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The Secrets of the Pirate Sam Bellamy

This article is taken from a series of posts I wrote for my Instagram account PiracyinPictures.

From an 1888 cigarette advertisement and not remotely historically accurate.

After the ubiquitous wars of the long 18th century, a new generation of privateers acquired the skills needed to be successful pirates after the war’s end. Most pirates/buccaneers at least paid some lip service to the idea of legitimate privateering. This was most likely just carrying an out-of-date or invalid commission to protect themselves from the rare occurrence of any scrutiny. But after the War of Spanish Succession (1703-13), a new generation of pirates emerged.

Hardened by the fruitlessness of the battle and the lure of riches to be gained, these people rejected religious or nationalistic authority and preyed on vessels of all nations at their whim.

Among the first of this group were Henry Every, Thomas Tew and Samuel Bellamy.

Who was Sam Bellamy?

Bellamy was believed to be from Devon, England and born in 1689. He came of age just as the buccaneer era was giving way to the new generation. At some point after 1713 he joined up with the more experienced Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Thatch and Benjamin Hornigold.

In this new era, Hornigold was the one who retained some principles; he refused to attack English shipping. Bellamy was unaffected by such notions or loyalty to his home nation. This was believed to be the reason for Hornigold’s crew’s decision to elevate Bellamy to Captain. Bellamy then sailed with a French pirate called ‘La Buse’ (The Buzzard), taking a few prizes near the Virgin Islands.

Bellamy’s love affair with Maria Hallett

The ill-fated love affair between Sam Bellamy and Maria Hallett is a legend of Cape Cod and the book, Bellamy’s Bride by Kathleen Brunelle documents its manifestations.

The story goes that Sam met Maria one spring day in 1715 in Cape Cod. It was love at first sight for both of them. But Maria was only 15-16 and her family disapproved of her association with the poor seaman Sam. In some versions of the story she is the daughter of a well-to-do family of farmers, in others she’s the daughter of a “witch”. In all versions, she is a great beauty.

Sam set off to make his fortune by becoming a notorious pirate so he could return and marry Maria. But not before getting her pregnant. Ostracised by her community and family for being pregnant, Maria built a hut by the sea to await the birth of the baby and Sam’s return.

In the meantime, after successfully raiding for a year and amassing a fortune, Sam took his most famous ship, the Whydah. Unbeknown to Maria, Sam was on his way back to her when a terrible storm caused the Whydah to be wrecked off the Cape Cod coast.

Along with 144 other men, Sam is believed drowned. Only two men survive.

What did Maria do next?

There are several versions of what happened next for Maria. I can 100% guarantee that regardless of what really happened, nothing good happens when you’re pregnant out of wedlock in Puritan territory in 1715.

Abandoned by her family, some say she delivered the child herself and then smothered it, others that it froze to death, and some that she cared for the child as well as she could until it died accidentally.

Nevertheless, Maria was accused of murder. The legend then goes she tried to escape at least three times, usually by using her beauty persuasively against the jailor. She never stood trial and the story goes she was released back to her small seaside hut on the dunes of Wellfleet to pine for Sam for the rest of her life. Her legend became entwined with another local legend of a sea-witch and she became Goody Hallett, an old and bitter woman who haunted the shores of Wellfleet.

Was Maria Hallett a real person?

Much of the mythology around Maria comes from Elizabeth Reynard’s 1934 book, The Narrow Land: Folk Chronicles of Old Cape Cod. An English professor at Barnard College in New York, Reynard was primarily concerned with collecting together the rich stories of the area rather than checking their historical accuracy.

Kathleen Brunelle cites genealogical research into the Hallett family of the Cape Cod town of either Yarmouth or Eastham as either Maria’s family of origin or one she married into. However, she also states that there is no-one called Maria on records from this time. This is most likely because Maria is a Spanish name and would never have been given to a baby girl of non-Spanish descent. Brunelle speculates that a woman called ‘Mehitable’ was the real Maria.

