“Fight smart, harm few, and score big.” That was the credo which guided English pirate Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy. He was sometimes called “The Prince of Pirates” because he treated both his crew and his captives with fairness and mercy, but also because he liked to dress in fancy clothes and exhibited polite manners. He also called himself the “Robin Hood of the sea” while his crew were “Robin Hood’s men.” While he certainly took from the rich, he didn’t go as far as to give to the poor. He was still a pirate, after all.
This strategy of being a benevolent buccaneer was not one adopted by many other pirate captains who preferred to rule over the seas through terror and chaos. But it is certainly one that worked for Bellamy. Despite a very short career, he may have ended it as the richest pirate in history, with modern estimates placing his wealth at around $120 million.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that we don’t know much about Bellamy’s early years, and what we do know is a mixture of facts, uncertainties, rumors, and legends. Samuel Bellamy was born circa 1689 to Stephen and Elizabeth Bellamy, in the small parish of Hittisleigh in Devon, England. Some sources suggest March 18 as his date of birth, but others indicate that Elizabeth Bellamy died giving birth to Samuel sometime in February and that March 18 had been, in fact, the date of his baptism.
The Bellamies had six children together, although their only other son had already died by the time Samuel was born. That meant that the family farm and cottage would have gone to him, but young Samuel had no inclination to become a farmer and work the land. Therefore, he left home as soon as he was able and looked to become a sailor. Allegedly, Samuel had become enamored with life on the sea from tales detailing the adventures of Henry Every, another famous pirate who preceded him by a few decades and had been born in the same county, a short distance away from Hittisleigh.
Despite Bellamy’s young age and complete lack of experience, he would not have found it difficult to secure a spot aboard a ship. This was during the height of maritime travel and both the Royal Navy and private merchant vessels were on the lookout for young sailors. Their need had only been exacerbated by the start of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701. That same year, the 13-year-old Bellamy secured a position as a ship’s boy aboard a merchant vessel.
He spent the entire war at sea, working his way up through the ranks. The conflict ended in 1714 and, while we have no records of the positions Samuel Bellamy held and the ships he served on, by the time the war was over, he was an experienced sailor.
Sometime around 1715, he made his way to the New World and traveled to Cape Cod in Massachusetts. There, he allegedly made the acquaintance of a young woman named Mary or Maria Hallett. He charmed her with tales of maritime adventures and the two spent a night together. Afterwards, they wanted to wed, but her parents, who were wealthy landowners, would not allow their daughter to marry a poor sailor. From then on, Bellamy swore that he would go out into the world, make his fortune and return to marry his beloved.
As far as we can tell, Mary Hallett never met Bellamy again, but she entered New England lore in her own way as the Sea Witch of Billingsgate. According to legend, Mary became pregnant following her encounter with the future pirate. Months later, on a cold winter night, she was found in a barn in a catatonic state, cradling a dead baby in her arms. It was the belief of the entire community that the young girl had killed her love child so, obviously, she needed to be punished. First, she was taken to the middle of town, tied to a post and whipped. Afterwards, she was imprisoned and tortured daily until the arrival of her trial where she would surely have been found guilty and executed.
Every day, the town filled with Mary’s wailing and screaming, as the girl pleaded with her captors to simply let her die, but they refused. One day, a visitor approached Mary’s cell. He was a well-dressed, well-spoken man with a gold-tipped walking cane. He talked with Mary and convinced her that the entire world hated her and wanted to make her suffer. As her rage grew, the man produced a contract and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse – her freedom and her chance for revenge by simply signing on the dotted line. And on that day, Mary Hallett sold her soul to the devil and became the Sea Witch of Billingsgate.
From that point on, the witch lived inside a whale that carried a ship’s light on its tail. She used the light to lure ships onto land, where the Sea Witch would prey on the unsuspecting sailors, taking their lives and their souls.
In a different version of the story, people tell of her ghost which can still sometimes be seen on the shores of Cape Cod, as she waits for her lover to return to her.
Samuel Bellamy, Treasure Hunter
Back to Bellamy, he was now faced with the same dilemma that troubled many sailors of his time. With the war over, there were significantly fewer opportunities than there were before. However, the only thing Bellamy knew how to do was sail a ship. Many other seamen who found themselves in this situation thought they had no alternative but to turn to piracy, but this was not actually the immediate decision taken by Bellamy. At first, he wanted to be a treasure hunter.
