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History of piracy featured in Newport News exhibit Show to continue at Mariners Museum through Jan. 4


NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- The stories of Captain Kidd, John "Calico Jack" Rackam, Blackbeard and other assorted rogues, are highlighted in a new exhibit devoted to the fact and fiction of pirate history, currently on view at the Mariners Museum in Newport News.

"Under the Black Flag: Life Among the Pirates" spotlights the lives of many of the most infamous pirates through a hearty display of pirate weaponry, ship implements, treasures, narrative illustrations - and one notable body part.

The show was organized by the South Street Seaport Museum of New York City, and will remain on view at the Mariners Museum through Jan. 4.

A tough calling

While classic novels such as "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson reshaped notions of pirates in the 19th century, it was in theater productions and motion pictures that the image of pirates as gallant swashbucklers became part of popular culture. No fewer than 70 movies have been based on pirate themes, and the display contains a sampling of memorabilia from some of those productions.

In reality, however, the life of 16th- and 17th-century pirates bore little resemblance to the ones later depicted on the silver screen.

Piracy was a tough calling, and required much fortitude. Pirates had to contend with a variety of foes and adverse situations, including disease, mutinies, shipwrecks, severe weather and the ire of the British navy. For all their effort, the booty was also not always as valuable as one might imagine.

While there were pirates who scored gems and doubloons, the typical pirate raid yielded china and pewter flatware, lumber, tobacco, rum and dried fish.

Authentic loot

The exhibit contains several authentic examples of pirate loot, including gold and silver coins and a 17th-century iron strongbox, the kind that a pirate crew might have found on a Spanish galleon.

Under a re-creation of a pirate-ship bridge, a photomural details the pirate symbol most feared by merchant ships: the Jolly Roger, the unmistakable black flag bearing the dreaded skull and crossbones.

Nearby, a series of display cases contains several fine navigational implements from centuries past, and a rich collection of pirate-era weapons that includes a brass swivel cannon, a cutlass, pistols, a crude iron shell grenade and a rather nasty boarding axe.

Events and episodes in the lives of many well-known pirates, buccaneers and privateers are vividly presented via a number of narrative paintings created by, among others, N.C. Wyeth, famed illustrator Howard Pyle and contemporary maritime artist William Gilkerson.

The story of renowned privateer Sir Francis Drake is told through splendid aquarelle depictions of his ship, the Golden Hind, and his 1587 raid on Cadiz, both painted by Gilkerson.

The exploits of Captain Kidd are also richly detailed through artistic interpretation. Kidd began his pirate activities while in the service of British merchants, as a privateer hired to combat - what else - piracy.

Kidd was arrested in Boston in 1699 and taken back to England to stand trial. Declared guilty of piracy, robber and murder, he was sentenced to hang in 1701. After his execution, his body was publicly suspended inside a gruesome contrivance that looks like a chain cage - a reproduction of which, skeletal replica and all, is found in the display.

During the Golden Age of piracy, between 1650 and 1820, pirate crews ranged far and wide - off the coast of Africa, in the Caribbean and off the Canadian maritimes. Easily the most famous character profiled here from this era is the nefarious Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard.

Blackbeard's ships raided commercial shipping off the southeast coast of the American colonies and in the Caribbean during the early 18th century. A major thorn in the side of the Colonial governments, Blackbeard's four-ship flotilla laid siege to Charleston, S.C., for five straight days in 1718, sacking any vessel that happened its way.

Later that year, Blackbeard met his end in the coastal waters off the North Carolina Outer Banks. His sloop, the Adventure, was caught by surprise while anchored off Ocracoke Island, by a pair of sloops under the command of British Lt. Robert Maynard. After much ship maneuvering and exchanging verbal insults, Blackbeard's crew engaged Maynard's seamen in a bloody fight to the finish. Blackbeard was killed during the battle - after suffering five gunshot wounds and nearly two dozen lacerations.

As a sign of triumph, and to prove his victory over the scurrilous pirate, Maynard dangled Blackbeard's severed head from the bowsprit of his ship.

Found in a lone showcase in the display is a silver-plated skull reputed to be Blackbeard's.

Although its authenticity is in question, the story that lies behind this object is the kind of tale that fuels pirate lore.

After Maynard's ship docked in Virginia, the skull was placed atop a stake at the mouth of the James River - a warning to all would-be pirates. The head apparently became the property of a Williamsburg, Va., tavern, where it served - for anyone who dared to use it - as a goblet.

