Real history from a pretend pirate

Meet Richard Nolan: quartermaster of the Whydah, captain of the Anne, former coworker of Blackbeard—in general, pirate. He is also—at least through Labor Day—my friend Butch Roy.

Butch is an actor, a founder of the Twin Cities Improv Festival, and the executive director of Huge Theater here in Minneapolis. This summer, he took on a new role, playing pirate Richard Nolan in the Science Museum of Minnesota's Real Pirates exhibit.

When I first heard about Real Pirates I wasn't terribly excited. It sounded like the sort of kiddie-friendly, fact-lite thing that I tend to avoid on museum trips. I mean, for god's sake, there were actors running around going, "Arrgh," at people. But then I got a chance to talk to Butch about what, exactly, he was doing in the exhibit—and what it took to prepare for the role.

Butch and his cohorts aren't just playing pirates—they're playing real, documented people. What's more, all the actors had to build their characters from the ground up, using original historical sources and doing a lot of extra research on their own. They had to learn the skills of a pirate and the skills associated with their specific role on the ship. Butch, at least in theory, now knows how to load and fire an 18th century cannon. His fellow actor Michael Ritchie, who plays ship's surgeon James Ferguson, is up-to-date on all the latest medical research and techniques, circa 1717. The sheer volume of historical information Butch has picked up is absolutely fascinating.

I have no idea whether or not the actual exhibit, Real Pirates, is worthwhile as an educational tool. But you should DEFINITELY find one of the pretend pirates and take them out for a beer.

Maggie Koerth-Baker: I was kind of surprised to find that this whole exhibit was centered around a real pirate ship—the Whydah. And your character, Richard Nolan, is actually somebody who was on that ship. How do we know all of this?

Butch Roy: The Whydah is the only confirmed pirate shipwreck ever recovered. There are other ships that were rumored to be pirate ships. And there were other confirmed ships that went down—but mostly your salvage crews would raid those readily. This was a pretty famous ship that was a pirate ship when it was lost, and it stayed lost until Barry Clifford found it off the coast of Cape Cod. [Clifford is an underwater explorer. He found the wreck of the Whydah in 1984.—MKB]

The interesting thing is that everybody knew the Whydah was out there all along, they just couldn't find it. The bottom of the Cape is very sandy and it shifts enough to just swallow everything that sinks. Clifford found the wreck and he found the ship's bell with the name of the ship cast into it, which is how this wreck is verified. That's generally the problem, not finding artifacts, but confirming which ship the artifacts came from.

MKB: And how do we know about the crew, and who they were? It doesn't seem like there would have been a manifest or something stored elsewhere that you could go and check.

BR: First off, there were a couple of survivors of the wreck, from the Whydah and the other ships. This was actually a small flotilla of ships and two went down. The survivors were later arrested, including my character, who was captaining one of the other ships.

This is actually one of the places where the story sort of branches into legend—why the ships were off Cape Cod to begin with. The captain of the Whydah was Sam Bellamy, and he had his lover and child in Massachusetts. The story goes that he wasn't allowed to marry her because he was poor, so he went off to join a salvage crew and then became a pirate and got rich. The legend is that he was wealthy now and was about to get out of piracy and take his love away and marry her. So Cape Cod wasn't necessarily the destination, it was just as far as they made it. There was a huge 'Noreaster that they basically sailed right into. And the ship was heavily loaded at the time, so it was already riding low.

Our timeline also develops from trial documents. There was a huge press to put an end to piracy. So when the survivors were arrested they would be pressed for who was on your crew, when did you join, which ships were on, who else was on those ships. We can cross-reference it all from person to person and you can see who jumped to the ships and when and where they went from there. The Whydah was originally a slave ship that was owned by a company in Europe and would have been insured, so we know when it was taken by pirates [February 1717] and who would have been on board then. [The wreck happened April 26, 1717]

MKB: I loved that you guys had to do some of the digging into the original sources on your own. Can you tell me a little about that process? Where did you find information?

