around them like barnacles on their ships. When Clifford was a kid, the image of pirates had been formed by swashbuckling Errol Flynn movies.

"Today we know that's not true," says the near-70-year-old diver. "A third of them were people of African origins, most of whom were former slaves. On board the Whydah, blacks were being elected as officers and on other pirate ships as captains. The point is they were experimenting with democracy aboard a ship that had a licence to buy and sell people."

Clifford has been a pirate-hunter for most of his life and recognizes it's a dangerous business. The ocean current around the dive site of the Whydah is so strong his Canadian-made, 21-metre boat The Vast Explorer requires seven anchors to hold it in place.

He also had to fight off rogues after his treasure chest of gold.

The state of Massachusetts sued him for 25 per cent of whatever was taken from its waters. Clifford contested the claim and won.

"The admiralty judge said the day we won that there were more sharks in the courtroom than were in the Bay of Cape Cod, and they were all wearing grey suits," says Clifford with a chuckle. "So I've had my share of modern-day pirates."

He and his crew will be back at the site this summer looking for what he's dubbed his yellow brick road, an underwater trail littered with more coins and artifacts. Of the 400,000 coins estimated to have been on board, Clifford has found only 15,000.

"Oh, my God, we have a lot more to find," he says. "Basically every time we dig a test pit we find treasure."

As satisfying as that would be to uncover, it is not nearly as historic as if he were able to discover the whereabouts of the Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus's flagship vessel when he sailed for the New World in 1492. Clifford is convinced the wreck is off the coast of Haiti.

"I'm closer than I want to talk about," he says. "We have recently come up with very convincing evidence. To me, It's really the Mount Everest of shipwrecks. It's the ship that changed human history and there are some incredible lessons to learn. It's like the pirates, it's not like what you read about in school."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 G1

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