Records show that Mehitable was married to a sailor called John Hallett in 1715: the year Samuel Bellamy came to town. Brunelle’s idea is that Mehitable had an affair with Sam Bellamy while John was at sea. Then after John discovered she was pregnant and realised the baby could not possibly be his, he cast her out.

To add further to the mystery, there is a comment from 2020 on Sam Bellamy’s Wikipedia page citing to be from a relative of ‘Mary’ Hallett. This says that a Mary Hallett was born in Barnstable and that there is a grave in Eastham for a baby called Samuel next to a grave of Mary Hallett (1698-1746). The writer states that it’s possible that this Mary Hallett was a cousin of Sam Bellamy. This may explain why he called in to Cape Cod in the first place.

So the short answer to whether Sam Bellamy’s alleged lover Maria/Mary Hallett was a real person is... it’s possible.

What about the love affair?

Did Maria/Mary/Mehitable Hallett really have an affair with the pirate Sam Bellamy, suffer the loss of her own baby (either by her own hand or by accident), then stand trial for murder?

The problem here is that there is a wealth of legends and folklore but there also needs to be records and evidence to prove anything for certain. When it comes to pirates, unless they were educated letter writers like Stede Bonnet, we don’t have a lot to go on about their own motivations beyond the documents of the authorities trying to catch them. These are invariably biased because colonial and naval authorities were disinclined to record anything but their successes against these ‘enemies of all mankind’.

If you think pirates tend to slip out of formal records easily, at least they appeared in them. Women tended to be omitted entirely. Maria Hallett proved no exception.

So we have no clear evidence that Sam Bellamy even met a woman called Hallett. It does appear there was a baby that died around the right time but this was, unfortunately, a very common occurrence back then. Whether or not the father was Sam and the mother a woman called Hallett nobody can say for certain either.

The best chance for a record of Maria lay with her arrest for murder. It appears there is no surviving record of that either. Apparently, a courthouse fire took all records of this time with it; another unfortunately common occurrence.

Frustratingly, at time of writing, there isn’t a definitive history published about Sam Bellamy himself so this is as far as I can ascertain from the other side of the world.

What are the other myths about Sam Bellamy?

His moniker ‘Black Sam Bellamy’ is believed to originate from Elizabeth Reynard’s book, making it less than a century old. The legends around him consider him a benevolent, Robin Hood-style pirate whose name ‘Black Sam’ came from his jet black hair, rather than any blackness of heart or character.

There is no record he was ever called Black Sam Bellamy or engaged in benevolent activity in his lifetime. But then, there’s not a lot of reliable evidence on his actions at all.

There is also a widespread claim made that he was the ‘most successful pirate ever’. Although he is not the only pirate to lay claim to this title; Ching Shih over in China does too and there is evidence that backs her claim to the title up.

This claim comes from the story of his ship Whydah and its lost treasure.

Sam Bellamy and the Whydah

The Whydah Gally was built as a slave ship in 1715. In 1716, not long after it departed Jamaica, it fell into the clutches of the pirate Sam Bellamy and his crew. Realising an excellent raiding ship when he saw one, Bellamy and his crew spent a year using the Whydah to raid other ships along the eastern seaboard of the American colonies.

A pirate can raid and pillage as much as a ship can hold but it means little if the treasure is not converted into some kind of monetary value with meaning to him. Otherwise how else would he and the crew pay for the rum and the women?

On the night of 26 April 1717, a powerful storm brewed off the coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The Whydah headed into winds as strong as 70 miles (112 km) per hour, with swells as high as 30 feet (9 metres). All of sudden, the ship slammed stern-first into a sandbar, quickly breaking apart. It sunk north off the coast of Wellfleet where Maria Hallett was (probably not) waiting for Sam.

Records show only two of the 146 people onboard survived. Neither one was Sam Bellamy. But then, these were pirates who even as shipwreck survivors were not inclined to make themselves known to authorities. When one of the survivors reported the Whydah contained 180 bags of gold and silver; a treasure-seeking frenzy ensued. Colonial Governor Samuel Shute belatedly sent a recovery team only to find at least 200 men scouring the beaches for treasure that had washed ashore.

Where was Sam Bellamy? And where was the wreck? Did it really contain the treasure of 50 vessels?

