Arrr! Is the DMNS's upcoming Pirates exhibit discriminatory?

In the midst of Black History Month, it seems a particularly appropriate time to consider the plight of another marginalized group, a group that has been disenfranchised since the seventeenth century, has been historically oppressed by the U.S. Navy and, to this day, lacks the right to vote: fictional pirates. At a press conference officially unveiling the Denver Museum of Nature and Science's upcoming exhibit Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah from Slave Ship to Pirate Ship, the discussion was decidedly focused on pirates that actually existed -- but at least one fictional pirate was there, representing his cause and sticking it to the man.

"This is a discriminatory organization," said the fictional pirate, who would only identify himself as "Captain Jack, not to be confused with the copyrighted Disney character Captain Jack.

"They only care about the real pirates," he continued. "It's as if we fictional pirates never even existed.

"Well, we didn't," he noted.

The real pirates in question were those who sailed aboard the Whydah, a former slave ship that had sailed under the command of the actual pirate Sam Bellamy until it sank in a storm off the coast of Cape Cod in 1717. And though it is, in fact, a true story, it does have some pretty fantastically Hollywood-ish elements, observed Mark Lach, Senior Vice President of Arts and Exhibitions International, which is curating the exhibit -- those are the same folks, by the way, that curated the King Tut exhibit at the Denver Art Museum earlier this year.

As the story goes, Sam Bellamy fell in love with a girl from his home in Massachusetts, but her parents forbade her to marry a poor sailor, so he set off into the world to seek his fortune. "So he made it the quickest way: piracy," said Lach. Soon after, he commandeered the Whydah, a brand new slave ship making its first run to the West Indies, and made it his main vessel -- with it, he pillaged 50 ships over the course of a year. Then he headed back to Cape Cod. "Within eyeshot of his destination, a nor'easter kicked up and sank the ship that night," said Lach.

Maybe the best part of the story is the Characters involved, like John Julian, a 16-year-old Miskito Indian, or John King, a straight-up nine-year-old kid who ran away from his mother to be a pirate after the ship they were on was taken, thus actually living out the fantasy of every nine-year-old boy since -- a small leather shoe found aboard the wreck roughly confirms his age -- along with several crew members who had previously been black slaves. As Lach points out, "Pirate ships were like floating democracies," meaning crew members from oppressed groups like Native Americans and Africans could go outlaw and be treated as equals aboard their ships -- fictional pirates, on the other hand, were even then treated as second-class citizens.

The ship, which would go on to become a legend in Cape Cod, was discovered not 1,500 feet off the coast in 1984 by Barry Clifford, an honest-to-God pirate treasure-hunter, who had been told of it in his youth by his uncle. Real Pirates is the result of the excavation that followed.

And there's a lot of stuff to see that was taken from the wreck: weapons, every day objects the pirates used and, of course, pirate treasure -- the booty found aboard the Whydah actually comprises one of the most diverse coin collections in the world. Plus, as Lach observed, "the last people to touch these coins were pirates." Which is pretty awesome. Besides the artifacts, AEI has also gone to the trouble of recreating the back part of the ship to scale, so you can actually climb aboard the thing and look around.

Nevertheless, said Captain Jack, "Let's not forget what made pirates popular in the first place, like Errol Flynn movies, Pirates of the Carribean and Cap'n Crunch.

"He's my favorite," he added. "Delicious."

Real Pirates opens March 4, but you can purchase tickets starting Monday.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte