So I’ve been preoccupied with pirates for about a week, ever since the new Real Pirates Museum opened up in Salem adjacent to Charlotte Forten Park on Derby Street. My preoccupation was fostered by initial outrage at the apparent pirate takeover of this relatively new park dedicated to a prominent abolitionist and educator: colorful murals of the pirates within rise about the very minimalist park in a manner which I found dissonant and even offensive. I saw red: this was another Samantha statue moment for me. It wasn’t just the murals: the Real Pirates sign and entryway is centered on the park and there is obvious intent to integrate the attraction with the park. What could be the rationale? I looked through the meeting minutes of the two boards which were charged with approving the walkway, signage, and murals, the Salem Redevelopment Authority and the Public Art Commission, and found some interesting statements from the project manager for Real Pirates to the latter. He connected piracy and abolitionism (and past and present) through an effusive focus on piratical egalitarianism: “the concept of the murals is to portray the values of maritime history honored in Salem today as represented by the jolly roger, a symbol once condemned by nations that enslaved and exploited human beings and now seen as a symbol of what may have been the most democratic and egalitarian society of its time and by five portraits of historic individuals who sought freedom from the oppression and intolerance of their time.” The Commission approved the murals with one condition: that the pirates be disarmed.
Pirate values? That’s the connection? Motley crews in the Golden Age of Piracy shared the same values as Charlotte Forten in the nineteenth century and even Salem today? This seemed a little over the top and brought me into the realm of the Real Pirates Museum, a place I didn’t really want to go: it’s a private business and who am I to tell them what they should or should not be doing? But still, this is a lot of public projection, literally and metaphorically. I’m very familiar (especially after doing a deep dive over this past week) with the historiography of Atlantic piracy in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which historians like Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh, and others have emphasized the socio-economic structures which churned up so much piracy and cast pirates themselves as working-class heroes challenging the various hierarchies of the British Empire during its most craven period, when it was armed with the asiento granting monopoly privileges to supply the Spanish Empire with enslaved labor. Pirates were clearly challenging this evil empire, and doing so with diverse and meritorious crews, but pirates were also pirates: practical, opportunistic, violent. Pirates were not roving abolitionists. While it is true that the large crews of Edward Thatch or Thache, the notorious Blackbeard, might have been as much as thirty percent African at one time, it is also true that when he captured the French slaver La Concorde in November of 1717 with 455 enslaved Africans in its hold he returned the vast majority to its deposed captain for transport back to the slave market in Martinque. La Concorde became his flagship briefly, renamed The Queen Anne’s Revenge: slave ships were popular among pirates as their architecture suited piratical purposes perfectly, but liberating human cargoes was not their business. In the words of David Cordingly, “pirates shared the same prejudices as other white men in the Western world. They regarded black slaves as commodities to be bought and sold, and they used them as slaves onboard their ships for the hard and menial jobs: working pumps, going ashore for food and water, washing and cleaning…” (Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life Among the Pirates, 34). They were also disarmed, just like the Real Pirates mural figures.
Anchor from the Queen Anne’s Revenge, whose wreck was discovered in 1996. The Queen Anne’s Revenge Project is an absolutely wonderful site, where discoveries, treasures, and topics are discussed regularly relative to the ship in particular and piracy in general.
So that brings us, and me, to the Real Pirates Museum in Salem. Real Pirates is the sister museum of the Whydah Pirate Museum on Cape Cod: both are based on the sensational underwater archeological discovery of the wreck of the Whydah, another slaver turned pirate flagship, off the eastern coast of the Cape in 1984 by Barry Clifford. I’ve always heard that the Whydah is the only authenticated pirate shipwreck, but I believe that the Queen Anne’s Revenge has since been authenticated as well? In any case, the Whydah Gally was captured in the Caribbean by Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy and his crew on her maiden voyage in 1716 and utilized to capture a succession of prizes until she ran aground off Wellfleet in the following year. Bellamy perished along with most of his crew, a young, dashing, democratic Robin Hood who seems to have acquired the most romantic reputation of any Golden Age pirate because of his storied relationship with a Cape girl, Maria/Mary/Mehitable Hallett, who may or may not have existed (If she did exist, she was certainly not named Maria, a very Catholic name in very Protestant Massachusetts). Here is how the project manager of Real Pirates described these two in his submissions to the Salem Public Art Commission, as their murals were going to be, and are, very prominent:
Sam Bellamy, known as the “Robin Hood” of pirates, who had suffered as a common sailor, and was determined to assert his inherent human right to organize with others of similar conviction to form his own nation that would oppose by force other nations that had derived their wealth from the sale of human beings and from the murder and exploitation of the common person.
Maria Hallett, who as a single mother was thrown out of her home, banished from civilization and then accused of being a witch and yet never gave up her dignity or her dream of true love and salvation.
Much of these characterizations seem to be made up of whole cloth, and when I read them, I really didn’t want to visit a museum pushing romance over reality: even if “Maria Hallett” existed, or is a composite of several women who existed, how in the world can one know that she never gave up her dignity or her dream of true love and salvation (salvation?)? But I’m really upset about the park, so I knew I was going to write more, and if I was going to write more I knew I might end up criticizing the museum because of these over-the-top, thoroughly anachronistic statements of egalitarianism, dignity and love rather than its own exhibits, which is not fair. So off I went to see the Real Pirates. Before I left, I wanted to check the photography policy, so I went to the website, and there I saw something very interesting: I was not headed for merely a pirate experience, but a pirate and witch experience!
This is not the pitch on Cape Cod, I can assure you: this is a special Salem pitch. And obviously this is why there’s so much emphasis on Maria Hallett, who became known as the “Witch of Eastham” over her long legendary career. I quickly became more fixated on this than the “Pirates as Social Justice Warriors” claim, especially as I did not see over-reach in that area in the exhibit’s interpretation. It was disappointing, because my experience there was primarily positive: the staff was friendly and informative, it’s a very well-designed space, there’s a good introduction to the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, and there are authentic artifacts from the Whydah. When you have Real Pirates and real treasure why feature a fake witch? I think this focus is a mistake, although to its credit, the exhibition does present all the Maria theories rather than the “fact” of her existence. I shook that fictional witch off, because I was enjoying my conversation with one of Real Pirates’ managers, who is a graduate of our MA program at Salem State where she wrote her thesis on pirates! She was full of plans and ideas, for both interpretation within the museum and engagement outside: she seemed to have put more substantive thought into how to feature and honor Charlotte Forten than most people associated with the City of Salem, even though that is not her job. (I still think it’s a stretch, and an uncomfortable one at that, but go for it) And then I got distracted by the nautical instruments displayed, as there’s a whole chapter on them in my book: I thought they were rather boring to write about actually but now I don’t seem to be able to get enough navigational dividers! That’s the key: the authentic objects. Historical authenticity is sadly at a premium in touristy Salem, and the Real Pirates Museum can distinguish itself by keeping it real.
A REAL Anchor.