Haul from pirate ship Whydah illuminates history

Eighteenth-century Spanish coins. 
Photo Kenneth Garrett


By John Wenzel  - The Denver Post


Barry Clifford remembers the yarns his Uncle Bill used to spin at a New England fish shack during his childhood, detailing the swashbuckling adventures and tragic loss of the Whydah — one of the world's most famous pirate ships, which sank spectacularly off the coast of Massachusetts in 1717.

"Every Cape Cod family had their own treasured version of it," said Clifford. "But was it folk story or was it real? And who was going to find it ?"

As it turns out, Clifford did.

Now one of the world's most renowned underwater archaeological explorers, he discovered the Whydah in 1984 after years of painstaking research, technological innovation, and trial and error.

The fruits of that discovery are on display

in the Denver Museum of Nature & Science's "Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah From Slave Ship to Pirate Ship."


The National Geographic-backed exhibit, which runs today through Aug. 21, offers a unique glimpse into a lifestyle and culture that continues to fascinate — and terrify — into the 21st century.

"Real Pirates" is more than an embalmed chunk of history or a gritty curiosity. The Whydah find is unprecedented in its richness, continuing to yield tens of thousands of priceless, often one-of-a-kind artifacts (gold and silver coins, weapons, surgical instruments, clothing) nearly three decades after its initial discovery — and nearly three centuries after it sank into the Atlantic off Cape Cod.

It's also the first fully authenticated pirate ship discovered in U.S. waters and, according to Clifford, the only real pirate treasure on display anywhere in the world.

"All of the shipwrecks you've heard about in the Caribbean are Spanish galleons," Clifford said. "They're like big Brinks trucks, going back to Europe with freshly minted coins that were being robbed from the indigenous peoples of the Americas."


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Barry Clifford pirate ship Whydah Arizona Science Center National Geographic