Also in Virginia: Pirates . . . with a ‘Buccanneer Ball’ to Boot

Posted in exhibitions by Editor on December 31, 2009

Designed as a crowd-pleasing exhibition with children particularly in mind, the following show on pirates, currently in Norfolk, looks like immense fun. It certainly would have stolen my heart as a nine-year old. At a more critical level, the exhibition perhaps belongs in a discussion of how the eighteenth century is presented (and marketed) to a popular audience. But that can wait (here I’m reminded of the ability of the brilliant Medievalist Michael Camille to find pleasure even in the ersatz historical theme park ‘Medieval Times’ for an episode of This American Life). From the website of National Geographic:

Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship
Nauticus, Norfolk, Virginia, 21 November 2009 — 4 April 2010

Model of the "Whydah," shown here decked out in her pirate colors after being captured by Samuel Bellamy. Matthew Prefontaine © Arts and Exhibitions International

Organized by National Geographic

The slave ship Whydah began her short life in London, England, in 1715. Less than two years later, now a pirate ship, she sank to the ocean floor off Cape Cod. Using artifacts recovered from the wreck, Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship reveals the true story behind this vessel—a story more compelling than anything dreamt up by Hollywood. From the team behind Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, this new exhibition tells the story of the crew of a real pirate ship that started as a slave ship—and gives some insights into the violence and idealism of early eighteenth-century piracy.

The exhibition features real stories of the people who populated the Atlantic world in the age of slavery and piracy: artisans and traders from West Africa, slave ship captains and their captives, Native American boat pilots, impoverished sailors from all over Europe, and pirates—including women pirates and John King, a boy no more than 11 years old, who “went on the account.” Guests see more than 200 actual Whydah artifacts recovered by underwater explorer Barry Clifford, such as treasure from more than 54 ships, gold and silver coins from all over the world, Akan gold jewelry, cannons, swords, pistols, personal belongings, leg iron moldings from shackles, the ship’s bell and its massive anchor! Kids also learn about the exciting world of nautical archaeology and the many technologies that have been developed to allow scientists and historians to unlock the clues embedded in these 300 year old “treasures.” Discover how high-powered digital x–rays of mysterious underwater concretions can reveal the artifacts hidden within.

Visitors return to a time when the cities of North America were still small towns with few interconnections. It was the Caribbean, with its enormous sugar plantations, that made up the dynamic center, drawing vast quantities of money, goods, and people from all corners of the Atlantic. Some people came by choice. But most were transported to this world against their will: men, women and children from across Africa who were kidnapped and sold to slavers; Native Americans bound into slavery from colonial North America; South American natives enslaved in Spanish mines; and indentured servants shipped from Europe.

Slave ships were perfect prizes for pirates: easy to maneuver, unusually fast, and armed to the hilt. After the Whydah‘s human cargo was unloaded in the West Indies, the ship was captured by notorious pirate Sam Bellamy and his motley crew. These pirates created an outlaw life within the brutal realities of the European and Caribbean world. Hailing from many nations, they included ordinary seamen, free black men, political dissidents, escaped slaves, indentured servants, Africans freed from slave ships taken at sea, Native Americans, and runaway plantation workers.

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And for those who find themselves in Norfolk on New Year’s Eve, there’s a Buccaneer Ball to ring in 2010 (pirate costumes optional, though I’m not sure why one would go in anything but fancy dress). Additional information about the show can be found at the exhibition website. Happy New Year!

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