I rather hope that the good citizens of the Devon village of Hittisleigh will be out celebrating today – their most famous son, Samuel Bellamy, went to meet his maker exactly three centuries ago, in a storm thousands of miles away.
One of six children, he was born to Stephen and Elizabeth Bellamy in 1689. His mother died a few weeks later, and at a young age he was sent away to sea to earn a living. And what a living it turned out to be. After a stint in the Royal Navy he “went freelance” and found that a spot of piracy was just the thing to cure a broken heart. There are various stories about a doomed love affair – variously with a young girl, or with an old maid, but either way, it was a love which was not meant to be.
In 1716 he left Cape Cod to go in search of the wrecks of a Spanish treasure fleet which had gone down in a storm off Florida the year before – but he had no luck finding the wrecks. By now Bellamy was on a ship called the Marianne, under the captaincy of the famous pirate Benjamin Hornigold – and there he met the first mate, none other than a man called Edward Teach, later to become known as the notorious pirate Blackbeard.
When Hornigold failed to capture any ships, largely on account of the fact that he refused to plunder British vessels, his crew rebelled. On a popular vote they deposed Hornigold as Captain, and in his place elected Samuel Bellamy.
He was known as ‘Black Sam’ on account of his thick black head of hair, tied back and left un-powdered. Not for our hero an ageing grey wig. Here was a man who loved fine clothing, especially a black coat. He was tidy, meticulous, and proud of his appearance. His preference was to carry four duelling pistols tucked in at the front of his outfit, and ‘mean moody and magnificent’ he must indeed have seemed to all who saw him.
His fortune was made one day in the Spring of 1717 while he was sailing his ship in the channel between Cuba and Hispaniola. Bellamy caught sight of an exceptional ship known as the Whydah Gally. She was on her maiden voyage and had just completed the first two of the three legs of the slavers triangle. In other words she had taken goods down to Africa, exchanged them for slaves (and ivory) crossed over to the Caribbean, sold the 300-odd slaves, and was bringing back a cargo of rich merchandise including a large quantity of gold and silver. A later manifest shows that there were actually 180 sacks of bullion, each weighing 23 kilos. Now that is an awful lot of bling…
Bellamy chased the Whydah Gally for three days – not an easy task because the new ship was a racing-fast, state-of-the-art vessel built in London in 1715, and owned by Sir Humphry Morice. She got her name from the African slaving port of Ouidah. But eventually Bellamy got close enough to send a shot across the bows of the Whydah Gally, whereupon the Captain lowered his flag in surrender.
The haul was quite amazing and, faced with having to transfer everything to his own ship, Bellamy chose a far easier option: he simply handed the keys of his own ship over to the good captain, swapped over a few cannon, and off he went in the sleek and rather impressive new boat, which was of course totally unscathed. It was typical of the man that he treated the captured captain and crew so well – Bellamy was always polite, well-mannered and averse to unnecessary violence.
Operating the Whydah Gally and one other ship, in tandem, the pirates proved an unstoppable force as they hunted down merchant shipping throughout the Caribbean, and, in particular, up the coast of the Carolinas. Bellamy was extremely popular with his crew – they referred to him as the Pirate Robin Hood, and regarded themselves as Robin Hood’s Men. And then, two months after seizing the vessel, disaster struck. She must have been low in the water on account of all the looted merchandise on board – and was clearly not in a position to outrun the storm which suddenly hit them as they were off the coast of Cape Cod. It was midnight when the storm struck, and in the early hours of the morning of 26 April 1717 the ship’s main mast broke and the ship was dragged down onto the sandbank. She went down in 10 – 30 feet of water just a short distance from the shore. All on board drowned, including ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy. He was 28.
103 bodies were washed ashore, leaving around 40 crewmen unaccounted for. And there the wrecked ship remained, with its 5-ton haul of treasure still intact and on board, until 1982 when it was located by a diving crew led and funded by underwater explorer Barry Clifford. Over the years some 200,000 artefacts have been brought to the surface. Of course the gold treasure is what makes the headlines but interestingly the ship’s bell has also been recovered – establishing beyond doubt that this was indeed the Whydah Gally. The ship’s name, and the date of launch, are engraved on the bell. Copyright in the images of the silver treasure and the bell presumably belong either to the National Geographic or to Barry Clifford – and I am indebted to both of them.
Had he lived, Black Sam would have been one of the richest pirates of all time. His wealth was achieved in an incredibly short time – he was only an active pirate for a single year. Nowadays the treasure would be measured not just in millions, but at over a billion pounds.
There are of course no portraits of Black Sam, but I rather like the “imagined likeness” prepared by artist Gregory Manchess on behalf of the National Geographic Magazine. My thanks to both of them for the use of the image.
A good looking hunk if ever there was one! I particularly like the artist’s website in which he shows the portrait emerge from the canvas in a series of photographs – you can find it here.
So spare a thought for a violent storm exactly three centuries ago, and a brave, handsome and extremely wealthy young man who drowned this day 1717.