Pirate ship treasure to be displayed at Union Station

The grim yet compelling visage of the Jolly Roger will wave over Union Station, at least in spirit.

The booty of a real-life pirate ship — including precious coins that you can touch — will be the station’s next traveling exhibit and main summer attraction, officials announced Thursday.

“Real Pirates” displays the salvaged remains of the Whydah (pronounced WEE-dah), a fearsome galley that ruled the Caribbean and Atlantic coast before she was vanquished in a storm off Cape Cod nearly 300 years ago.

“Everybody has a fascination with sunken treasure,” said Union Station CEO George Guastello. “Pirates transcend generations and captivate the imagination. Look at the movies. People love it.”

The exhibit, which will fill the gallery on the station’s lower level, features more than 200 objects, including scads of gold and silver coins, cannons, swords and personal items that formed the world of a pirate ship in 1717. It also will include a replica of the actual ship that visitors may climb aboard.

And it was an impressive ship, square-rigged, three-masted, 102 feet long and fitted with 18 cannons before the pirates added even more.

Perhaps the only thing more ignominious than a pirate ship is a slave ship, and the Whydah was both.

It was built for the slave trade and was named after the West African slave-trading kingdom of Ouidah. It was returning to England in 1717 with rum, sugar and precious metals after having made its first voyage delivering 312 surviving African slaves — after starting out with 367 — to the Caribbean.

Somewhere between Cuba and Hispaniola, it was attacked by privateers flying a skull-and-crossbones flag and was captured near the Bahamas. The pirate leader, “Black Sam” Bellamy, made the Whydah his flagship and went on to plunder more than 50 other ships in the lucrative triangle of Atlantic trade.

But an April nor’easter that year capsized the Whydah and a sister ship, killing Bellamy and 143 crew and captives and taking more than four tons of gold and silver to the bottom. Most of the survivors were hanged as pirates.

The Whydah was discovered in 1984 and salvaged by explorer Barry Clifford. It is said to be the only authenticated pirate ship ever found in American waters.

It is still being salvaged.

“The sheer volume of artifacts … provides a rare window into the otherwise mysterious world of 18th century pirates,” Clifford said in an announcement of the Union Station exhibit. “It is a chance to bring the real story of pirates to the public as it’s never been told before, through real objects last touched by real pirates.”

The exhibit was organized by National Geographic, Premier Exhibitions Inc., and Arts and Exhibitions International. It begins with a short explainer film that dissolves as a screen rises to reveal the Whydah’s bell in protective salt water and still encrusted with centuries of sediment.

“It’s emotional to see it,” Guastello said.