In the 1800s, the skull turned up in another pub, in Alexandria, Va. After passing from one owner to next, it landed in the collection of the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

While the Mariners Museum admits there is only a 50-50 chance that this is indeed Blackbeard's skull - and others, such as the Skull and Bones secret society at Yale University, have also laid claim to its ownership - the fact is that we may never know if this actually is the head of the famous pirate captain.

After all, as the saying goes:

"Dead men tell no tales."

Profiles of well-known pirates

Here are some short backgrounds of some well-known pirates profiled in "Under the Black Flag: Life Among the Pirates":

* Captain Kidd: William Kidd was hired by British merchants in 1696 to hunt down pirates raiding British trade in the Indian Ocean. After not having much success on the voyage, Kidd himself turned to piracy, and spent nearly three years plundering off the waters of Africa. He returned to Colonial America, where he was once based and had a wife in New York, and was taken into custody while in Boston. Transferred back to England, Kidd was tried in what some saw as a politically corrupt trial, and convicted of all the charges - piracy, robbery and murder - against him. He was executed in London in 1701.

* Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard: Believed to have been born in Bristol, England (year unknown), Blackbeard started out as a privateer. He turned pirate in 1713. Later, commanding a 40-gun warship named the Queen Anne's Revenge, Blackbeard became a formidable terror, cruising the Caribbean and southeastern coast of the Colonial United States. He is rumored to have married 14 women, and the whereabouts of his supposed vast fortune is still a topic of much speculation and discussion. He was killed during a battle with a British sloop off Ocracoke Island, N.C., in 1718.

* Bartholomew Roberts, known as Black Bart: Daring, flamboyant and ruthless, Roberts was among the most successful of the Golden Age pirates. His pirate fleet ranged from the shores of Newfoundland to the coast of West Africa. Roberts died in a sea battle with the HMS Swallow off the west coast of Africa near Cape Lopez in 1721.

* John Rackam, known as Calico Jack: Rackam became captain of his ship by deposing its previous captain, Charles Vane, a pirate himself, in 1717. Calico Jack and his crew, which included two women, attacked mainly small trading ships in the Caribbean. His ship was captured in 1720 by a royal trading vessel, and Rackam stood trial for piracy in Port Royal, Jamaica. He was eventually hanged.

* Mary Read and Anne Bonny: Both Mary Read and Anne Bonny had been brought up disguised as boys; one in England, the other in Ireland. Read became a member of Calico Jack's pirate crew shortly after she arrived in the West Indies from Europe, trying to start a new life after the death of her husband. Bonny, the daughter of a merchant father who eventually purchased a Carolina plantation, met and was romanced by Calico Jack, on the island of Providence. She had been turned out by her father for falling for a penniless sailor. The two women pirates sailed with Jack for two years before their capture. They stood trial in Jamaica for having served with Calico Jack, but were reprieved from a death sentence when it was learned that both were pregnant. Read later died in prison, while the fate of Bonny is unknown.

* Jean and Pierre Lafitte: While this team of pirate brothers operated all over the world - in the Indian Ocean, off Africa, and in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico - they are best remembered for their assistance to Gen. Andrew Jackson in the defense of New Orleans against the British in 1814. Granted full presidential pardons for their pirate activities, Pierre went on to become a successful New Orleans businessman, while Jean later returned to pirating, and was said to have been killed in a 1821 confrontation with a British warship in Yucatan waters.

If you go

Where: The Mariners Museum is at 100 Museum Drive, Newport News, Va., at the intersection of J. Clyde Morris and Warwick boulevards. From Interstate 95 north or south, take Interstate 64 east to exit 258A. The museum is 2.5 miles south of the interstate.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The museum is closed Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.

Admission: $6.50 for adults, $3.25 for full-time students and free for children under age 5. Discounts available for seniors, AAA members and active members of the military.

Further information: Call 757-596-222 or 800-581-7245.

On the Internet:


Here's a short glossary of the different types of pirates:

* Pirates: The classic high seas robbers who owed their allegiance to no nation. The term "pirate" comes from the Greek word "peirates," a root of "peirao," which means to attempt or assault.

* Corsairs: These were the pirates who operated in the Mediterranean and raided shipping along North Africa's Barbary Coast during the 16th century.

* Privateer: The commander or crew of an armed vessel that has been commissioned by one country to raid the shipping of an enemy nation.

* Buccaneers: The term applied to pirates and privateers who operated in the West Indies and off the coast of Central and South America during the latter half of the 17th century. The name comes from a French word for the wild game hunters on Hispaniola (the island that modern Haiti and the Dominican Republic share). They were known as "boucaniers" because of the way they cooked and dried their meat outdoors. The French word "boucaner" means to smoke-dry or cure.

SOURCE: The Mariners Museum

Pub Date: 10/26/97

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