BR: It was a six-week process altogether. There was some information all of us had to learn—the basics of navigation, nautical tradition, world affairs at the time, life on the ship. And some of us ended up specializing, too. The ship's surgeon had to learn the medical knowledge of the time period.

They gave us assigned readings from trusted sources. And were were also given latitude to go looking for sources that would be checked out by the science museum, to make sure they were trustworthy. Turns out there's lots of incorrect information out there. People found old trial documents and those would sometimes have different accounts that contradicted one another. David Cordingly wrote a great book about famous pirates. [He means Under the Black Flag. Cordingly is a naval historian—MKB] The exhibit is actually owned by National Geographic, so we had access to supporting info from them, as well.

We would all bring in books, buy a copy and share it around. There was a lot of googling. We'd find just snippets of information. I was trying desperately to find more about my person, Richard Nolan. His early life is a fog and after becoming a priate he vanishes completely. Record keeping was done by hand and the spellings of names change and so you have to verify whether that's actually the person. There was some stuff I found that I had to leave out. For instance, I do know that my character was captured in 1718 and pardoned—one of the very few official pardons ever issued pirates, only two in that year. Then he went back to testify in trials of other pirates on their behalf. I did find an example of Richard Nolan testifying in a trial, but the spelling was off and I can't verify that's him.

All I know is that he retired into normal life. We don't know what he did professionally. He would just show up at these trials to testify on behalf of other pirates.

MKB: Tell me about Richard Nolan's job. What exactly is a quartermaster?

BR: There's a long a detailed answer that I give every day, but basically he was in charge of dividing up treasure and administering punishment on the ship. But he also represents the crew on matters of their welfare to the captain. The ships were incredibly democratic. That was really interesting. Everything can be put to a vote except when they're engaged in battle. That was the only time the captain's word was law. Even severe punishments could be voted down by the crew. [Richard Nolan] would be the one who would do a flogging if someone was too drunk to man their post or fell asleep at watch. If there was a quarrel on the ship, you can't fight with arms on the ship, so he'd administer pulling up to a beach somewhere for a duel.

They'd have jury trials with the entire crew if there was a major infraction.

It's weird, but it almost has to work that way. It's the only way it could work. The exhibit leans pretty hard on the brotherhood between sailors. And that's very evident for sure. For instance, if there were not enough hammocks to go around then everybody slept on the floor. But, then again, if you're running a ship crewed by 180 outlaws and you start handing out 30 hammocks to 50 men you're going to have a riot. Democracy was the only way it could work for survival's sake.

MKB: So there's the good spin and the cynical spin on this.

BR: There's that, yeah. In a way, it's a funny microcosm for democracy in general. Here's another example. Sam Bellamy became a captain when he challenged the old captain, Benjamin Hornigold. Bellamy and Nolan were originally on another ship captained by another guy who wouldn't attack English ships out of patriotism. Bellamy put it to a vote of the crew. Sort of market forces at work. And they voted Bellamy captain. Horingold was allowed to choose, he could rejoin the crew or be sent on his merry way. He ended up leaving, so they parted ways and he went off to a different ship. Edward Teach, who later became Blackbeard, went with him. But originally, Blackbeard and Nolan and Bellamy were all on the same boat.

People have a hard time digesting the democratic nature of piracy. The Whydah was originally a slave ship and pirates would free slaves all the time … if they could sail. If you were a sailor, you were a sailor. Race didn't matter. Sixty percent of Blackbeard's crew was black. And they weren't only free, but free and equal. Really, actually equal. If they knew how to sail. If there were slaves on a ship they took, and those slaves didn't know how to sail, the pirates would let them go with the ship and the rest of the crew to continue being slaves.

That's actually another thing. None of us use the term "nitty gritty" anymore. Not since we found out what it means. When you had people packed into a slave ship, they'd just be lying in their own filth for months. Months of this horrible passage. And all of that would build up. When the ship reached port and sold the people, someone had to go down below decks and clean all that out. That was getting down to the nitty gritty. All that waste and puke and everything that would be caked on the floorboards of the ship.

MKB: What about women? There are a couple of female pirates in your acting crew at the museum. Were there women on board the Whydah? Weren't women considered bad luck on a ship?

BR: Female pirates were included out of overwhelming demand and curiosity. The two that we have are the two that there's a lot of information about. [Mary Read and Anne Bonny] They were documented so well because they were an anomaly. There weren't any women on the Whydah.

And there really was the idea that women are bad luck. But the flexibility of those notions is very bizarre. There's no religion on the ship, but they replace it with really strong superstitions. But the superstitions are strangely flexible. You have accounts of women disguised as men, but there also are accounts of them being found out but being allowed to stay on because they'd proven themselves and once you're in the crew, you're in the crew.

Mary Reed joined the army as a man and she lived as a man for large chunks of her life. But they'd sail to other areas of the world that had different expectations of female dress and people would pick her out instantly as a woman because the differences were that clear. So were people ever really fooled really? It's hard to pin that stuff down. We know they were willing to go along with it in some cases.

MKB: Let's talk about that religion thing. No religion allowed on the ship at all? Really?

BR: Crews came from all over. This is one of those things that would be really divisive. You could have religion if you kept it to yourself. You weren't forced to renounce it or anything. But there was no practice on the ship. In fact, clergy who were captured were treated very, very poorly. These men operated outside normal institutions and with a disdain for them as well. But, again, the superstition is weird. It was bad luck to have a woman on the ship—but if you do, and she gives birth, that's good luck. And some of it was practical. Gambling wasn't allowed either on the ship. That's a safety issue. There's a practical side to some of these things that seem superstitious.

MKB: One of the things that really caught my attention when we talked about this before was the fact that being a pirate was a MUCH better deal than being in the Navy, at the time. Can you talk about that a little?

BR: The Navy is basically jail. Press gangs would press men into service in the Navy. You'd be bullied or threatened, if you're in debt. It was kind of a form of debtor's prison. And you'd come back from a tour in the Navy and then they'd charge you for your food and ammunition, so you could end up actually owing them money. Those were the ships that they couldn't even bring to port because if they let men off they wouldn't come back. So they'd anchor a mile out and send in the upper crew to pick up provisions. The lower crew would escape if given half a chance. Pirates could go to port without worry, because the boat is making them rich. They have more money than any honest sailor would make in a lifetime.

You get a vote with the pirates, and you don't with the Navy, of course. In the Navy, the first mate would carry a starter, which is basically a lead weight wrapped in a cable that they were allowed to beat sailors with. There were regulations about where they were allowed to hit you. But no rules about why. So they'd just beat sailors half to death if you weren't moving fast enough. You were basically an owned part of the ship. It was a system that gave way to very cruel conditions to work under. A lot of pirates were coming from that, and the articles of the ship [a contract/constitution document that every pirate on a ship had to sign] developed out of men coming from that. Flogging was the worst regular punishment you'd find on the pirate ship. But, even then, crew could vote to give you a pass.

And the pay: If you're in the Navy, you could end up in debt or with nothing. Ditto for merchant ships, you were working for a couple coins a week. But every time a pirate ship takes another ship, you get an equal share. Merchant ships wouldn't even put up a fight often. They don't own the cargo. They have no personal investment. What do they care if the pirates take it?

MKB: But didn't the pirates always claim they'd been forced into a life a piracy?

BR: Obviously it doesn't appear in any of the ships' articles, but it was sort of a known thing that if you were arrested you were going to say that you were forced into piracy. It didn't help actually in court. But very few pirates didn't say it. People went to the gallows saying that they were forced into it. But if you look at the conditions, it just doesn't stand up to a whole lot of scrutiny. "They forced me at gunpoint to join this ship where I work less, get paid more, and nobody beats me. Oh, no! They made me do it!"

In fact, the carpenter was often the only guy on a captured pirate ship to be pardoned. Carpenters don't need to resort to piracy to make a lot of money. But pirates need skilled carpenters. So it was actually believable that they'd be forced into working for a pirate ship.

I don't know why Richard Nolan got pardoned. The anecdote is that he was just that persuasive and charming. There's no factual proof of that though.

