The fantasy of Black Sam Bellamy
When ship records are more important than women's stories
Last time, we speculated that it was possible that Sam Bellamy’s lover Maria/Mary/Mehitable Hallett was a real person. But did she have an affair with the pirate Sam Bellamy, suffer the loss of their 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. There is a widespread claim 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 that he was a benevolent, Robin Hood-style pirate whose name ‘Black Sam’ came from his jet black hair, rather than any blackness of heart or character.
Since there is no surviving portrait of him, nobody knows that either.
So let’s move to firmer historical ground: the ship Whydah and the discovery of its lost treasures.
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.
Since there is only so much a ship can hold, it eventually became time for Bellamy to cash-in. Raiding 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?
Up next: the day someone found out
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