As It Happens

Skeletons discovered in the wreckage of legendary pirate 'Black Sam' Bellamy's ship

Archeologists have found the skeletal remains of six pirates — one of which could very well be the man known as "Black Sam."

Archeologists will check the bones against DNA from Bellamy's descendants

Capt. Sam Bellamy's ship, the Whydah, got caught in a storm on the back side of Cape Cod, taking the captain, most of his crew and their treasures down with it. (Submitted by Barry Clifford)

The legendary pirate Samuel Bellamy was never found after his ship got wrecked in 1717.

But archeologists discovered his ship, the Whydah, off the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., in 1982. This week, they found the skeletal remains of six pirates — one of which could very well be the man known as "Black Sam."

The bones were identified at the wreck site of the Whydah inside "concretions" — hard, solid masses of matter that accumulated over time.

"It's our intention to remove the bones from the concretions and to do DNA tests to find out who these people were," underwater archeologist Barry Clifford told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"If we found a Bellamy, we would return him to his local graveyard. [His town would be] extremely excited about that."

English sailor-turned-pirate

Bellamy was a pirate known for his racially diverse crew, his egalitarian leadership style, and of course, the incredible wealth he plundered from other ships.

He left Devonshire, England, as a teenager, sailing for the British Royal Navy and, according to Clifford, arrived on Cape Cod in around 1714 or 1715 with plans to gather a crew and travel to the Caribbean Sea.

Bellamy wanted to salvage the Spanish treasure fleet. That same year, 11 ships had left present-day Havana full of gold coins and treasure, but stormy weather downed them before they could return to Spain.

While Bellamy was on Cape Cod, the locals in Wellfleet, Mass., saw him spending time with a woman named Maria Hallett, whose family owned a tavern in town. They were rumoured to be lovers.

The bones were identified in a hard, solid mass from the wreck site of the Whydah. The ‘concretion’ is formed out of matter that accumulated over time. (Submitted by Barry Clifford )

When it was time for Bellamy and his crew to leave, he said goodbye to her and promised to return one day with treasure, Clifford said. 

A few months later, Hallett had a baby. She hid the newborn in a barn, as a baby out of wedlock would have been considered illegitimate. But the child died when straw got caught in its throat. Hallett was tried and convicted as a witch, in part because of the baby's death.

Black Sam did not know what was happening back in Wellfleet while he was on the hunt for Spanish treasure, Clifford said. But once he got to the Caribbean, he decided to abandon the mission. Instead, he robbed other ships of their treasures.

As a pirate, Bellamy plundered over 45 ships before heading back to Cape Cod to rendezvous with Hallett. He robbed several more ships along the way. But then the Whydah got caught in a storm on the back side of Cape Cod, taking the captain, most of his crew and their treasures down with it.

"People would have known Bellamy if they had seen his body on the beach," Clifford said. "We've never heard any indication that he was located [there]."

Robin Hood of the sea

Bellamy is not only remembered as one of the wealthiest pirates in history, but as a fair and firm leader.

According to Clifford, the pirate treated everyone on board his ship equally, including a third of the crew who were Black and formerly enslaved. These "outlaws" were experimenting in democracy, each having the opportunity to vote and an equal share in the treasure, he said. 

Bellamy was never found after his ship got wrecked in 1717. But archaeologists discovered his ship, the Whydah, off the coast of Massachusetts in 1982. (Submitted by Barry Clifford)

Bellamy especially hated corrupt people who robbed the poor.

"This is the great irony of the story," Clifford said. "The money that they were robbing is money that paid for slaves. Paid for them. Paid for their families. 

"Of course, that's capital crime. It's OK to sell people. But if you're a slave and have escaped, you can't steal the money that paid for your families and yourself."

By the time the Whydah wrecked, Bellamy was worth millions. Ever since then, he's been a figure of fascination for archeologists, including Clifford.

The pirate becomes the treasure 

Clifford led the diving crew that first found the wreckage of the Whydah back in 1982.  It was the first real pirate ship discovered in North America.

Over the years, the archeologist and his team have catalogued over 200,000 artifacts found on board. 

"The Whydah robbed 54 different ships, so you're talking about a ship that had the cargoes and valuables of 54 ships on board. It's unprecedented in terms of how much material is on board the ship, including coins and treasure," he said. 

But it's not just the treasure that archeologists are interested in recovering. They are eager to study the newly discovered bones.

"There were 140 pirates on the ship and 102 of them had washed ashore and were drowned. So we believe there [were] a couple of dozen pirates that perhaps were still on the ship when it turned over."

Clifford and his team already have a plan ready to find out whether the bones belong to Bellamy. In 2018, they obtained Bellamy's DNA through a bloodline descendent

"We don't know yet until we bring them out and identify them. But once we do … it's our intention to return them to their proper location," he said. 

"In other words, return them to their families."

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.

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