The oldest building on MacMillan Wharf is not on MacMillan Wharf. Instead, the Whydah Pirate Museum and related enterprises of the underseas explorer Barry L. Clifford (b 1945) occupy what is known as Baxter’s Pier. This is an independent structure on its own pilings that is connected to — but not part of — the main causeway. It even occupies a separate tax lot. The pier was purchased in 1995 by Clifford’s financial partner, Robert T. Lazier, and continues to be privately owned, through the 16 MacMillan Wharf Realty Trust, of which Kenneth Kinkor, the leading Whydah historian, self-described “piratologist” and Clifford’s longtime aide-de-camp, is a trustee. In season, the perimeter of Baxter’s Pier serves as a private marina for yachts up to 140 feet long.
In April 1946, the Board of Selectmen granted the fish dealer Benjamin D. Baxter of Hyannis permission to build a 50-by-60-foot pier on the west side of Town Wharf. The main shed, with a distinctive gambrel roof that is still recognizable, had three big doors on the water side, so that the catches of three boats could be handled at one time. The postcard detail below gives a sense of how the shed stood apart from the wharf.
Think about it: a separately owned structure tied to a municipal wharf that provides the only means of land access for the private pier. Sounds like the perfect recipe for conflict and litigation, and so Baxter’s Pier has proven to be, down to the present day. Perhaps the most consequential disagreement occurred in 1956, after MacMillan Wharf was substantially completed. Once the contractor tore down Town Wharf, which stood between MacMillan and Baxter’s, the fish-handling plant was cut off from land; most importantly, from trucks that carted the fish to market. Everyone agreed that a new ramp was needed. No one could agree on who should pay for it. The Baxter Fish Company never did reach a deal. Its pier stood insular and abandoned for a year and a half, until the business was sold in 1957 to Alfred Souza of Plymouth.
A ramp was built and work began again at what was now the Puritan Fish Company. In 1959, however, the town threw up a barricade across the ramp, asserting that Puritan had yet to pay its 1958 rent. The blockade kept about 3,000 pounds of fish on ice until a court order came down in Puritan’s favor. Eventually, an out-of-court settlement was reached. By this time, Salt Water Fisheries had succeeded Puritan as owners of Baxter’s Pier.
After its fish-handling days were over, Baxter’s housed a business [restaurant?] called the Galley. The property was bought in 1988 by Joseph A. “Cookie” McNeil Jr. (±1941-2009), who “turned a dilapidated fish pier into a stylish New England marina and restaurant,” The Salem News said. The restaurant was called the Billy Bones Raw Bar — a nod to the character from Treasure Island and a prelude of what was to come.
But I’m getting 273 years ahead of myself.
So, let’s go back to 1715, when a 100-foot, three-masted, well-armed galley was built for service in the slave triangle: European goods to Africa in the first passage, African people to America in the middle passage, and American commodities to Europe in the last passage. This galley was called Whydah, after the African kingdom of Ouidah (now a city in Benin), a center of the slave trade.
Commanded by Capt. Lawrence Prince, she set out on her maiden voyage in 1716, trading cloth, utensils, liquor, firearms, gunpowder and cowrie shells for as many as 600 people, Clifford and Paul Perry wrote in Expedition Whydah: The Story of the World’s First Excavation of a Pirate Treasure Ship and the Man Who Found Her (Cliff Street Books, 1999). After crossing the Atlantic, Captain Prince traded his human cargo for gold, silver, sugar, molasses, indigo dye and quinine bark. He never made the third leg, however. Not far from Crooked Island in the Bahamas, the Whydah was overtaken in February 1717 by the galley Sultana, under the pirate captain Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, who seized the Whydah for his new flagship.
Through the Caribbean and up the Atlantic coastline — destined for Cape Cod and his lady love, Maria Hallett, or so legend goes — Bellamy plundered the frigate Tanner and the merchant ships Agnes and Mary Anne, among others. But in April, “Black Sam” and 145 men came to reckoning off the Cape’s shores during a dreadful storm, buffeted by winds of up to 80 miles an hour and seas that may have swelled to 50 feet. Already shipping tremendous amounts of water because she was so heavily laden, the Whydah ran aground on a sandbar. Clifford and Perry wrote:
Within 15 minutes of striking land, the mainmast was snapped off and floated free. Then, with nothing left to keep her upright, the ship began to roll upside down. Pirates were crushed as cannons and goods store below came crashing through the decks. Those who could, swam, but in water so cold , there were few who could make it the 500 feet to shore. The ones who did froze to death trying to climb the steep sand cliffs of Eastham.
