August 3, 2009

Real Pirates Exhibit at The Field Museum - Chicago, IL

One of the highlights of my trip to Chicago was the "Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship" exhibit at The Field Museum. It is hard to explain just how deep my love of pirates run. I could tell you about my pirate re-enactment with paddleboats on a canal in Amsterdam, but then I'd have to kill you. So let's just suffice it to say: I love me some pirates.

The exhibit is built around the Whydah, which began as a slave ship and later was used by pirates. The opening deals primarily with the viscious tragedy of the slave trade. It describes how slaves were brutally captured, transported and sold in heartbreaking detail. Artifacts such as chains are on display and excerpts of first person narratives are posted to help viewers to understand just how real and viscious the human slave trade was. Or should I say is. Sadly, the slave trade still exists in the world although it has become less recognizable.

Pirate Captain Sam Bellamy (nicknamed "Black Bellamy") later took control of the ship. While black men were once slaves now they could be crewmen. Pirate crews were actually much more racially diverse and provided a greater sense of equality, freedom and opportunity than most people were able to find on land. The potential of riches and the chance to be one's own man encouraged many to sign the articles, or officially swear in as a pirate.

But good fortune couldn't last forever. On April 26, 1717, the Whydah sank in a storm. Of 146 crewmen, only Thomas Davis, the carpenter, and John Julian, the pilot survived. John Julian, a 16-year-old Miskito Indian, was sold into slavery. Thomas Davis was set free according to his lawyer's claim he had been pressed into piracy by Bellamy's crew because they needed another carpenter.

The exhibit was almost exculsively about the Whydah. There was not much information about piracy in general. I was disappointed to see only one sign about female pirates and that mentioned only Anne Bonney and Mary Reed by name. While I understand the need for brevity, I was disappointed that an exhibit that took so much time to show how pirates were creating a more racially equal community at sea failed to give anything more than lip service to the great freedom piracy gave women.



  1. Sorry, but I've gotta be a pain in the ass now. So yes, sometimes if you were a slave headed somewhere on a boat, and a bunch of pirates came along and attacked you, you got let go and got to join them. But what if you didn't WANT to join them? Or what if, as was often the case, they just kept you in chains and sold you themselves in the next port? I'm also kind of into the fact that other, way less evil nautical pursuits (whaling being a big one) also offered a way of life to fugitive slaves, allowing them to get out of the country, earn a living, and be treated as (relative) equals. Without having to, you know, kill people and take their shit. And getting your ass into a wee little boat and rowing out to throw pointy sticks at an animal that could crush you by hiccuping makes you way more of a badass than does running around with guns killing people and taking their shit.

    As for women pirates...well, there weren't any on the Whydah, for one thing. There was a twelve year old kid, which is another bit of squickyness. These days we consider the use of children in combat one of the greatest crimes against humanity a nation or group can commit, but you know, pirates were kinda douchebags, which brings me to my next point.

    As someone who works in the maritime industry, someone who earns her living working and living aboard sailing ships, I would just like to say that pirates suck. I see the presence of women and black people aboard pirate ships as less an achievement on the road to equality, and more of a testament to the desperation to which their place in society had led them.

    On the other hand, I've seen that exhibit in its home in P-town, and it's pretty bitchin'. Dig that ship's bell.

  2. Thanks for offering more insight and much better insight than I could. As you said, you are someone who works in the maritime industry. I don't mean to portray the pirate ship as some kind of utopia. Rather, I was just taken by how the exhibit portrayed it. But you saw it as well and took away something different.

    Maybe you could do a guest post? Write what you thought of the exhibit from your perspective. I'd love to post to here.