A Pirate’s Life for Him -- at Age 9

Times Staff Writer

Underwater archeologists have identified the partial remains of the youngest known pirate to ply U.S. waters, a 9-year-old boy who eagerly joined Capt. Black Sam Bellamy’s crew on the infamous Whydah.

Teenage pirates were quite common during the early 18th century, but “this is the youngest one I have ever come across,” historian Ken Kinkor of the Expedition Whydah Sea-Lab & Learning Center in Provincetown, Mass., said Wednesday in announcing the discovery.

The young pirate’s idyll aboard the Whydah did not last long. The ship foundered in a storm off Cape Cod only three months after he joined, crashing to the sea floor with all but eight of its 180-man crew. Six of the eight survivors were tried and hanged in Boston. The other two escaped punishment, thanks to the efforts of famed lawyer Cotton Mather.

The tale of the pirate, identified as John King, was then pretty much lost to history until explorer Barry Clifford used court documents and an early salvage map to locate the Whydah in 1984 -- the first time that an authenticated wreck of a pirate ship had been discovered.

In the subsequent 20 years, Clifford and his crew of divers have recovered more than 100,000 artifacts from the wreck, bringing them to the surface, conserving them and putting them on display at their museum on the end of a Provincetown pier.


The wreck “was like a 300-year-old Wal-Mart on the bottom of the ocean,” Clifford said, with an unusually broad variety of artifacts stolen from other ships. Despite the quantity of materials recovered, he added, “we’ve never really discovered the mother lode of the ship.”

One thing they did discover was a small shoe, a silk stocking and a small fibula, or lower leg bone. The items had been in storage unremarked for nearly 20 years before Clifford and Kinkor recently made the connection to young John King.

John King’s fragmentary story is found in a deposition filed with the governor of Antigua on Nov. 30, 1716, by Abijah Savage, commander of the Antiguan sloop Bonetta. As was the usual practice, Savage reported to the governor the details of a pirate attack on his ship.

On Nov. 9, the Bonetta was attacked by Bellamy’s ship and held for 15 days. The pirates took all of their valuables, including “a Negro Man and an Indian Boy belonging to Mr. Benjamin Wicker” before releasing them.

Savage wrote that one John King, who was sailing with his mother as a passenger from Jamaica to Antigua, “deserted his sloop, and went with the Pirates and was so far from being forced or compelled thereto by them as the deponent could perceive or learn that he declared he would Kill himself if he was Restrained, and even threatned his Mother who was then on Board as a Passenger with the Deponent.”

Such depositions are usually very brief and record only the most striking things that happened, Kinkor said. “It was pretty unusual for Capt. Savage to have recorded it.”

Kinkor added there were “a variety of reasons why a pirate’s life would have appealed to a youngster -- a free and easy lifestyle, and a classless democratic subculture.”

Spurred by this account, Clifford showed the short fibula to expedition archeologist John de Bry and Smithsonian Institution expert David Hunt. Both agreed that the fibula belonged to a child age 8 to 11.

The stocking is of woven French silk, Kinkor said, and the shoe -- which is only 2 inches in width at its widest point -- is of upper-class design and craftsmanship, consistent with it belonging to John King.

The shoe and fibula were found adjacent to a large concretion of artifacts that is now on display at the museum. Such concretions occur when iron objects electrolyze in seawater, catalyzing the formation of stone-like materials that bind artifacts together.

X-rays of the concretion show that it has many other bones, a possible skull and hundreds of other artifacts buried deep inside. “It’s a 300-year-old time capsule,” Clifford said.

Eventually they may drill into it and use fiber optics to determine if the other bones represent the rest of the boy’s skeleton, he said.

But they are unlikely to take it apart, he added. “It’s much more interesting seeing the X-ray and the bones protruding.”