For centuries, nobody knew. Until one man decided to find out.

The enigmatic treasure hunter Barry Clifford

Barry Clifford in 1994

In 1984, Barry Clifford, a Massachusetts native and self-described professional adventurer, explorer and treasure hunter, decided to make it his life’s mission to find Sam Bellamy’s lost ship Whydah.

It would be quite a romantic story to say that Clifford happened on the wreck fortuitously one day while out scuba diving off Wellfleet. But it took considerable determination and quite sophisticated equipment to eventually find it. You will also need to count all the hours Clifford spent haggling with bureaucrats for the right to salvage the ship.

Nearly 300 years of sediment and silt covered it. Over time, Clifford hauled up a collection of coins, artefacts and cannons. By far his most prized find was the ship’s bell. This is because once scrubbed up, it was emblazoned with the name of the ship: the proof Clifford needed to claim the Whydah as the first authenticated discovery of a pirate ship.

This did not silence the doubts of his critics. And there were many.

Clifford guards his story closely. He published it in 1993 in an autobiography called The Pirate Prince that is available on Amazon in hardback and at the Whydah Pirate Museum. I haven’t read it as it’s not easily available in Australia or in digital form.

According to a 1995 article in Outside Magazine, Clifford portrays himself in the book as a ‘can-do action man with a conscience, whose talent for finding watery loot borders on the mystical.’ Others critiques of him have not been nearly as favourable.

The article also discusses a book by Stephen Kiesling, who Clifford brought in to help with the autobiography but fired before its completion. Kiesling alleged Clifford lied habitually about his background and exploits.

Desperate to attract investors and secure permits, Kiesling claimed Clifford repeatedly announced that he “found” the Whydah before he really did, and deceived officials in Massachusetts by ignoring that state law requires that a professional archaeologist be on hand during every step of an underwater excavation.

Clifford hotly denies these allegations and claimed Kiesling was a ‘borderline psychotic’ and ‘drug addict’ who ‘made sexual advances on him and his girlfriend’.

He’s an interesting guy.

What was the true value of the Whydah’s recovered treasure?

‘Some people’ (it’s not entirely clear who they are) believed the Whydah held more than 4.5 tons of gold and silver worth US$120 million today when it went down. If true, this would have made the pirate Sam Bellamy the most profitable of all time, or at least, of that time.

Putting aside that the Whydah was not some kind of magical ship with boundless amounts of storage space inside like Doctor Who’s Tardis, it is true that treasure hunter Barry Clifford’s salvaging of it did reveal typical pirate ‘treasure’. To date, over 15,000 silver and gold coins have been uncovered. Although valuable, these are in no way worth even close to US$120 million.

Clifford has found other fascinating archaeological artefacts, including guns and the leg of a young boy, and this has placed him directly in the firing line of the American Institute of Archeology.

They have accused him of tomb-raiding and unethical practices by not including archaeologists on his team. Clifford – true to form - responded by threatening to sue for slander. Although he has given some of his discoveries away as mementos he publicly remains committed to preserving them for historical purposes at the Whydah Pirate Museum.

The Whydah's bell; from the Whydah Pirate Museum Facebook page

The Whydah continues to slowly reveal its secrets today. Most of the artefacts are wrapped in a concrete-like substance that must be painstakingly eroded away. This is why there is still much to discover about it.

In 2013, the excavation team discovered a colonial-era document that indicated Bellamy raided two vessels bound for Jamaica that contained 400,000 pieces of eight. This led to much excitement about more treasure but so far, any further discoveries have not been made public.

Then in 2018, investigators hoped a bone fragment uncovered belonged to Sam Bellamy himself, potentially answering the age old question of whether Bellamy really did drown that terrible night. But tests revealed it belonged to a male of Eastern Mediterranean descent. However, a descendent of Bellamy provided DNA to help with any future identification.

In February 2021, six more skeletons were found in a 21 year old concretion. This made the news across the world. Once again hopes are up that one of these belonged to Bellamy.

There has been no word yet.

More secrets of Sam Bellamy may well emerge.

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