During his time in New England, Bellamy made the acquaintance of a silversmith named Palgraves Williams, or Paulsgrave, or, simply, Paul. He was older than Bellamy – almost 40 years old – and he came from a prominent family that was descended from English royalty. However, his stepfather had been involved with some shady dealings such as smuggling and the black market, and his flaunting of the law rubbed off on Williams and his siblings. Allegedly, Paul’s sister even married a man named Edward Sands, who was a friend of the notorious pirate Captain Kidd, and the couple even helped him sell his contraband. Therefore, just like Bellamy, Williams grew a desire to leave his wife and children behind and set sail for adventure. Call it an 18th century version of a midlife crisis. Anyway, he met Bellamy and the two bonded over their mutual desire for escapades on the high seas.
But like we said, they didn’t immediately decide to become pirates. At first, they wanted to try their luck at salvaging treasure. They even had a prize in mind – the Spanish Treasure Fleet.
Earlier that year, a fleet of twelve Spanish ships left Havana, headed for Spain, and they were all filled with gold, silver, jewels, coins, and other valuables. They encountered a hurricane and eleven of those ships were sunk off the coast of Florida, taking with them all that treasure. Ever since then, people like Bellamy and Williams gushed over the idea of recovering even just a small fraction of that loot and living like kings.
The duo entered a partnership together. With Bellamy’s sailing know-how and Williams’ money and connections, they would assemble a crew and try to salvage one of the Spanish ships. What they found out, when they got there, was that every other sailor and salvager in the region had the same idea. Many had been hired by the Spanish Crown which was desperately trying to regain its valuable cargo.
Bellamy and Williams, alongside all the other crews in the area, worked for a few months, but with little success. They found some coins and jewels that had been taken by currents and made their way to the ocean floor, but they couldn’t locate the main hull section of the ship which would have contained the bulk of the loot.
By early 1716, Spanish reinforcements arrived in the area and they drove away all the independent treasure hunters like Bellamy and Williams. Their expedition had been a complete failure, and they hated the idea of going back to New England empty-handed. There was only one solution left to them – piracy.
A Pirate’s Life for Me
So both Bellamy and Williams hoisted the black flag and became pirates. The former became known as “Black Sam” Bellamy, although he probably first obtained this nickname back in New England. Allegedly, people called him this because he did not like wearing those large, white powdered wigs and instead preferred to let his own long, black hair flow, tying it back with a simple band.
He and Williams first traveled to Central America, to the Gulf of Honduras, where they recruited men to join their crew. Of course, they would also need a ship and, like most pirates, they started out small. Williams and Bellamy both commanded watercrafts called periaguas. They were small, but good enough to get the job done. Soon afterwards, they managed to take their first prize in the region – a Dutch merchant ship. Afterwards came another prize – an English sloop commanded by a Captain Young. They used this ship to travel to Cuba, tying off their periaguas to the sides of the vessel.
Their time in Cuba did not start off auspiciously. The first ships they encountered were a group of four sloops flying the English flag under the command of Captain Henry Jennings. The pirates were outnumbered and outgunned so they had no intention of provoking a fight. Instead, they gave Captain Young his ship back, climbed into the periaguas and rowed their little hearts out into shallow waters where they knew the sloops couldn’t follow them. Only later did they learn that Jennings himself was also a pirate so he had no interest in pursuing them, but he did plunder Captain Young’s ship.
After this little incident, the two crews disbanded. For a short while, it seemed like Bellamy’s piratical career would end as soon as it started, but his fortunes took a turn for the better when he and Williams met Captain Benjamin Hornigold. By that point, Hornigold was already a famous and feared pirate in those waters. He had also taken on an apprentice named Edward Teach, who would become better known as the notorious Blackbeard in the near future. He decided there was room for two more men aboard his fleet so Bellamy and Williams joined his crew.
Soon enough, Bellamy began impressing everyone with his nautical skills and knowledge. It became evident that he was one of the most talented sailors in Hornigold’s crew and started climbing through the ranks very fast. In fact, in just a few months, even though Bellamy was young and a junior member of the crew, Hornigold named him acting captain of one of the smaller ships, ahead of others who had seniority over him.
This was a productive period for Bellamy. He claimed numerous prizes as part of Hornigold’s crew. His fleet had also allied itself with the French pirate Olivier Levasseur, also known as La Buse, or “The Buzzard,” to form quite a formidable maritime force.
Levasseur himself was an interesting character worthy of a quick mention. He amassed a large treasure as a pirate, but was then caught and hanged in 1730. On the day of his execution, while sitting on the gallows, Levasseur threw a piece of parchment into the crowd, saying that his treasure would belong to the one who will understand his message. The parchment was a treasure map in the form of a 17-line cryptogram. Ever since then, people have been looking for the hidden loot. It is generally believed to be buried on the island of Mahé in the Seychelles, but the mysterious cryptogram still remains unsolved.
Back to Bellamy, his association with Hornigold did not last long. The latter steadfastly refused to attack English ships. We don’t know if this was out of a sense of patriotism or if it was because he wanted to claim that he still was a privateer in service of England and not a full-on pirate. Either way, while a few dozen of Hornigold’s men might have held similar views, the vast majority did not and this was a serious cause of frustration among the crew.
The tension reached fever pitch during the summer of 1716, while Hornigold went on a trip to the Bahamas, taking only his own ship, the Adventure. During that time, Bellamy and Levasseur ignored his mandate and took several English prizes. When Hornigold returned and found out, he was furious, but soon discovered that most of his crew did not share his feelings. Eventually, the men had had enough and wanted Hornigold relieved of his command. A vote was taken and over three quarters of the men went against their now-former captain. More than that, though, they voted “Black Sam” Bellamy as their new permanent captain. Around two dozen men stayed loyal to Hornigold and set sail alone on one of the sloops while the rest divided themselves between the crews of Bellamy and Levasseur. Paul Williams became Bellamy’s new quartermaster.
Captain of the Whydah Gally
Bellamy’s ascent to power was something truly remarkable that had seldom been seen in maritime history, even among pirates who were, you know, a bit looser with the rules and regulations. Less than a year had passed since he had left New England in the hopes of maybe making a living as a salvager, and now he was captain of his own ship with over 90 men under his command.
For the remainder of the year, Bellamy sailed together with Levasseur. They were a formidable duo, and took numerous prizes. There were occasions when the pirates captured two ships in a single day. Bellamy would end his career as a pirate captain with over 50 prizes to his name, and most of them occurred during this time period. Among them was a British merchant galley called the Sultana, which became Bellamy’s new flagship while Williams was given command of his previous vessel, the Marianne.
Of course, this kind of success did not go unnoticed for long. This was around the time that Woodes Rogers, the Governor of the Bahamas, had vowed to get rid of piracy in his region and had successfully petitioned to obtain several British warships to protect his waters. In early 1717, Levasseur and his men concluded that it was time to seek safer seas so they set sail for South America. Bellamy did not follow them, though. Instead, he would have preferred to be able to stand and fight against the powerful British frigates. But for that, he needed a bigger, stronger ship. He needed the Whydah Gally.
It was named after the Kingdom of Whydah, an African coastal territory today known as Benin. Back then, it served as a major slave trading area, and the ship itself was commissioned by a wealthy London slave merchant and Member of Parliament named Humphrey Morice to serve as a slave galley.
The Whydah Gally left on its maiden voyage from England in early 1716 and traveled to Africa to collect slaves and valuables such as gold and ivory. The ship was captained by Lawrence Prince, a Dutch officer who previously served as a privateer under Captain Henry Morgan. It then went to the Caribbean where it traded for other commodities such as rum, sugar, dyes, and spices.
In February 1717, the Whydah Gally was on its way back to England. To do this, though, it had to traverse the treacherous waters of Cuba and the Bahamas which were known to be rife with pirates. Even so, Captain Prince was confident that his ship had the speed and maneuverability to deal with whatever peril it might encounter.
Eventually, what he expected to happen, happened – Prince noticed that there were two ships following him – a warship and a sloop-of-war. At first, he hoped that these might be British vessels coming out of Jamaica, but he soon realized that he was being chased by pirates. It was “Black Sam” Bellamy in the Sultana, followed closely by Williams aboard the Marianne.
Captain Prince decided that his best course of action was to run. His ship was faster so he should have been able to escape. The chase lasted three days and covered 300 miles of open water but, through superior seamanship, the pirates managed to catch up to the Whydah Gally. Now came an important decision for Bellamy. He was fairly certain he had the firepower to defeat the slaver ship, but an all-out battle would have not only damaged his own two vessels, but also the craft he intended to commandeer. And they were in the open ocean, so they wouldn’t have been able to make any serious repairs.
Of course, this last thought was also on Prince’s mind, who realized that a fight had a great chance of sinking his ship. Therefore, after just a couple of token cannon shots, he surrendered. Afterwards, he was relatively relieved to discover that Bellamy lived up to his reputation as a merciful captain. The pirate’s mood was undoubtedly improved when he discovered that the cargo holds of the Whydah Gally contained chests filled with tens of thousands of gold coins which represented the entire haul from the ship’s trading expedition. Bellamy transferred all the cargo from the Sultana to the Whydah, also adding ten cannons to the 18 already present. He even allowed Prince and his men to keep the Sultana and set sail for England, although this was mainly because Bellamy didn’t have the crew to fully man three ships.
Down to Davy Jones’ Locker
At this point, “Black Sam” Bellamy was captain of one of the most powerful ships on the sea, whose cargo hold was filled with treasure. It may have been a smart move to get out while he was on top, but the temptation for further riches, fame, and glory was too much. After talking it over with the crew. Bellamy decided to travel to the eastern coast of North America, starting from New York down to the Carolinas.
The pirates took several prizes during this time. One of them was the Anne Galley, which he added to his fleet under the command of his quartermaster, Richard Noland. Another was a sloop commanded by a Captain Beer or Beers. Bellamy wanted to return command of the plundered ship to the captain, but his crew outvoted him in favor of sinking it, out of spite because Beer refused to join them. This inspired a speech where Bellamy exposed his hatred of the rich English aristocracy. We have no idea if there is any historical accuracy to it, but it represents a memorable moment nevertheless. Bellamy said to Beer:
“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?”
Bellamy’s career (and his life, for that matter) ended abruptly, unexpectedly, and violently. In April 1717, Paulsgrave Williams made a stop to visit his family and probably to share some of his plunder. During that time, the Whydah Gally headed for New England. According to legend, Bellamy intended to see his lover, Mary Hallett, but we don’t know if this is true. Either way, he didn’t make it. On April 26, the ship was caught in a powerful nor’easter storm near what is today Wellfleet, Massachusetts. The masts broke and the Whydah Gally entered shallow waters where it capsized and sank quickly.
Only two men survived of the 146 who were aboard the ship. Samuel Bellamy was not one of them. Around a hundred bodies washed up on shore and were buried in a mass grave, but 40 of them remained unaccounted for. People flocked to the beaches near the wreck as coins, jewels, and other valuables were brought in by the tides. However the location of the shipwreck itself remained a mystery for almost 270 years.
It wasn’t until 1984 that maritime archaeologist Barry Clifford tracked down the remnants of the Whydah Gally. Back then, such discoveries from the Golden Age of Piracy were still almost unheard of. The following year, Clifford and his team recovered the ship’s bell which had the words “The Whydah Gally 1716” inscribed on it, thus proving conclusively that the wreck was once the flagship of “Black Sam” Bellamy. The Whydah Gally became the first ever pirate shipwreck authenticated beyond doubt.
In the decades that followed, over 200,000 individual items have been recovered from the wreck. This included a lot of treasure such as gold coins, but archaeologists were more interested in personal items that revealed to us new notions about the pirates from the Golden Age. For example, it had been reported that, among Bellamy’s crew, there was a young boy named John King who was only 10 or 11 years old. In the wreck, divers recovered the shoe, silk stocking, and, most disturbing of all, the leg bone of a boy that age, seemingly proving not only that John King existed, but that he perished alongside all the others.
As far as Bellamy himself is concerned, his remains still elude us. His body was not among those washed ashore, and it was believed back in 2018 that divers may have found his bones in the wreckage. Alas, a DNA sample was compared against that of a living descendant and it was not a match. “Black Sam” Bellamy still rests somewhere in Davy Jones’ Locker.