Early Modern Times – piratical DNA from the deep

Early Modern Times - piratical DNA from the deep

Dear readers,

To celebrate the Lunar New Year of the Dog, this week’s issue of Early Modern Times is devoted to a lunatic sea-dog from the early eighteenth century, courtesy of EMSP’s in-house Golden Age Pirate Historian, Sarah Toye. Let your timbers be shivered! –Simon Kow, EMSP Director

Eighteenth-century pirate history is not often considered current events (more like “ocean-current” events), but yet another famous pirate shipwreck has been in the news recently: Captain “Black Sam” Bellamy’s Whydah.

Bellamy is a compelling figure from what is now known as the Golden Age of Piracy. It is called such because it ‘berthed’ the now-archetypal image of the pirate. Think skull and crossbones, jolly rogers, marooning, cutlasses, etc. No walking the plank. In the words of the iconic George MacDonald Fraser, “walking the plank is a Victorian fiction, and I will not have it on my ship [blog]!” (The Pyrates, 179; I had to go through my MA thesis notes to find that page number). The exact dates of this Golden Age are debated among historians, but since this is my blog post and I’m probably one of the only pirate experts you know, my opinion shall reign supreme. It began in 1701 with the execution of Captain William Kidd, who was actually really terrible at being a pirate and an even worse privateer. Whenever people consider him a great pirate, I think, ‘you’ve gotta be Kidd-ing me!’ This marked the moment that England, along with other European nations, no longer relied on privateers to supplement their navies enough to justify overlooking some questionably piratical behaviour. The end of the Golden Age is a little more vague, but I suspect that the very dramatic death of Captain Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts (they were not very original with their nicknames), arguably the last of the truly powerful Golden Age pirates, in battle in 1722 and Woodes Rogers’ proclamation in 1718 were both key factors in the decline that soon followed.

I know what you’re thinking: “Why-dah heck am I not reading anything yet about DNA?” Because historical context is important. Bellamy, at least as he’s depicted in A General History of the Pyrates (1724), is a bit of an idealistic Robin Hood-type. By the way, this is an instance when one should most certainly not judge a book by its cover, because most editions of A General History list Daniel Defoe as the author. He’s not. In A General History, Bellamy gives a rabble-rousing, anti-establishment, anti-capitalist rant to one of his victims, and despite almost definitely not being true it makes for some great reading. Regardless, this depiction contributed to the fascination with Bellamy as a ‘hero of the people’… who also steals things and murders people, though perhaps to a slightly lesser degree than other pirates at the time. To be fair, that bar was very low. And potentially named after Captain Ned Low, who was truly the lowest of the low and generally very unpleasant.

Bellamy’s ship went down off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717 in a massive storm, killing most of the crew. It was not discovered until 1984, and remains, along with Queen Anne’s Revenge, one of the only known pirate shipwrecks. In 1985, the ship’s identity was confirmed when researchers found the ship’s bell with the ship’s name inscribed upon it. We’ve got the ship’s bell, all we need now is the ship’s ‘Bell’-amy. A number of fascinating artifacts have been retrieved over the years, with the most recent and arguably most exciting being bone fragments found near what is thought to be Bellamy’s very own pistol. DNA tests are currently being performed with one of Bellamy’s descendants to see if it really is Black Sam. I suppose it makes sense that after such a disastrous storm, the Whydah would be left with a true ‘skeleton crew’. Maybe Pirates of the Caribbean got something right after all.

Sarah Toye

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