Only two survived from the Whydah and neither was Bellamy. When word of the disaster reached the colonial governor, he sent Capt. Cyprian Southack, a noted cartographer, to secure the wreck. Good luck with that. The fine citizens of Cape Cod knew just what to do in such situations and were already helping themselves to what they could salvage. But that wasn’t too much. The ship and her heavy cargo soon disappeared beneath the sands, even though the sea was shallow. Captain Southack, however, had made a map.
Fast forward to 1981. At 36, Clifford was the proprietor of a construction company on Martha’s Vineyard, with a sideline in diving and underwater salvage. Given any chance, he would relate a story that had captivated him since his youth, when his Uncle Bill spun the tale of Sam Bellamy and Maria Hallett. After a Thanksgiving dinner that year at the Vineyard home of William Styron, Clifford was invited to unspool the yarn. When he was done, another guest, Walter Cronkite, asked why — if Clifford were so interested in the Whydah — didn’t he go find her?
In what seemed to be a split second, I assessed my life. I saw a man who was successful, but living a life of quiet desperation. Why shouldn’t I try to dig up a piece of the past and make an impact on history? How better to gain satisfaction? And besides, I thought, it shouldn’t take very long.
Captain Southack’s map had no “X”; just an inscription offshore that said, “The treasure ship Whido lost.” That covered about 10 miles of ocean, Clifford said. But it did offer other clues that helped sharpen his focus on the debris field, triangulating with aerial photos, title searches and other antique maps. In 1982, Clifford headed out to sea with a magnetometer and four fellow treasure seekers, including John F. Kennedy Jr., who made the first dive. He found nothing but sand. Clifford, however, was convinced he found the site and filed an admiralty action that year seeking title. (His claim was upheld in 1987 against a legal challenge by the commonwealth.)
Just before New Year’s Day of 1983, Clifford secured his first major supporter, Bob Lazier, who had briefly been a race-car driver. (He competed in the 1981 Indianapolis 500.) Lazier owned the Tivoli Lodge in Vail Village, where he and Clifford sketched out the rudiments of the Maritime Explorations corporation, in which Clifford would hold one-third of the stock. Between Lazier and other investors, the fledgling operation raised $250,000.
Clifford could now afford a boat. He found a 65-foot, twin-diesel wooden naval vessel, the Vast Explorer II, being offered at the Gammage Boat Yard in Bristol, Me. “For a sailor,” Clifford wrote, “finding a boat built by Gammage was like an architect finding a residence built by Frank Lloyd Wright.” Clifford equipped the boat with chutes that would allow the propeller wash to be diverted downward, effectively blowing large holes in the sand. The 1983 diving season proved fruitless. In May 1984, however, Mike Kacergis went down to explore the 50th pit the explorers had opened. “Hey, you guys!” he shouted on his return to the surface. “There’s three cannons down there!” Among the other artifacts salvaged that day was a Spanish piece-of-eight from 1688. “I think we have a pirate ship here,” Clifford announced. He could not say for sure yet whether she was the Whydah.
As the summer of 1985 neared an end, along with the second round of investments, Rob McClung came upon an enormous, encrusted, iron bell. It was raised to the surface in October and placed in a tank of water through which an electrical current was run to break down the encrustation. A few weeks later, the word “Gally” was revealed. Clifford’s crew went to work with dental picks. Within a half hour, they had elatedly revealed the entire legend:
THE † WHYDAH † GALLY † 1716
An account of this discovery by Matthew L. Wald in The New York Times the next day rekindled the interest of the New York investors Roland W. Betts and Tom A. Bernstein, whom Clifford had met a year earlier through Tom’s father, Richard L. Bernstein, the head of Random House. Now that there was proof of the Whydah‘s identity, Bernstein and Betts formed the Whydah Partners Limited Partnership with E. F. Hutton. Maritime Explorations transferred the rights to the shipwreck to Whydah Partners in exchange for $150,000 and stock. Whydah Partners then contracted with Maritime Explorations to continue salvaging the debris field.
The first serious proposal for a Whydah museum in Boston was made in 1988, when Clifford and Lazier joined in an application by the Conroy-Heafitz Development Company to redevelop the United States Custom House. The “Maritime-Whydah Museum” was to be the cultural tenant in this mixed-use project, designed by Benjamin Thompson & Associates. (We met them at 2 Commercial Street.) It was to have featured a 30-foot long model of the Whydah. In the end, however, Conroy-Heafitz was not selected.
Three years later, a much more ambitious attempt was made, this time by Bernstein and Betts. The “Whydah Pirate Complex” was to be a $70 million, four- or five-acre waterfront attraction with a full-scale replica of the ship and a holographic image of Captain Bellamy, Black Sam’s Tavern and reënacted pirate hangings several. The Boston Redevelopment Authority chose the Charlestown Navy Yard as the site. Then, in 1992, all hell broke loose. State Rep. Byron Rushing began an impassioned campaign against the idea of presenting a slave ship as a tourist attraction. Most memorably, he likened the proposal to a “theme park based on a concentration camp.”
Clifford replied that the project was being inaccurately and unfairly portrayed in the press and by opponents. Acknowledging the theme-park aspect of the plan, he insisted that the complex would include a serious, sober museum that emphasized preservation, conservation, archaeology and sociology. Moreover, he argued, the Whydah had in essence redeemed itself as soon as Captain Bellamy seized it. “During the 18th century, the deck of a pirate ship was the only place a black man could be empowered,” he wrote in The Cape Cod Times. “More than 50 of the Whydah‘s crew of pirates were black, most former slaves, at least 25 of whom had been liberated from a Guinea slaver.”
Fairly or not, however, political knees were growing wobbly in Boston about inciting more racial animosity in a city that had had more than its fill. Bernstein and Betts saw little point in proceeding with a project for which they would be pilloried as insensitive racists. They turned their attention to Tampa, Fla., which seemed welcoming at first. But an issue as potent as the Whydah‘s documented past as a slaver was not going simply to evanesce. “The African-American communities in the Tampa Bay area are not necessarily looking for a standing reminder of the darkest hour of Africans’ existence,” said Warren Hope Dawson, a civil rights lawyer.
Tired of the fight — and of losing money — Bernstein and Betts prepared to sell the salvaged artifacts and the rights to the debris field. Clifford and Lazier made a preëmptive bid, and found another financial angel in Philip Crane, the founder of Deep Sea World, Scotland’s national aquarium. Ownership of the artifacts and the site returned to Clifford and his partners in 1994. Bernstein and Betts went on to develop Chelsea Piers, an enormous athletic complex on the Hudson River in Manhattan.
Meanwhile, a Whydah exhibition at the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum had to survive an attack on Clifford from another quarter: professional and academic archaeologists. A leading critic, Ricardo J. Elia of Boston University, likened Clifford’s haul to Lord Elgin’s removal of the Parthenon reliefs. Though Clifford had long maintained that the treasure he sought was not financial but historical — and that the Whydah artifacts were not for sale — Elia said the Pilgrim Monument was creating a commercial showcase, however inadvertently. “Your museum’s involvement in such a project would, in effect, be condoning and granting legitimacy to the minining of archaeological sites for profit,” he wrote. Clive Driver, then the director of the Pilgrim Monument, replied: “I am deeply disturbed by your insistence that none of the artifacts from the Whydah be exhibited in a reputable museum. The clear consequence of this line of reasoning, it seems to be, would be to leave the principals with little option left except to sell off the material.”
Lazier and Clifford bought Baxter’s Pier in 1995. Work crews cleared out the remnants of the Billy Bones Raw Bar and installed the new displays. Without the kind of ceremony he might have dreamed about in Boston or Tampa, Clifford simply opened the doors on 24 July 1995. The first visitor was a little boy named Sam. Since 2009 [?], the Whydah has reached a wide audience through the traveling show, “Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah, From Slave Ship to Pirate Ship,” under the auspices of National Geographic and Premier Exhibitions. (Thrill to the overwrought video preview on YouTube.).
Here on Baxter’s Pier, the modest but engaging home museum is much more historically oriented than the arrrgh-inducing jolly-roger signs outside would suggest; as sociological as it swashbuckling. The contentious relationship between town officials and the property owners, born in the earliest days of the pier, shows no sign of abating. The imbroglio of 2013 involved boat moorings. (Jody O’Neil, “Santos Attempts to Bring Clarity to Moorings Mess in Provincetown,” The Provincetown Banner/Wicked Local, 10 January 2013.).
Clifford sold the Vast Explorer in 2001, after which it went through a series of owners, including David Dutra of the Richard & Arnold, who’d helped rescue the boat years earlier when she foundered on the West End Breakwater. By 2011, she was abandoned. (Kevin Mullaney, “Poor Condition Belies Provincetown Vessel’s Rich History,” The Provincetown Banner/Wicked Local, 9 June 2011.) I last saw her tied up to the “Portygee railway” at MacMillan Wharf. It seemed, no matter what treasure had crossed her decks, that the Vast Explorer would be lost and forgotten long before the ship she helped find.
• Assessor’s Online Database ¶ Posted 2013-03-10