PORTLAND — Separating fact from fiction, when it comes to the lives of pirates, is a difficult endeavor.

Popular culture has long had romantic images of a swashbuckling scalawag, traveling the high seas in search of treasure. Typically, pirates are shown saying “arrrrr” (they never did that … except in movies), sailing the high seas, and burying treasure all over the place.

In truth, pirates tended to be skilled men who took to a life of crime for various reasons. Some were former privateers, once in the employ of their governments. All relied on the tremendous wealth flowing to and from the Caribbean during the “Golden age of Piracy” in the early 18th century.

Portland Science Center’s newest exhibit, “Real Pirates,” highlights one ship from this age, the Whydah, a slave ship on a return journey from the Caribbean to West Africa captured by pirate captain Sam Bellamy. He quickly accumulated a vast hoard of wealth, plundering roughly 50 ships, before the Whydah sank off the coast of Cape Cod on April 26, 1717.

It sat in the depths for over 250 years until Barry Clifford, an underwater explorer, discovered it in 1984. Since then thousands of artifacts have been pulled from the depths, many of which are now on display in Portland.

The Whydah is the only shipwreck discovered that has been positively identified as a pirate ship. The identification stems from numerous records of the ship’s exploits in the early 18th century, and the crucial discovery of the ship’s bell.

Clifford said he still remembers the moment they verified it was the Whydah. At the time, he was out pulling up more pieces of the wreck while the laboratory was carefully extracting the bell from a “concretion” – a formation of sediment like concrete.

“They called me and said, ‘you better come over, there’s a W on the bell,’” he said.

A replica of the Whydah’s bell, made thanks to the discovery of the real thing on the ocean floor. Staff photo by Chris Chase

At the time of the ship’s discovery, Clifford’s expedition was broke and on its last legs. “I’m pretty sure we had a picture of a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner,” he said. Then they discovered the first pieces of the wreck, from which they would later pull millions of dollars worth of treasure.

Despite its value, Clifford said he’s determined to keep all the pieces together and intact for historical purposes. None of the artifacts have been sold. Parts of it make up “Real Pirates,” a National Geographic exhibit, including some of the millions of dollars worth of coins. Unlike many discovered treasures, which are typically gold or newly minted coins that were heading back to Europe, the Whydah is unique in that it contains coinage from many nations and dates.

It’s not just the treasure on display, of course. Extensive information on the history of piracy, the lives of pirates, and the profession’s connection to the slave trade are also on display.
Small artifacts, like navigation tools, are shown alongside massive French and English cannons. Some of those cannons were packed so expertly by the crew that the gunpowder inside them was still dry after over 250 years on the bottom of the ocean.

It’s hard to be a pirate without ammunition, and this set of cannonballs discovered on the Whydah demonstrate they weren’t lacking. Staff photo by Chris Chase

exhibit also details a surprising fairness of life on a pirate ship. Pirates, despite their reputation for lawlessness, tended to have set rules and guidelines and ran their ships like a democracy. Often, the captain was who the crew decided was the most capable of the job, regardless of their former life. Former slaves could be in command of white Europeans as part of ethnically and culturally diverse crews.

The artifacts, together with simulations of the way the ship looked when it was still afloat and videos of the discovery process, tell the tale of what it was like to be a pirate back in the golden age of piracy.

Clifford said Portland is the perfect place to bring the exhibit. Legend has it that Sam Bellamy was trying to reach New England when his ship sank in 1717. “I’m sure a lot of pirates sailed these shores. This is a wonderful city to bring this to.”

Joe Gold, president of the group that owns and operates the science center, agreed. “I think it will resonate pretty well in a maritime city like this one.”

The timing of the exhibit is also significant: It’s exactly 300 years since the Whydah wrecked off the New England coast.

Portland Science Center is located at 68 Commercial St. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday. “Real Pirates” will be open throughout the summer. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit portlandsciencecenter.com.