Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pirates! Minnesota?

Museum offers a startling look into the life of real, 18th-century buccaneers

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Avast ye swabs -- if you want to learn about Pirates -- and not the ones that roam in Disney parks or movies -- you better sail your vehicles to Minnesota.

Arr, because If you don't get there before Sept. 3, you might be walking the plank.

Or not.

As it turns out pirates, the real ones, never did put out a plank for people to walk on to their doom.

Surprisingly, pirates were actually some of the more democratic and liberal sailors to sail the seven seas a few hundred years ago.

And it is all this and more that you'll learn if you go to the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul to see the special exhibit called Real Pirates.

Following on the mummified heels of last year's King Tut exhibit, this is the untold story of the ship named the Whydah, which in the space of a few weeks in the early 1700s went from being a slave ship to a pirate ship to a wrecked ship at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

It's also the only intact pirate ship that has been found by explorers at the bottom of American waters. There have been many artifacts brought up, including its entire booty, which was captured during its eventful two month run before being left on the floor of the sea after the ship sank in a storm off the coast of Cape Cod, taking with it all but two of its 146 hands, including its captain, in April, 1717.

And it wasn't just any captain, but Captain "Black Sam" Bellamy, one of the most infamous pirates of his time.

As you go through the gallery, you'll see the Whydah's bell, which may have tolled its last before the ship went down, and was the artifact that confirmed which ship explorers had found. It was discovered almost 300 years later in the wreck and is now preserved in water in a glass display case at the beginning of the exhibit.

The exhibit tells the story of the ship and its history by focusing on four crew members including Bellamy, who wanted to win the hand of a woman after becoming rich, and John King, who was probably 11 years of age at most, and joined the crew after the ship he was on was captured by Bellamy and he begged his mother to let him join the pirates.

But the three-masted ship's story actually begins with its history as part of the slave trade. So part of the exhibit is devoted to showing that history and how the same rise of prosperity in the Caribbean caused by the slave trade also sparked the age of piracy.

The Whydah was built to carry slaves, but it only made one voyage before it was captured by Bellamy near the Bahamas.

You'll see parts of the ship -- and the everyday items the pirates used -- that have been found by the underwater archeologists. These include cannons, muskets and swords -- amazingly some of the gunpowder and shot was found intact in the wreck -- as well as the rigging from the sails and the tools the crew used to look after it and sail the ship.

Part of the exhibit shows the booty: coins from several nations, attesting to the nationalities of the various ships -- more than 50 in all -- plundered during a busy two months by the pirates. You'll even get to touch a few of the coins -- coins that were last touched by pirates.

The coins were still on board because, movies and books to the contrary, pirates didn't bury their treasures: they distributed them equitably. Everybody on board, except for the captain and the quartermaster who got a bit more, received an equal share of the booty. That's why if a gold necklace was captured, it would be torn into pieces to become part of the divvied up booty.

And, if a crew member was injured during the capture of a ship, pirates even had a version of worker's compensation, which would see a pirate being given wages equivalent to several years worth of the wages they would have received on a naval ship.

No wonder many sailors on ships captured by pirates decided to throw in their lot with the guys hoisting the flag with the skull and cross bones.

In fact, pirates were so liberal that their's were the only ships plying the seas at the time that had equality not only for people from other races, but also women. Almost 30 per cent of pirates were of African descent and some pirates were actually women seeking adventure. All hands also voted who would become their captain and whether or not they would attack a ship.

Another interesting fact: because sailing crews on other ships received such pitiful wages, they rarely wanted to die defending their ship against pirates, so usually ships were captured without a shot fired. If that happened, the pirates would actually let the crew and passengers of the other ship go free without harming them -- but they would relieve them of their valuables and other goods.

The Whydah was a real ship and it's part of history. Another pirate, the notorious Blackbeard, was so angered by the capture of two of the pirates that survived the Whydah's sinking, but were sentenced to death for piracy, that he threatened to burn Boston to the ground. He never was able to do that, but he did sink several ships that were heading in and out of Boston harbour.

As you walk through the exhibits you'll even meet real pirates -- OK, they're museum staff in character -- but they also add to the fun by playing pirate games with children and helping everyone learn a bit more about these plunderers on the seas.

It wasn't until 1984 that underwater explorer Barry Clifford found the Whydah after years of searching sparked by stories he'd heard about a ship that has sunk off the coast.

That part of the Whydah's history is shown in an area that features some of the artifacts brought up from the sea still encased in the material that covers it. You can see how X-rays are used to peek inside the rocky material that has built up over each artifact and how the material is removed.

Ahoy landlubbing tourists -- what are ye waiting for? There's pirates to be seen.


Real Pirates

Tickets range from $25 to $30 for adult non-members of the museum but drop to $12 if you purchase an annual museum pass for $99 for a household. The annual membership also includes discounts for both parking and purchases in the gift shop and free admission to numerous partner museums across North America.

The tickets include admission to the exhibit, a free Real Pirates audio tour, and admission to the museum's permanent galleries. And if you are a member the museum throws in the Omnitheater movie, Under the Sea, for free instead of paying an extra $6.

Better to get the tickets in advance: they are all timed and dated so if the exhibit is busy when you show up, there is the possibility you might not be able to get in if you try to buy a ticket at the door.

The Science Museum is located in downtown St. Paul on the banks of the Mississippi River. For more information on the museum and the exhibit go to

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2012 D3

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