Just about all searches for the shipwrecks of pirates center on finding their booty – the treasure kind, not their derriere. However, a discovery off the coast of Massachusetts may qualify for a double-booty score in Pirate Scrabble (patent pending) with the announcement that six skeletons were recently recovered from the wreck of the Whydah Gally – the ship belonging to Captain Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, considered by many to be the most successful pirate in history because of the dozens of ships he plundered 300 years ago. One of those skeletons may belong to Black Sam himself and a team of researchers with the DNA of a bloodline relative aims to find out.
“We hope that modern, cutting-edge technology will help us identify these pirates and reunite them with any descendants who could be out there.”
The winner of the double-booty score in this case would be Barry Clifford, a shipwreck explorer and recovery expert who found the Whydah Gally in 1984. Bellamy was only 28 when his ship sank in a storm, but he had already acquired a reputation a successful yet fair pirate. Called Black Sam because of his long black hair tied with a black satin bow, his New England Historical Society biography says he was born in 1689 in Devon, England, to a poor family and became a ship’s boy at age 13 during the War of the Spanish Succession, where he learned his sailing skills. Bellamy sailed to Cape Cod in late 1714, where he had an affair with 15-year-old Maria Hallett, who bore his only known child, but the baby died soon after birth. Bellamy then sailed to Florida to recover Spanish treasure, ended up on a pirate ship and was elected captain after a mutiny.
“They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage.”
Bellamy’s experiences as a boy in England and on a British ship gave him a lifelong hatred of the rich and powerful, leading him to become the self-proclaimed “Robin Hood of the Sea.” There are no records of Black Sam ever killing any crew members of the 54 ships he pirated in just a year. In fact, the Whydah Gally was a slave ship he captured and fitted with 28 guns. Many of the freed slaves joined his crew, as did a number of Native Americans – all of who were treated as equals, receiving the same pay and voting privileges as the rest. Unfortunately, all but two of those crew members (142 in all) died in the storm in 1717. Eventually, 102 of the bodies from the Whydah Gally were buried in a mass grave. One-hundred-two of the bodies were recovered and buried in a mass grave.
“At the time of the wreck, she was carrying the picked valuables from over 50 other ships captured by Bellamy’s pirates. The Whydah collection, therefore, represents an unprecedented cultural cross-section of material from the 18th century.”
In 1984, Barry Clifford found the Whydah Gally and recovered some of the treasures of those 54 ships, which are now on display at the Whydah Pirate Museum. Clifford continued to visit the ship, and in 2018 found a skeleton with a pistol and a pocketful of gold, but DNA tests showed the person was from a different area than Bellamy. Recently, concretions (hard masses that form around artifacts) were found with bone pieces. This time, DNA from a direct-line relative of Black Sam will be compared to it.
Does Barry Clifford get the double-booty score? DNA results have not been released yet. While he recovered thousands of coins, dozens of cannons and other valuable objects from the Whydah Gall, Clifford hasn’t sold anything, preferring to put it all on display at the museum. Black Sam Bellamy, the Robin Hood of the Sea, would no doubt approve.