Review: The Pirate Prince

Rating: ★★★½☆
The Pirate Prince: Discovering the Priceless Treasures of the Sunken Ship WHYDAH
by Barry Clifford

In his book “The Pirate Prince”, which I believe is the first of his several accounts regarding the pirate ship Whydah, Barry Clifford seems to have two primary goals – the first is to completely disillusion the reader as to any pretense of glamour associated with undersea treasure hunting. The second goal, ironically, is to completely enchant the reader with the glamour of undersea treasure hunting. Surprisingly, he manages to do both rather well.

To the first goal Clifford goes into great detail explaining the difficulties of locating a wreck, of separating fact from legend, of recreating centuries old scenarios using half-facts and hunches. But these are the difficulties we imagine when we think of treasure hunters. What we don’t generally consider is what happens once the wreck is discovered.

In a word – bureaucracy.

As it turns out, treasure hunting involves a great deal more than searching and digging – a fact Clifford encounters time and again. You have the Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources wanting to make sure you don’t disturb anything of historical significance. You have competitor treasure hunters trying to get your permits revoked, sabotage your efforts, and beat you to your own discovery. You have news crews following your every move – and we haven’t even gotten to the politicians and court cases yet. Such obstacles drastically slow progress as weeks turn into months and months into years, all while expenses mount and no treasure is recovered. And so to unearth a fortune, you have to spend a fortune, which means convincing investors to take an incredibly risky chance based on your gut feelings. Sound like fun yet?

Clifford walks us through all the nightmares associated with treasure hunting. But between the court hearings, equipment failures, and underwater emergencies he also manages to share the flip side – after all, we’re talking about gold here. Gold, along with pirates, history, legends, and all the romance that goes with such things. It’s why he dedicated so much of his life to seeking the Whydah, and is most likely why we’re reading his book (unless you have a fetish for reading about salvage rights disputes.) Throughout the pages he shares the story of Sam Bellamy, legendary captain of the Whydah. He tells us of Bellamy’s wife (by some accounts, a witch), Maria, and of the fateful storm that made her a widow and spilled pirate gold throughout the floor of Cape Cod. He also tells of more contemporary dramas – the adventure and danger of working underwater, the disappointments of discovering you’re digging the wrong wreck, and the eventual excitement of recovering that first doubloon.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable and informative read. It’s not the most polished writing, but a sight better than most professional treasure hunters would do on their first novel, I’d wager. My only complaint is that, while Barry Clifford seems to spare no effort in portraying his competitors as back-stabbing miscreants, he manages to put himself in an equally poor light as he recounts his home life. Throughout his time hunting the Whydah, he repeatedly trades-up on wives, neglects kids, and drains family savings. As the author and protagonist of the story, you want to be happy for him when he finally strikes pay dirt, but I confess I found it rather difficult. Still, that said, the man did something remarkable – he defied the odds and set a course based on guts, cleverness, and shear endurance, and in the end he uncovered the wreckage of one of the more noteworthy pirates to ever grace our shores. And that, friends, is something to write home about.

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