Samuel Bellamy has come down to general history as the pirate who took a slave ship, lost it in a nor'easter off Cape Cod and drown along with all but two of his men. His story begins and ends there, overshadowed by the tale of treasure hunter Barry Clifford who found the wreck of Bellamy's Whydah and the vast trove of artifacts therein in 1984.
Of course history is easy both to over-simplify and embellish upon. Both things seem to have happened to Black Sam. There is the story as above, and then there is the yarn of the dashing young rover, a virtual bad boy hero from a romance novel, who went off to seek his fortune at any cost for the love of an aristocratic maid.
Sam Bellamy's origins are murky at best. He appears to have been born in the place that spawned so many English seafarers: Devonshire. It's a safe bet that at some point in his youth he signed aboard a merchant bound for the Caribbean and his seafaring days began. While working the islands, Sam learned of the wracking (or wrecking) trade, possibly from his friend and future associate Paul Williams.
The trade involved salvaging sunken ships and the vessels most favored by the wrackers were Spanish treasure ships lost on their way to Havana or Spain. Pearl divers, usually natives from the islands off Venezuela but sometimes Africans who were either free or runaway slaves, were employed to swim down and pick up anything of value - plate, small arms, jewels, coin, etc. The work was hard and dangerous; pirates were not averse to taking the hard earned treasure from wrackers, at gunpoint if need be.
This may or may not have happened in Bellamy's case. Some accounts say that Charles Vane took Bellamy's cargo, turning him pirate in the process. This has a certain logic to it since Vane and Benjamin Hornigold were known to sail together at times. What we do know is that by 1715 Bellamy and his friend Williams were aboard Hornigold's pirate ship.
Hornigold, like Morgan before him, was an English patriot and refused to take British ships. This rankled with some of his crew and they parted company with him, quite civilly in fact. Hornigold sailed off with 26 men and Bellamy was elected Captain of a remaining sloop. He set off in partnership with French pirate Oliver Le Bouche. (As a personal aside, I've heard it suggested that "Le Bouche" was in fact an alias for Beluche and that Oliver was a relative of my own famous ancestor, Renato Beluche. I don't buy it for a minute, but it's a nice story).
Bellamy captured several ships up and down the American coast. At least two were slavers returning from Africa or Jamaica including the brig Sultana, whose command Bellamy turned over to Paul Williams. Aboard Sultana was a young carpenter named Davis. Bellamy had no carpenter and he pressed the man into service. The story goes that Davis was promised his freedom when the next prize was found, but the crew would not allow a good carpenter to leave and so he stayed on.
Bellamy and Le Bouche parted company amicably in early 1717 and shortly thereafter Bellamy came across his greatest score to date. Off the coast of Jamaica he encountered Whydah, an 18 gun merchant and slaver with a compliment of about 45 men. She was headed either for New England or England with a dazzling cargo of gold, ivory, sugar and indigo. She also carried cash from the sale of slaves in the amount of close to 20,000 pounds (well over three million modern American dollars). Her captain, Lawrence Price, packed on all sail and tried to run.
Bellamy and his crew worked three hard days, chasing Whydah in all weather, until they finally overcame her. Impressed with Price's seaworthiness (and doubtless feeling flush with such an enormous prize), Bellamy gave the slaver's captain 20 pounds and Sultana and sent he and most of his crew off on their way.
Now captaining Whydah as his flagship, Bellamy and his flotilla of three other ships hit a storm off the coast of Virginia. They were blown considerably north and Bellamy decided to make for the then relatively unpopulated island of Cape Cod to find safe harbor and careen his vessels. On the way, his took the sloop Mary Anne which was full of Madeira wine. His men settled in to drinking up the prize as they continued northward. It would be the last party they ever enjoyed.
On a late spring evening in 1717, Bellamy's ships were struck by a raging storm. All the ships were lost. Whydah grounded near Wellfleet, was slammed by the surf and capsized with surprising speed. Only two of her men made it to shore: John Julian, a navigator from the original Whydah crew and hapless Davis, Sultana's carpenter.
The few men - nine in all - who staggered up to the beach from the pirate fleet were quickly arrested. All but Davis, who managed to prove he had been forced into service, were hanged in Massachusetts the same year. Until Clifford discovered the Whydah wreck in 1984, locals on Cape Cod would search the beach after storms, picking up coins, silverware and even silver plate that washed up from the wreck. Found out more about the ongoing study of the ship and her cargo here.
And Bellamy's romantic connection? Well, the story goes that young, handsome Sam was taking his prize north for more than just careening. In 1715 he'd left his love, Maria Hallett of Eastham, Massachusetts, to seek his fortune and prove himself worthy of her hand. Her father, a wealthy merchant, would not allow them to marry until Sam could provide for his daughter. Once his ship had come in, so to say, he turned toward Eastham and the promise of marriage. But fate had other plans and lovely Maria died young, probably of a broken heart. Or so they say.
Header picture: coins from the Whydah wreck
Lower right: Taking the Whydah by Don Maitz from his 2006 Pirate Calendar