Black Sam Bellamy became the wealthiest pirate in history not because of greed but because of anger – anger at the English system that exploited poor country boys and sailors like him.
After his early death in 1717 he left a legacy of folklore on Cape Cod and a ship loaded with treasure off its coast. He ran his pirate operation democratically. His men were slaves and Indians and sailors pressed into service. Bellamy treated them equally and let them vote on important decisions.
In a famous speech attributed to Bellamy, he scorned the wealthy merchants he plundered: “They rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage.”
The outlines of his career are well known, summarized by pirate historian Colin Woodard as 'Fight smart, harm few, score big.'
Robin Hood of the Sea
Bellamy and his crew captured 53 ships before he died in a shipwreck at 28. He was called Black Sam because he eschewed the fashion for powdered wigs and wore his black hair tied with a black satin bow. He was tidy and polite, dressed in fancy clothes, and he always wore four dueling pistols in his sash.
He called himself ‘Robin Hood of the Sea’ and his men called themselves ‘Robin Hood’s men.’ There is no record of him ever killing a captive, and he often returned captured ships and cargo if they didn’t suit his purpose.
Little is known of Black Sam Bellamy’s early life, though he is presumed to have been born in the west of England. The woman who was probably his mother died in childbirth and was buried Feb. 23, 1689. His parents were likely tenant farmers, hovering on the edge of starvation like half of England. Bellamy left home at a young age for a port – London, Bristol or Plymouth. He became a ship’s boy at 13 at the outset of the War of Spanish Succession. By the end of the war in 1712 he was a skilled sailor.
No one knows how Bellamy ended up on board a British ship. He may have been grabbed by a press gang. In the early 18th century, Britain didn’t have anywhere near enough sailors. Country boys were tricked into signing up or simply kidnapped and forced on board ships. Once in service, sailors were routinely cheated of their wages. They were given vague IOUs instead of wages, or they were paid for their last voyage just before they left port for the next, or they simply weren’t paid at all.
Bellamy sailed to Cape Cod in 1714 or early 1715 to seek his fortune, arriving in Eastham where he may have had relatives. There he had an affair with the beautiful Maria Hallett, who was all of 15. After impregnating Maria he sailed to Florida to recover Spanish treasure with his friend from Rhode Island, Paulsgrave Williams. Others got to the treasure first.
The two men turned to piracy under Benjamin Hornigold, but the crew mutinied and elected Bellamy as their captain.
In 1717 Bellamy and his crew captured the Whydah Gally ,a slave ship he refitted as a flagship with 28 guns. The Whydah had an advanced weapons system capable of attacking any man-of-war in the Americas. She did capture a sloop under the command of a Capt. Beers. Bellamy wanted to let him keep his ship, but his crew had voted to burn it. Bellamy asked the captain to join the pirates, and Beers declined. That inspired Bellamy’s famous speech:
I am sorry they won't let you have your sloop again, for I scorn to do any one a mischief, when it is not to my advantage; damn the sloop, we must sink her, and she might be of use to you. Though you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security; for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by knavery; but damn ye altogether: damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and you, who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They vilify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference, they rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage. Had you not better make then one of us, than sneak after these villains for employment?
The Whydah and the Mary Anne, commanded by Williams, headed north to New England. Williams and the Mary Anne broke off to Rhode Island, where he wanted to visit his family. Bellamy continued on, perhaps to Eastham to see Maria, but the Whydah was shipwrecked off the coast of Wellfleet in a terrific Nor’easter on April 26, 1717. Bellamy and all but two of the men drowned. The Mary Anne was shipwrecked a few days later, leaving seven survivors.
In 1984, underwater explorer Barry Clifford rediscovered the Whydah in 14 feet of water and five of sand. The Whydah’s artifacts can be seen at Expedition Whydah Sea-Lab & Learning Center in Provincetown, Mass.
Maria Hallett gave birth to Bellamy’s baby, who died. She spent a short time in jail. According to local lore, she lost her mind or became a recluse and moved to a shack in Wellfleet. She became known as ‘Goody Hallett’ or ‘The Witch of Wellfleet.’ Today a meadow in Wellfleet is known as Goody Hallett Meadow.
With thanks to The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down by Colin Woodard. This story was updated from the 2014 version.