History of piracy featured in Newport News exhibit Show to continue at Mariners Museum through Jan. 4


NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- The stories of Captain Kidd, John "Calico Jack" Rackam, Blackbeard and other assorted rogues, are highlighted in a new exhibit devoted to the fact and fiction of pirate history, currently on view at the Mariners Museum in Newport News.

"Under the Black Flag: Life Among the Pirates" spotlights the lives of many of the most infamous pirates through a hearty display of pirate weaponry, ship implements, treasures, narrative illustrations - and one notable body part.

The show was organized by the South Street Seaport Museum of New York City, and will remain on view at the Mariners Museum through Jan. 4.

A tough calling

While classic novels such as "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson reshaped notions of pirates in the 19th century, it was in theater productions and motion pictures that the image of pirates as gallant swashbucklers became part of popular culture. No fewer than 70 movies have been based on pirate themes, and the display contains a sampling of memorabilia from some of those productions.

In reality, however, the life of 16th- and 17th-century pirates bore little resemblance to the ones later depicted on the silver screen.

Piracy was a tough calling, and required much fortitude. Pirates had to contend with a variety of foes and adverse situations, including disease, mutinies, shipwrecks, severe weather and the ire of the British navy. For all their effort, the booty was also not always as valuable as one might imagine.

While there were pirates who scored gems and doubloons, the typical pirate raid yielded china and pewter flatware, lumber, tobacco, rum and dried fish.

Authentic loot

The exhibit contains several authentic examples of pirate loot, including gold and silver coins and a 17th-century iron strongbox, the kind that a pirate crew might have found on a Spanish galleon.

Under a re-creation of a pirate-ship bridge, a photomural details the pirate symbol most feared by merchant ships: the Jolly Roger, the unmistakable black flag bearing the dreaded skull and crossbones.

Nearby, a series of display cases contains several fine navigational implements from centuries past, and a rich collection of pirate-era weapons that includes a brass swivel cannon, a cutlass, pistols, a crude iron shell grenade and a rather nasty boarding axe.

Events and episodes in the lives of many well-known pirates, buccaneers and privateers are vividly presented via a number of narrative paintings created by, among others, N.C. Wyeth, famed illustrator Howard Pyle and contemporary maritime artist William Gilkerson.

The story of renowned privateer Sir Francis Drake is told through splendid aquarelle depictions of his ship, the Golden Hind, and his 1587 raid on Cadiz, both painted by Gilkerson.

The exploits of Captain Kidd are also richly detailed through artistic interpretation. Kidd began his pirate activities while in the service of British merchants, as a privateer hired to combat - what else - piracy.

Kidd was arrested in Boston in 1699 and taken back to England to stand trial. Declared guilty of piracy, robber and murder, he was sentenced to hang in 1701. After his execution, his body was publicly suspended inside a gruesome contrivance that looks like a chain cage - a reproduction of which, skeletal replica and all, is found in the display.

During the Golden Age of piracy, between 1650 and 1820, pirate crews ranged far and wide - off the coast of Africa, in the Caribbean and off the Canadian maritimes. Easily the most famous character profiled here from this era is the nefarious Edward Teach, known as Blackbeard.

Blackbeard's ships raided commercial shipping off the southeast coast of the American colonies and in the Caribbean during the early 18th century. A major thorn in the side of the Colonial governments, Blackbeard's four-ship flotilla laid siege to Charleston, S.C., for five straight days in 1718, sacking any vessel that happened its way.

Later that year, Blackbeard met his end in the coastal waters off the North Carolina Outer Banks. His sloop, the Adventure, was caught by surprise while anchored off Ocracoke Island, by a pair of sloops under the command of British Lt. Robert Maynard. After much ship maneuvering and exchanging verbal insults, Blackbeard's crew engaged Maynard's seamen in a bloody fight to the finish. Blackbeard was killed during the battle - after suffering five gunshot wounds and nearly two dozen lacerations.

As a sign of triumph, and to prove his victory over the scurrilous pirate, Maynard dangled Blackbeard's severed head from the bowsprit of his ship.

Found in a lone showcase in the display is a silver-plated skull reputed to be Blackbeard's.

Although its authenticity is in question, the story that lies behind this object is the kind of tale that fuels pirate lore.

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