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Houston Museum of Natural Science Presents Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship

This fall, visitors to the Houston Museum of Natural Science can discover the true story—one more powerful than fiction—when Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship opens on October 8 through February 6, 2011. The exhibition tells the true story of the Whydah—a pirate ship that sank off the coast of Cape Cod nearly 300 years ago.

Real Pirates is an 8,400-square foot interactive touring exhibition organized by National Geographic and Arts and Exhibitions International (AEI), the same team behind the 2008 King Tut exhibition in Dallas. It showcases more than 200 artifacts from the first fully authenticated pirate ship discovered in U.S. waters, including treasure chests of coins from around the world, some of which visitors can touch, jewelry, daily life items, and technically advanced weaponry of the time—18th century cannon, pistols, and swords.

“Many of today’s tales of pirates are actually more fiction than fact. Real Pirates unveils the truth surrounding these intriguing men who joined together from all walks of life, and dispels myths behind folklore popularized by pop culture,” said David Temple, associate curator of paleontology for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

As the exhibition explores what brought the men on board together and how they lived, visitors are also able to view personal items that belonged to the crew, from utensils they used at meals to cufflinks and belt buckles. One of the most striking artifacts that will be on display is the ship’s bell, inscribed “Whydah Galley 1716,” which was used to authenticate the shipwreck site as that of the Whydah. These artifacts were painstakingly recovered from the ocean floor over the last 25 years and form the core of this show. A family-friendly component of the exhibition gives visitors the opportunity to hoist a pirate flag, tie pirate knots, and go “below deck” in a life-size replica of the Whydah’s stern.

Visitors also will be provided with an unprecedented glimpse into the unique economical, political and social circumstances of early 18th century Caribbean. Highlighted throughout the exhibition are compelling true stories of diverse people whose lives converged on the Whydah before its demise. Multimedia galleries will illuminate this period of history, including the slave trade based in West Africa and the economic prosperity in the Caribbean. Visitors will be able to get a sense of everyday life aboard the Whydah and learn about Captain Sam Bellamy, one of the boldest and most successful pirates of his day. Visitors will continue on the journey with Bellamy as he sails, looting dozens of ships before a violent storm sank the vessel off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, April 26, 1717.

Real Pirates personally relates to visitors by sharing the stories of four members of the Whydah crew—people who ended up on the same pirate ship for very different reasons—such as John King, the youngest-known pirate on board, who was believed to be younger than 11 years old at the time of the shipwreck. King’s piracy began when the ship he was traveling on with his mother was captured by Captain Bellamy, and he joined the pirate crew despite her objections.

Whydah History
The three-masted, 300-ton Whydah was built as a slave ship in London in 1715 and embodied the most advanced ocean-going technology of her day. She was easy to maneuver, unusually fast and, to protect her cargo, heavily armed and ready for battle. She was built to transport human captives from the West Coast of Africa to the Caribbean – but only made one such voyage before being captured near the Bahamas by pirates in February, 1717 soon after the ship’s slaves were sold in the Caribbean.

Bellamy’s crew quickly hoisted the Jolly Roger, signaling to others that the slave ship was now a pirate ship. April 26, 1717, the Whydah, heavy with loot from more than 50 captured ships, sank during a powerful nor’easter storm off the Massachusetts coast. All but two of the 146 people on board perished in the wreck. The two survivors were captured and tried.

“This was a unique period in our history,” said Jeffrey Bolster, professor of early American and Caribbean history at the University of New Hampshire and member of an advisory panel composed of academic and other scholarly experts that assisted exhibition organizers. Bolster added, “Through the cache of artifacts [from the ship] we see a world generally undisclosed, one in which the Caribbean was the economic center and values were very different, an era before civil rights, before individual liberties, and before democracy was institutionalized. Without the slave trade and the wealth of the region, piracy would not have existed. This is a story of the making of America—a true story more powerful than fiction.”

In 1984, 267 years after the Whydah sank, the ship was discovered by underwater explorer Barry Clifford, who had been searching for the ship for more than two decades. “Discovering the Whydah was the most exciting moment in my career,” said Clifford. “The sheer volume of artifacts the Whydah carried from more than 50 other ships provides a rare window into the otherwise mysterious world of 18th century pirates. I see this exhibition as the culmination of my many years of work. Most importantly, it is a chance to bring the real story of pirates to the public as it’s never been told before—through real objects last touched by real pirates.”

Clifford is still actively excavating the wreck site and continues to bring treasures to the surface every year, as well as everyday items that shed light on this tumultuous period of American and world history. At the end of the exhibition, visitors will see first-hand how Clifford discovered the ship and learn about the extensive recovery and conservation process his team employs.

Real Pirates will be on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science from Oct. 8, 2010 through Feb. 6, 2011. Tickets may be purchased online. For more information, visit the museum’s web site at

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