Kansas City’s Union Station is crawling with pirates.
They’re rappelling up the front of the building, standing watch at the corner of Pershing and Main and spinning their yarns below deck.
The station is going all out for its summer show “Real Pirates,” an entertaining look at a time when sailing ships on the high seas were prey for ill-smelling marauders with peg legs and eye patches who reputedly said “Argh” a lot.
But it’s also an educational look at cannons, pieces-of-eight and other artifacts that are three times older than the Titanic.
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“Real Pirates” is the story of a ship named the Whydah that was commandeered by a pirate named “Black Sam” Bellamy, who took to a life of plunder to become rich enough to win the girl he loved. He and his crew raided 50 ships in one season before sinking in a storm off Cape Cod in 1717.
“This is the only documented pirate treasure in the world,” said Barry Clifford, who discovered the ship in 1984 and is still salvaging artifacts. “It’s what every kid dreams about.”
The exhibit runs through Jan. 5.
It is framed around four real-life people known to have been on the ship, including Bellamy and a boy named John King, who decided to join the pirates when they attacked the ship he and his mother were traveling on. The remains of King’s leather shoe and his leg bone are among the poignant objects on display.
Highlights include the Whydah’s bronze bell, which proved to skeptics that Clifford had found the pirate ship he said he had.
There is also a literal treasure chest overflowing with silver coins, their edges irregular from being snipped into fair shares among the pirates.
Some of the coins are available to touch, and there is a replica of the ship to climb on. Union Station has hired local actors to portray pirate characters that come to life as visitors pass through the exhibit. The actors have been trained to be authentic and their costumes overseen by a wardrobe specialist from the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. They are not intended to be caricatures.
“It’s a fine line,” acknowledged Union Station CEO George Guastelllo.
But it is a summer blockbuster, and Union Station wants people to have fun. The exhibit gift shop has plenty of novelties, from plastic swords to Jolly Roger flags for your vehicle.
The exhibit was organized in partnership with the National Geographic Society and is presented by Premier Exhibitions and Arts & Exhibitions International, which also did the Titanic and “America I AM” exhibits at Union Station. The “Real Pirates” exhibit designer, Mark Lach, also did two King Tut exhibits that toured the U.S.
Pirates flourished in the 18th century when the sea lanes were full of ships carrying sugar and precious metals from the Americas to Europe and slaves from Africa to the Americas.
“It was like the World Bank in the Caribbean,” Lach said. “It was like the center of the world.”
The 300-ton, three-masted Whydah itself had been a slave ship, a fact not highlighted in the exhibit’s marketing campaign but addressed squarely in an introductory film. The galley was on its way home to England on its first voyage when Bellamy decided he wanted it for his own flagship. He chased it for three days before it surrendered in the Bahamas.
Pirates were outlaws, and those who were captured were tried and hanged. But Clifford said the real story is more complicated.
“In the golden age of piracy, a third of the pirates were African-American, former slaves,” Clifford said Wednesday from his home in Cape Cod, where he is preparing to head back to the salvage site. “On a pirate ship they had the right to vote, and some of these people were being elected captains by predominantly European crews. The best man would rise to the top.”
Pirates made their living by attacking an economic system that was based on tyranny and inequality.
“These people were experimenting with democracy,” Clifford said. “Slave traders weren’t democratic.”
That history is the reason Clifford has kept the collection intact instead of selling pieces of it. After nearly 30 years, the collection continues to grow. Some of the cannons recently dredged from under 20 to 30 feet of sand were already antiques when the ship sank in 1717.
“It’s unbelievable how much cross-cultural material they had on board that ship,” Clifford said.