It’s Talk Like a Pirate Day! Let’s Explore some Jewelry Booty

Shiver me timbers is it that time of year already?

Several years ago our friends introduced us to “Talk Like a Pirate Day” and every year we mark the day with an “Argh!” or two. The golden age of piracy began around 1650 and ended around 1720. Piracy swelled under the rule of dictators and tyrants in many powerful countries around the world. Some argue that the golden age of piracy was an unforeseen by-product of tyrannical trade restrictions and taxes. Of those historians, some would argue that many pirates got into the game as Robin Hood characters who sought to redistribute wealth to the people from which powerful governments had taken it. As the same time that piracy was getting off the ground,  privateers enter the scene at the behest of the very tyrants and dictators who may have caused the sea trade problems to begin with. Privateers behaved much the same way that pirates did; they attacked vessels traveling along unsecured trade routes in order to gather wealth.

The difference is that pirates often gathered this wealth for themselves, whereas privateers were beholden to the throne, and required to turn over the stolen goods. Privateers and pirates are not the same, in that pirates lacked external governmental leadership. Overtaking ships laden with trade goods on the open seas, pirates and privateers commandeered what they could. Then they sold it on the black market in distant lands, or to the Kings and Queens of Europe in exchange for wages, or to other pirates in exotic ports of call. One of the most financially successful pirates was Captain Black Sam Bellamy, who died sailing the Whydah.

Trade records indicate that when the slave ship Whydah Gally, reached the Caribbean 55 people had died, leaving 312 slaves alive. The captain of the slave ship, Lawrence Prince, completed his mission and was sailing away with a hold full of goods when Captain Black Sam seized the vessel. Legend has it, Pirate Capt. Black Sam, siezed the ship in 1716 and armed it with guns. He then gave Prince a smaller ship and sent him on his way. Capt. Black Sam, so named for his long black hair, sailed the Whydah from plunder to plunder for a year, then to Massachusetts to see his beloved in 1717. His ship was laden with treasure taken from privateers who celebrated what he considered ill-gotten gains. Of privateers Bellamy says,

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.

On April 26, 1717, off the coast of Wellfleet, Mass., a vicious nor’easter sunk the Whydah.

The captian and 140 men went down with the ship, however, two men survived and told the tale of Capt. Black Sam as a Robin Hood of the high seas. Pirate Black Sam’s year long career made him the richest pirate in the world, and in 1984 the Whydah was found. Barry Clifford found the ship and identified it with the ship’s bell. Over the years, Clifford and his crew have reclaimed

some 200,000 artifacts, including thousands of silver Spanish coins, hundreds of pieces and fragments of rare African gold jewelry, dozens of cannons, various colonial-era objects[,]

gold coins, ivory, handmade weapons and human remains.

Most of the jewelry Clifford recovered belonged to the Akan people of Ghana who had been sold into slavery. The excellent craftsmanship of the gold beads, fastners, and even in the design of money bracelets and necklaces shows the metalsmithing skills the Akan captives possessed.

Gold Akan jewelry from the pirate ship Whydah.

The concentric rings of the gold bead are smooth threads of gold with identical diameter, pressed together with an even pressure. The partial sundisk was worked with fine tools to create crisp etched patterns. Lastly, the currency necklace is a collection of flattened gold nuggets, drilled, and threaded on string. This currency and the manner of transporting it helped identify the origin of the people who were enslaved. The use of gold as currency in Northern Africa predates the slave trade, yet,

[a]ccording to tradition, gold was first used as currency among the Brong of the nothern Akan teritory,

in West Africa. The Akan territory encompassed modern day Ghana and much of the Ivory Coast. Knowing the story of gold helped researchers identify the slaves on the maiden voyage of the Whydah as Akan people, ergo the jewelry was most likely of Akan origin. When the researchers looked at historical examples of Akan jewelry the similarities were obvious. Yet, a large pirate vessel like the Whydah, with a year’s worth of pirate treasure in its hold should have provided Clifford’s treasure hunters with more loot. In 2016, Clifford announced a discovery: More of the ship’s cache. However, at least at the time of writing, the pirate booty has yet to appear.

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