W is for The Whydah …

W is for The Whydah ….

(in which I remember there is NO SUCH THING AS COINCIDENCE IN MY LIFE…. And everything that has ever happened to me BELONGS to me…)

On April 26, 1717 (yes, that is 296 years ago TODAY), pirates (arrgh!) drunk on Madeira liberated from a pink called The Snow ran aground off Wellfleet, Massachusetts and wrecked an ex-slaver Galley called The Whydah. That’s how one story goes. Sure, there was a gale blowing that night, but there is no doubt that this amounted to a drunk-driving accident of epic proportions.  Another story has it that the pilot of the pink guided The Whydah in toward shore with the expressed purpose of wrecking her. Black Sam Bellamy was the pirate captain, and local legend had it that he was headed to P-Town (Provincetown) to visit Maria Hallett who was, apparently, his girlfriend, but who was more well-known as The Witch of Wellfleet. Pirates! Witches! It’s a two-fer!

The wreck broke up along the beach, and, the next morning, Cape Codders (or “moon-cussers”) came down to the shore and carted off quite a booty (according to Cyprian Southack who was dispatched to the scene to recover what horde he could). Survivors struggled ashore from The Mary Anne (the third ship of Bellamy’s fleet). Six were tried and found guilty of piracy and robbery, while the ship’s pilot (John Julian, a black man), was sold into slavery, and two others were acquitted because they stated that they had been captured and conscripted under that good old “JOIN OR DIE!” clause that pirates seemed to like to adhere to. On November 15, 1717, Cotton Mather (think back, you’ve heard of this Puritan) accompanied the six condemned men to the gallows in Boston. They all repented. That was a nicety, and they were hanged anyway.

The guy who found the wreck—his name is Barry Clifford and that is the only time you’ll see that name in this post—cried “foul!” when he “discovered” the wreck off the Cape Cod National Seashore and the National Park Service, Army Corps of Engineers, and the State of Massachusetts required permits and archaeologists on site for his “excavation” of the wreck (he blew holes in the bottom of the seabed using devices called “mailboxes” that directed the flow from the props of his boat, the Vast Explorer, toward the bottom). Yeah, well … it’s the shadier part of my past….

I was reminded of The Whydah just last week when I was in Anchorage. There, in the Maritime section of Title Wave was that guy’s book about it. I flipped it open, and the first thing I saw was a photograph with the caption “Working the site before the state forced us to conduct a futile archaeological survey.” Since that guy’s name was never on a paycheck of mine (and there were times I was happy to find that the paycheck would be honored), I can not claim him ever as my “boss,” and thus can render my OWN PERSONAL OPINION.



Ah… that’s better.

As I said, that is my personal feeling about project personnel, which, alas, mirrors my professional archaeological assessment of the entire project. I was a conservator with a degree. I was there to keep the permits legal and to conduct an autopsy on a fresh corpse (meaning the artifacts and data before they got screwed up too badly by poor handling by people who had neither an inclination or a clue). After all, I wasn’t dealing with anyone who was interested in anything other than GOLD. Ironically, right before my tenure with the project ended (I came to my senses and got the hell out of there before I would never be able to work in the field AGAIN—in fact, I attempted to present archaeological findings at the Society for Historical Archaeology/Council of Underwater Archaeology Conference in Tucson, Arizona in 1989 and was BANNED), we were sent a video of another find off the Carolina coast. What flowed across that screen was a RIVER of gold. Yeah, the SS Central America had been found. All around me, eyes widened, and I heard the breathed remark, “We’re workin’ on the wrong ship.”

If it’s gold you’re after, of course. Ordnance was my thing, and The Whydah had quite an array of disparate ordnance and shot. Honestly, there were so many sizes of cannon (all cast and in various states of preservation), that it would have been amazing, in the heat of any conflict, to make sure you had the right sized shot for the guns.  The only thing that made sense was for the pirates to have used the cannon as ballast. There was bar-shot, chain-shot, canister shot … there were textiles and bones (we had a leg bone, the fabric from a sock, and a shoe … and we knew whose remains those were), lead shot and sheathing, gold dust and Akan jewelry… pistols and navigation tools. I mean, it was a pretty cool site. But, all the time I was there, someone kept talking about when it would all go to auction, and those comments were pretty hard to stomach.

And that’s the difference between this guy and Clive Cussler, for example. Clive’s an author, he likes to hunt for stuff, but he also knows that the adventure is only half the story. He found The Hunley—that Civil War submarine. Actually, Harry (or was it Mike? Those two were always inseparable)  actually FOUND The Hunley, but he was working for Cussler’s team. To Clive’s credit, he enjoys the finding and then has the presence of mind to turn it over to folks who won’t wantonly destroy bits and pieces (or wholesale) the find. Artifacts from submerged environments are tricky. I could bore you to tears with methodology and concerns about composite artifacts and treatments, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, finding it? Awesome! Once you’ve found it? Be prepared to take care of it. It’s not going to be like you thought.

And Nat Geo? Shame on you for giving him a forum.

Just sayin’….

And not sour grapes. I was happy the artifacts stayed together and are in a museum of some contrivance in P-Town, but can only surmise that this occurred because the non-intrinsic value of the artifacts was found lacking.

(by the way, for an extra giggle: I’m the “two men” in the Reader’s Digest article who was (were) struggling to sling a cannon from a conservation vat when the pressure buildup inside the barrel cause the tampion (a cork plug) to “fire” across the work bay. Yeah … there’s my confirmation that I do the work of “two men.”)

Poetry Form: Tanka

The true feeling of Tanka like all other non-English poetry forms has become forgotten over the last few decades and made this wonderful form just an ordinary poetry form instead of a strict form of Zen.
The original pattern of Tanka (short poem) established centuries ago was a length of about twelve onji or sound-units, pausing after the fifth and seventh onji. Two twelve-unit segments were joined, with the closure a final seven-sound phrase added. This means that a Tanka has three parts and each one capable of standing alone. This created the classic 5 – 7 – 5 – 7 – 7 Tanka. In the true Zen tradition this should be adhered to.

Like the Sonnet of English and Italian courtiers during the European Renaissance, the Tanka served as a vehicle for love poetry for Japanese lovers during the five centuries of the Nara and Heian Periods (roughly 600 to 1200 AD).

During this period Tanka became notes exchanged by lovers. On returning home from a tryst the man would immediately sit down and compose a Tanka of gratitude, perhaps commenting upon some specific event that had occurred. The note would then be immediately dispatched to his lover by messenger or servant and his lover would be expected to instantly compose and return a suitable Tanka response, even if that meant arising from sleep. This form of poetry took on the name of Somonka.

(from http://www.thepoetsgarret.com )

Yeah, it’s a love poem, but more to nautical archaeology and shipwrecks than to anything else.


Sails flutter wanton

Creak of oak and cries of men

Crashing iron shatters

Thrown through decks to seabed rests

Waiting for judicious eyes

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