Artifacts Lend Credence To Tale Of Pirate Utopia
MACHIASPORT, Maine - Somewhere between rocky Renshaw Point and the old Rim Bridge, near the mouth of the Machias River, sits one of the most entrancing tales on New England's storied coast.
Some folks say it was the site of a kind of ``retirement home'' for aging pirates, a place where elderly swashbucklers could live out their remaining days in peace and security.
Some claim it was the headquarters of a fledgling ``pirate monarchy,'' or a ``pirates' utopia,'' or a ``permanent pirate colony.''
Others say it's all a lot of malarky.
Whatever the truth about this grassy stretch of river bank, at least this much is plain: Many local residents believe that back in the early 1700s, Samuel ``Black Sam'' Bellamy built some sort of pirate settlement here and drowned before his unusual dream could be realized.
And for years, locals ``have been hunting for Black Sam's treasure, which they think is buried around here,'' said Evelyn Carroll, founding president of the Machiasport Historical Society, who remembered digging for the booty herself as a girl. ``But nobody has found it.''
All the stories about Black Sam seemed consigned to a fuzzy world of tradition - maybe fact, maybe folklore - until 1984, when adventurer and underwater salvager Barry Clifford of Orleans, Mass., discovered the remains of Bellamy's ship, the Whydah, which sank off the coast of Cape Cod near Wellfleet in 1717. In the past five years, Clifford and his team have recovered more than 200,000 artifacts from the wreck and gathered about 250 documents to help researchers interpret them.
The recovery effort - about 25 percent complete - is particularly significant because the Whydah is the only authenticated pirate ship ever discovered.
Ken Kinkor, research director for the recovery project, and others, including Ed Churchill, chief curator for the Maine State Museum, say the case for Machiasport as the home of a fortified pirate settlement rests largely on the writings of Capt. Charles Johnson, alias Daniel Defoe, a journalist-author who associated with retired pirates.
In his 1724 book, ``A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates,'' Defoe wrote that, after a particularly violent storm and the capture of a vessel off Cape Cod in mid-April 1717, Bellamy headed north, seeking a harbor ``to heave down'' and repair the Whydah.
He settled on a spot along the Machias River, where the pirates and their prisoners set to work digging trenches, erecting fortifications, building huts and a storehouse for gunpowder and supplies, Defoe says. And here a member of the crew suggested they ``might lay the Foundation of a new Kingdom . . . a new monarchy,'' he wrote.
Other historians, either by supposition or using unidentified sources, have written that this pirate empire was to be a kind of utopia based on the egalitarian principles that the pirates espoused, or a less ambitious ``retirement home'' where - because the settlement was in unsettled territory - aging pirates could live in security, beyond the reach of the law.
Kinkor, Churchill and Clifford all are skeptical about these claims and Defoe's account, largely because they doubt that Bellamy's crew could have done everything attributed to it between mid-April and the wreck of the Whydah on April 26. But both say no evidence disproves the possibility that some sort of pirate base was built on the Machias River either by Bellamy or some other pirate.
And the late New England historian George Dow, among others, has noted it was common practice for pirates to spend summers in the New England area.
Clifford concludes of the Maine site: ``Bellamy's men may have had a temporary settlement there, or sent a boat to scout out the area, or it's possible they intended to go to Machias to found a pirate capital or build their utopia. It's clear the pirates were rebelling against the way the average seaman was treated in those days. They were revolutionaries, seeking a better way of life on their floating, sociodemocratic ship.''
Clifford and Kinkor said that as members of their recovery team, known as Maritime Explorations, piece together information gleaned from the wreck of the Whydah, a new picture of Bellamy and his crew is emerging.
In an unmarked warehouse in South Chatham, Mass., Kinkor showed some of the remains. Twenty-seven cannons rested in large fiberglass tanks, wired for a sophisticated electrolysis process designed to remove sea salts from the metal. Peering into the murky brown water in other tubs, a visitor could just make out sword hilts, cutlasses, pistols, a cloth bag, barrel staves, fragments of the ship's furnishings, navigational tools, cannon balls, hand grenades and a ship's anchor.
A wooden chest contained silver pieces of eight, a pewter plate and silverware, a set of scales for measuring gold dust, brass buckles and cuff links, a good luck charm and a teapot with a dragon-head spout. Kinkor said other containers held a leather shoe, a woven French silk sock, a silk pistol sling, some papers with a few legible words, lots of jewelry and armaments, buttons, a ring, a candlestick, about 10,000 silver and gold doubloons, and the ship's bell, enscribed ``Ye Whydah Gally.''
He explained that, because the wreck was in icy New England waters, largely undisturbed by subsequent human developments, it provides ``an intact time capsule . . . giving us a real good look into the lives of the pirates.''
Many of the conclusions are far from predictable.
For example, relics and supplemental documents show that Bellamy presided over a polyglot gang with members of about a dozen nationalities, including at least 30 former black slaves whom he freed and invited to join the crew, Kinkor said. The pirates were not segregated, shared their booty more or less equally, elected their leaders, made most important decisions by majority vote and even ``had a primitive form of workmen's compensation,'' he noted. If a pirate was injured on the ship, ``they'd put him ashore in a safe place and give him a little nest egg, usually several pieces of eight, as a retirement fund.''
The pirates' cargo, Kinkor said, indicates the pirates were intercepting European-manufactured goods - British scissors and navigational instruments, for instance - which were the 18th-century equivalent of today's computers, stereos and VCRs: high-tech items that could be sold on the black market. According to several experts, Bellamy's 180-member band was New England's most successful pirate gang, responsible for more than 50 robberies in the 16 months before the wreck - most of which were accomplished without bloodshed.
Whatever the truth of the pirate settlement, treasure-hunters go on digging in Machiasport, as they always have.
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