Monday, September 24, 2012

High Seas History


According to common myth, pirates are ruthless, evil, greedy, uncompromising souls. My piratic knowledge, like many, expanded little beyond Johnny Depp’s turn as Captain Jack Sparrow. So I expected a childish display upholding this myth at the Science Museum’s new special exhibition, Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship.
Man was I wrong.
In focusing on the Whydah and its crew, Real Pirates thoroughly debunks any misconceptions you may have about seafaring marauders.
Some examples:
+ Pirate ships were run co-op style, with democratic processes and constitutions (an actual signed paper constitution is on display). Crews enjoyed equal profit sharing, equal sleeping/living quarters, and generally rotated positions of authority amongst the crew members.
+ Female pirates, who cross-dressed, were not uncommon and could be some of the fiercest pirates. Some would even fall in love with each other before they learned that they were not actually men.
+ Many pirates turned to the profession as a way to free themselves from indentured service (or “pressing”) common in traditional navies. In fact, the life of a pirate was far more egalitarian and free than a life in service to the crown.
+ The Whydah is the only true pirate shipwreck ever discovered.
+ Pirates preferred to capture slave ships over any other kind, because slave ships were both made for speed and loaded with weaponry, two vital components of a pirate’s success.
+ Pirate crews were heavily interracial (another democratic difference from the mainland), with some crews made up of 60 percent or more of people of color. There are 100 percent black pirate crews on record.
All of this we learn through the story of Whydah and its crew.
The ship, discovered nearly 300 years after it wrecked in a storm, was originally used to transport slaves. It went the way of the black flag after it was captured by pirate Captain Sam Bellamy, becoming the flagship of his fleet. Its wreck makes this display possible, but it also devastated Bellamy’s crew and profits. Crew members are also woven into the exhibit, with the stories of four members told in astonishing detail.
These details -- in addition to a host of artifacts such as chests and weaponry -- provide plenty of intrigure for the adult visitor.
But the exhibit is certainly child-friendly, with all sorts of creative hands-on activities and an accompanying film in the omnitheater, Under the Sea, that visits various western Pacific reefs and the beautiful creatures found within.
The result is a perfectly executed exhibit -- filled with easy-to-read panels, well-curated artifacts and a simple, earthy palette -- that does what so few can: bridge any age gap. I can’t imagine a person of any age who couldn’t find something to enjoy. Make sure to stop in at the Science Museum while it’s there.
+ Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship continues at the Science Museum of Minnesota through Sept. 3. For more information visit smm.org.