The Real Pirates of National Geographic

There are pirates in Washington.

If you doubt, head over to the National Geographic Museum between now and September 2; the Jolly Roger flag hanging from the flagpole should convince you. If you need more persuasive evidence, head inside and wander through the museum’s latest exhibit Real Pirates.

From fore to aft, this exhibit rolls up the past, present, and future of the pirate vessel Whydah. Originally designed and used as a slave ship along the American-African slave routes, the Whydah was captured by pirate captain Sam Bellamy and used in his fleet to pillage more than fifty prizes across the Carribean. On a course for a New England harbor, the Whydah, her captain, and her crew ran into a violent nor’easter near Cape Cod and sank beneath the waves. With it went a hold full of pirate treasure and most of the men on board.

National Geographic chose to feature the Whydah exhibit for a number of reasons. According to Richard McWalters, Director of Museum Operations, the story of the Whydah crosses three seafaring trades: slavery, piracy, and recovery. Through the shipwreck’s history, visitors are exposed to the realities of the slave trade and its vessels, the life of a pirate crew during the eighteenth century, and the technology, dedication, and innovation of today’s salvage explorers.

Winding through an exhibit that starts with a short video experience, you’ll find some common assumptions debunked. For example, did you know these seafaring outlaws evolved a kind of seagoing democracy at a time when such a concept was unknown in Europe and the colonies? New recruits to Bellamy’s crew signed an Articles of Gentlemen, where they swore an oath of loyalty and agreed to a code of conduct. In return, they received an equal vote in electing the ship’s officers, a near-equal share of the loot, and compensation for injuries. By contrast, merchant and naval vessels of the time had a strict hierarchical order and substandard wages.

More importantly, these crews consisted of a mix of races, including blacks, whites, and Native Americans, who all had rights and privileges unheard of at sea or on land.

The discoverer of the Whydah, Barry Clifford, had been fascinated with the tale of the ship since childhood. After two years of searching, Clifford brought up incontrovertible proof of the wreck in 1985 – the ship’s bell. (A replica is on display at the start of the exhibit.) For the last twenty-seven years, Clifford has been meticulously recovering and conserving the Whydah‘s wreckage. Considering the vessel is the first authenticated pirate shipwreck ever found, the slow process has netted hundreds of artifacts in excellent condition, from cannon to gold coins. Many can be found on display in the exhibit, as well as a look at the various high-tech processes utilized by Clifford and his team.

Clifford will be discussing his passion for the Whydah and the recovery efforts tomorrow evening at a special National Geographic Live presentation.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum is offering pirate-themed birthday parties throughout the summer for kids turning ages 5 to 12. The parties are held in a private space with dress up, sing-a-longs, and traditional games. Included are a special tour of the exhibit, a flag art project, goody bags and more.

A Pirate Family Festival is planned for Saturday, June 22. The museum will offer historical re-enactors, telescope making, and traditional pirate tunes all day, as well as a flag project, a live pirate show and falconry demonstration, and other special activities. Call 202-857-7154 for more information.

Real Pirates is $11 for adults with special pricing for members, military personnel, children, seniors, and school groups. The National Geographic Museum is located at 17th and M Streets, NW and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

All photos by Brian Mosely. See his full photo set on Flickr.

Having lived in the DC area for ten years, Ben still loves to wander the city with his wife, shooting lots of photos and exploring all the latest exhibits and galleries. A certified hockey fanatic, he spends some time debating the Washington Capitals club with friends – but everyone knows of his three decade love affair with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

A professional writer, gamer, photographer, and Lego enthusiast, Ben remains captivated by DC and doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon.

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