MKB: You jump back and forth a lot on your verb tenses in this interview.

BR: We have to speak in the present tense in the exhibit. We are acting like we're pirates from 1717, not modern guys dressed up as pirates. And that gets weird. I get kids poking me, going, "You're not real." Yes. I'm real. "Really?" Really. "Really, really?" Yes. Really. Really. Real.

Sometimes we have to convey the information we know to be wrong now in a way that states that, in character, you think it's correct. So the latest paper published about scurvy at this time period goes back to saying that it's caused by eating too many fruits and vegetables. Our surgeon looked at a lot of medical literature from the time and he found several times, multiple instances where people would figure out what was causing survey. But then the information wouldn't get out there, or some crazy home remedy would come into vogue, and the knowledge would disappear again. But he has to portray somebody who believes incorrect information.

We also get a lot of people who want to show us how much they know and that's goddam irritating. I had a guy who came in literally stroking his goatee. And he points to a gun in the display case where they say "powder" was loaded in it. And he asks, "Is that black powder or gun powder?" And I knew what he was doing. Those are technically different things and actual gun powder wasn't widely used outside of China until 18-something. They used black powder on the Whydah. But the beauty of speaking in the present tense of 1717 is that I can say "Oh, you mean the powder we put in our guns. Yes." And he's like, "No they're different things." And I'm like, "No they aren't. We take that powder and we put it in our guns. It's gun powder." And he's like, "I see what you're doing. You're just arguing semantics." But it's not, really. I'm being in character. And I love arguing with those people.

MKB: What do visitors usually ask you about? Do you get to use all this knowledge you've put together in the exhibit?

BR: Not remotely. I get asked the same questions a lot, over and over. I get asked about the food. I get asked where we go to the bathroom. That whole segment of questions. Lots of the audience is kids, of course. I practiced with my kids before the exhibit opened, and given all the things you could possibly want to know—the bathroom was number two on their list.

The awesome stuff is information people don't even know to ask about. We've gotten good at finding ways to lead people to it. Like the great sea turtles. For many years, giant sea turtles defied efforts by Royal Academy in England to subject them to taxonomy. That is because giant sea turtles are delicious. They'd try to get these specimens delivered to them by merchant ships or Navy ships and they would repeatedly end up with an empty shell and reports of how tasty it was. The turtles are great. They don't eat often. All you had to do was turn them upside down and stack them up on each other. Keep them wet sometimes and you get fresh meat for a whole voyage. Apparently they were kind of fatty and a lot like lobster only gigantic.

And the sailors loved it. Their only other choice is hardtack, which you have to cut in half with a knife and bang the bugs out on the table before you eat, and then you have this captive sea turtle and several months where nobody is getting enough food. Furthering science wasn't the first thing on their minds. So the Academy would send them out again and they'd come back with the empty shells again, like, "Here's the inedible part. Man, that was delicious. Happy science-ing!"

MKB: You had to learn, at least in theory, how to sail a ship for this. Have you actually tried it out in practice?

BR: I've not gotten a chance to try it out in the real world. Navigation, I think I have a fair grip on. I could talk my way through it. Our captain could do it, for sure. He could probably find his heading given the sun and stars. I spend a lot of time talking through how to load and fire a cannon, though, so I probably could do that if I had to. I rest easy knowing that, when the zombies rise up, I'll know how to fire a cannon and sail a ship. Mostly. We all now know a ridiculous amount about this thing we will never actually do. It's weird.

The Real Pirates exhibit runs through Labor Day at the Science Museum of Minnesota. If you were to ask Richard Nolan, he would have to tell you that the Whydah is headed for Massachusetts after it finishes this layover in Barbados. Luckily, I can tell you that the exhibit will next be in Milwaukee.

Read a 1999 National Geographic story about the Whydah.

Check out Barry Clifford's Whydah page. His museum dedicated to the Whydah is located in Provincetown, Mass.

IMAGE: Actual treasure recovered from the wreck of the Whydah. At the Whydah Museum in Provincetown, Mass.