Friday, March 3, 2017

The Whydah by Martin W. Sandler, 2017

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The exciting true story of the captaincy, wreck, and discovery of the Whydah the only pirate ship ever found and the incredible mysteries it revealed. The 1650s to the 1730s marked the golden age of piracy, when fearsome pirates like Blackbeard ruled the waves, seeking not only treasure but also large and fast ships to carry it. The Whydah was just such a ship, built to ply the Triangular Trade route, which it did until one of the greediest pirates of all, Black Sam Bellamy, commandeered it. Filling the ship to capacity with treasure, Bellamy hoped to retire with his bounty but in 1717 the ship sank in a storm off Cape Cod. For more than two hundred years, the wreck of the Whydah (and the riches that went down with it) eluded treasure seekers, until the ship was finally found in 1984 by marine archaeologists. The artifacts brought up from the ocean floor are priceless, both in value and in the picture they reveal of life in that much-mythologized era, changing much of what we know about pirates.
(176 pages)

After subsisting on romance novels and boring long nonfiction books for the past few weeks, it was really nice to pick up this 170-page book about a thrilling topic (pirates!) and read it in just an hour or two. I've always had a particular interest in shipwrecks, ever since I became obsessed with the Titanic and read detailed accounts of its discovery/recovery, so this book was extra fascinating to me.

Actually, my previous knowledge of ship-finding techniques also kicked in while I was reading about the Whydah's recovery. The searchers basically forced massive amounts of air into the ocean, blowing away layers of sand before diving down to look for pieces of the wreck that had been buried over time. I couldn't remember exactly, but I knew that this practice risked hurting the ship's remains. The author actually brings up these concerns, which have apparently been raised by professionals in the field, as well as mentioning another that hadn't occurred to me: the concern that this "blowing" technique was harmful to the local ocean ecosystem. The author doesn't really make a judgment statement for or against the techniques used by the team excavating the ship, but it definitely made me concerned. We only get one Whydah, so I hope it's being treated as carefully as possible!

But really, the book doesn't start with the wreck; it starts with a slave ship commanded by one of the meanest men around, and a young man who became a pirate in pursuit of wealth. It traces the career of that young man, Captain Sam Bellamy, who stole Whydah and reached dazzling heights of success before suddenly meeting his end during a dramatic night of storms and treachery off Cape Cod. It also has lots of inserts that provide general information about what life was like for pirates, explaining things like the origins of the Jolly Roger and the "pirate code" that all of the men followed. It's interesting to see that the pirates, who were truly horrible to many of the ships they captured, were also some of the most democratic and disciplined people on the face of the earth during that time. They were a very racially mixed group, and non-whites were given the same job and the same rewards as their Caucasian peers.

Basically, if you're looking for a book about pirates and the discovery of a ship straight from 1717, then this is probably it. If you do read it, let us know in the comments what you think!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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