Regarp Book Blog

Review of: The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked and Found, by Martin W. Sandler

I don’t typically read or review “Young Adult” books, but The Whydah: A Pirate Ship Feared, Wrecked and Found, by Martin W. Sandler, came my way via an Early Reviewer’s program and—full disclosure—I did not realize it was YA when I requested it! Of course, the “Young Adult” genre has come a long way since my own youth, when it tended to only run to the lowest common denominator of the youngest readers.  In contrast, just about any adult non-specialist could peruse The Whydah and perhaps not even realize it was written for a YA audience.

Pirates are the stuff of both myth and history, an enduring legend that dominates the imagination in pulp fiction, swashbuckling films, and even Halloween costume parties and amusement park rides. The reality, of course, was starkly different from the romanticism, as revealed through both historical scholarship and—especially in recent decades—its partnership with the increasingly sophisticated technology of underwater archaeology. Sandler, a prolific author of books for adults and children (his Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad was previously reviewed on the Regarp Book Blog.*), artfully brings this marriage of history and archaeology to bear in this well-written work that focuses on noted pirate captain Black Sam Bellamy, his flagship vessell Whydah, and the culture of early eighteenth century piracy—as well as the recovery of the wreck and interpretation of the artifacts.

Born in England, like many young men of his era Sam Bellamy went to sea in the British navy.  A veteran of naval combat in the War of Spanish Succession, at twenty-four Bellamy found himself out of a job when that conflict ended in 1714, and tens of thousands were released from service. His next stop was Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod, where he partnered up with a fellow-adventurer and returned to sea, this time on his own terms. When a promising salvage venture went sour, Bellamy instead turned to piracy, where he proved himself a highly successful raider along the east coast of America. One of his greatest prizes was the Whydah, a slaver that had recently traded its human cargo for vast riches that became the bountiful plunder of Sam Bellamy and his crew, and was transformed into Bellamy’s flagship. In what amounted to but a single year, Black Sam distinguished himself as one of the most successful pirates of all times—before he fell victim to equal parts greed and the treacherous seas off of Cape Cod that sank the Whydah in 1717, and drowned Bellamy and most of his mates. The wreck—and a bounty of artifacts—were not recovered until 1984.

Sandler’s thin volume is rich with detail, not only for his subjects but the milieu of piracy these inhabited. Pirates, it turns out, could indeed live up to the lore that has portrayed them as brutal and ruthless, but they also lived by a code of honor that was rigorously upheld.  Most extraordinary in this code was its stark element of democracy. In a time when all the world was organized by hierarchy and class, all pirates, regardless of their specialized roles aboard ship, were essentially equals; the captain was little more than a first among equals, although he received two shares of plunder rather than the one due to an ordinary seaman. Nearly every aspect of their communal existence was governed by consensus, and determined by an equal vote from each member of the crew. When they raided other ships, their treatment of those who manned the prize was determined largely by the level of resistance. If the ship under attack surrendered without a fight, pirates typically showed great lenience, sparing the lives of officers and crew alike, who would be released to the sea with provisions on small boats if the ship was taken. Those who gave battle, on the other hand, often saw no quarter, ending their lives in a sometimes-horrific fashion marked by outsize cruelty. Thus, it was little wonder that the majority of ships beset by pirates often promptly surrendered. More surprising, perhaps, was that the surrendered crew was frequently offered a chance to join up with the very pirates that had overrun them—and that many availed themselves of this opportunity!

The last third of the book is devoted to finding and excavating the Whydah—which has continued for decades—as well as exploring the art and technology of diving and underwater archaeology. Here too the author presents the material in a competent, engaging fashion that holds the interest of the reader of all ages. Sandler aptly demonstrates how the artifacts recovered from the Whydah have contributed to a renaissance in the interpretation of what life must have been like on a pirate vessel three centuries ago.

Yet, this otherwise laudable work is unfortunately marred when it credulously repeats the fanciful notion that has Alexander the Great as an early pioneer in underwater exploration, here depicted in a medieval painting being lowered beneath the sea in a primitive glass diving bell, in the fourth century BCE! [p125] This ahistorical myth belongs to the literature of the so-called “Romance of Alexander” that was imagined many centuries after his death, and that to my knowledge has no scholarly support. (Endnotes include a reference to a defunct URL, but further research on the reference itself lends it little credence.) There was also a glaring error of historical interpretation in Sandler’s Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation, this one regarding slavery and the Civil War, which makes me wonder about his reliability as a historian.* Sandler has many books and projects and awards to his credit, much of them focused on history, as well as a background as an educator, so these uncharacteristic flaws seem especially incongruous. Of course, both author and publisher should be taken to account for such carelessness.

Despite this imperfection, The Whydah has much to recommend it overall to a popular audience of both the young adult and their parents. This is fascinating material, and Sandler’s skill as a writer who can weave multiple themes into a coherent account shines throughout the narrative.  All of this is further enhanced in the presentation, which includes a number of sidebars, illustrations and maps. The Whydah demonstrates that the real story of pirates can be as enthralling as their swashbuckling legends.

[*See my review of Iron Rails, Iron Men, and the Race to Link the Nation: The Story of the Transcontinental Railroad, by Martin W. Sandler,  at: https://regarp.com/2015/11/29/review-of-iron-rails-iron-men-and-the-race-to-link-the-nation-the-story-of-the-transcontinental-railroad-by-martin-w-sandler/]